The epidemic of obesity heightens the necessity to evaluate the effectiveness of weight-loss programs.
A new study compares two programs — one involving traditional health club sessions and the other, an online program delivered virtually.
Researchers discovered individuals lost similar amounts of weight and body fat, but the online contingent reported significantly greater gains in behaviors that could help them live healthier and leaner lives.
“It’s counterintuitive, the idea of being more active in a virtual world, but the activities that they do in a virtual world can carry over into the real world,” said Jeanne Johnston, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at Indiana University. “Through visualization and education, they can try activities that they had not tried before.”
Online weight loss programs have been growing in popularity although these programs are at a disadvantage because of the absence of human interaction.
In the study, researchers wanted to explore the effects of a cyberspace program where visitors use avatars to interact with others or the computer-simulated environment — in this case, a simulated fitness club.
“The virtual world program was at least as beneficial as the face-to-face program and in some ways, more effective,” Johnston said. “It has the potential to reach people who normally wouldn’t go to a gym or join a program because of limitations, such as time or discomfort with a fitness center environment.”
In the 12-week study, members of the each weight-loss program spent at least four hours a week attending meetings at a virtual or real club. In both settings they learned about health promoting activities including nutrition, physical activity, changing habits and how to benefit from social supports.
The study involved overweight and obese people — mostly women.
The average age of the face-to-face group was 37. The average age of the virtual world group, which provided training in how to use the Web-based platform Second Life, was 46.
The participants in each group lost a comparable amount of weight — on average almost 10 pounds — and saw similar decreases in body mass index and body fat.
However, researchers discovered behavioral change in terms of healthy eating, physical activity and sleeping habits were much improved in the virtual group while not improved in the face-to-face group.
“Further, virtual participants were more advanced in their ability to perform physical activity in difficult situations, such as bad weather, vacations, low-energy days,” Johnston said.
Source: Indiana University