A new pilot study from Temple and George Washington University proposes avatar-based videos could work as a way to shed excess pounds. The goal of the videos is to inspire and advise women who want to lose weight on the best ways to make that happen.

"This pilot study showed that you don't have to be a gamer to use virtual reality to learn some important skills for weight loss," said lead author Dr. Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS). "This small study suggests that virtual reality could be a promising new tool for building healthier habits."

Overall, the prevalence of obesity is even between men and women, although rates become higher for women after they reach the age of 60, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The motivation behind the study came from a survey of 128 overweight women, who had tried various dieting strategies in the past and were open to new ideas in their battle to lose weight. Although most had never played a video game, 88 percent said they'd be open to using a virtual reality-based program that featured information how to be healthier.

The researchers developed a set of DVDs with avatars exhibiting healthy behaviors. One showed a virtual person walking on treadmill at a moderate pace. Another had a female avatar sit down for a meal at a table and make decisions about serving sizes.

After four weeks, the eight women who participated in this portion of the study had lost an average of 3.5 pounds.

"A fairly typical amount for traditional diet plans," said Napolitano, who hopes the program instilled long-term changes in behavior.

The female participants visited the clinic once a week to watch the 15-minute videos. Each subject watched an avatar that was designed to resemble their appearance, by their skin color, body shape, and other characteristics. The avatars were not interactive.

Napolitano and colleagues recommended further research to solidify these findings and to see if also works for men. Napolitano performed the study while working at Temple University. One of her earlier studies found that social media could help college students lose weight.

"This is just the first step to show that women, even those who are not gamers, are interested in an avatar-based technology to help them with a weight-loss plan," said Napolitano. "We are excited by the potential of this technology as a scalable tool to help people learn the skills to be successful at weight loss over the long run.

Source: Napolitano MA, Hayes S, Russo G, Muresu D, Giordano A, Foster GD. Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant attitudes and technology development. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. 2013.