Virtual weight-loss program beats real world

A study has found that while both programs produced similar physical results, the virtual world yielded more gains in healthy behaviors.

Which would you rather do—get out to a gym for your daily weight-loss program or attend a program at home via a virtual online world?

A study has found that while both programs produced similar physical results, the virtual world yielded more gains in healthy behaviors.

Photo credit: lululemon athletica

Presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Denver in June 2011, these results haven’t undergone peer review yet, but anybody who’s secretly practiced mad ninja moves alone in their living rooms might understand the findings.

For the study, each group of participants spent at least four hours a week attending weight-loss programs, either in a real-life club or in a 3D virtual world created online using Second Life. The programs covered information about nutrition, exercise, and better lifestyle habits, and how to turn to and benefit from a social support network. All participants were overweight or obese, and most were women. In the real-life group, the average age was 37, while the average age in the virtual group was 46. In spite of this age difference, the study groups did equally well losing body fat and weight, about 10 pounds on average.

A virtual weight-loss club improved confidence and good health behaviors among obese and overweight participants. Photo credit: Ingo Bernhardt

But the virtual group did the real-world one better when it came to improving on healthy behaviors. Being in a virtual weight-loss club seemed was associated with better eating and activity habits. According to investigator Jeanne Johnston, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, the virtual attendees were more confident about getting out and sticking to an exercise program even on those days that seem designed for avoiding exercise, like vacations or bad weather.

Why would a virtual world be better for some people? It may be that getting out to a real-life weight-loss club carries too much baggage—the time, the potential stigma, the clothes that make us look larger than we think we should. For the virtual group, the 3D world even added a bit of the human touch. Participants had avatars to interact in the virtual fitness club, and the outcome seems to have been a good one. “It’s counter-intuitive, the idea of being more active in a virtual world,” said Johnston in a press release. “Through visualization and education, they can try activities that they had not tried before.”

Is a virtual Post-it note more effective than a real-world one? Photo credit: Alan Cleaver

It would seem that attending virtual gym gives people the freedom to try things they’d be too embarrassed to try in public. I’m pretty sure many folks—say, those who dance to ‘80s Madonna in the privacy of their own homes—could sympathize with that. And it may be that the act of trying alone helps boost confidence, as Jeanne Johnston and her Indiana University colleagues found in their study.

Emily Willingham