Can Losing Weight In Your 'Second Life' Help In Your First?

Jan 12, 2015
Originally published on May 19, 2013 2:11 pm

There is no shortage of diet programs available to those that seek to lose weight. But for many, taking those initial steps into a weight loss and exercise program can be an intimidating leap.

A new study from the University of Kansas Medical Center, however, shows that the online game Second Life helped some people lose weight — and keep it off — in real life.

Second Life is an online game that takes place in a massive virtual world populated by other players represented by avatars. Players can shop, socialize, date, buy virtual property and just about anything else you can do in the real world — including eating and exercising.

Dietician Debra Sullivan told Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that it's often maintaining weight loss that many people struggle with, and the study found using Second Life helped.

"The behaviors that they were able to practice in Second Life translated better than our face-to-face group," Sullivan says.

Exercise played a role too. The participants in the study had all of things available to them in the real world like a gym, a pool and running paths. Sullivan says a lot of people that are overweight don't feel comfortable going in to the gym initially, and that the game can help get over that fear.

"Their avatar doing those things in Second Life, we believe does inspire them to do those activities in real life," she says.

As a result of her preliminary research, Sullivan's team has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the research.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. South Beach, Weight Watchers, Atkins - weight-loss programs abound. Debra Sullivan knows this well. She is a dietitian at Kansas University. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Sullivan is a dietitian at the University of Kansas Medical Center.] And she just completed a small pilot study to find out whether the virtual reality computer game, Second Life, could help people lose weight in real life.

Her results were promising, and she has secured a grant to continue exploring the question. We talked about how acting out a virtual weight loss regimen could translate into real change.

DEBRA SULLIVAN: In real life, you know, in our traditional state-of-the art weight loss clinics, we have people come in to a group weight loss clinic weekly. We teach them the behaviors they need to do in order to lose weight, and then we ask them to go out into the real world, and the advantage of Second Life is you can go to the grocery 24 hours a day. You could go to the restaurant, and you know, for example, if you pick the appetizers, spinach artichoke dip, you would click on that food item and get the calorie content but then also a little tagline, you know, don't let the name fool you, this is not a vegetable, a better choice would be X.

MARTIN: Your study found that Second Life was more effective for some people than programs in person or on the phone, especially with the maintenance part of all of this. Why is that?

SULLIVAN: Well, we think it's because, you know, for weight loss, it doesn't matter what diet you're doing. If you follow the diet, you're going to be successful and lose weight. It's when you stop that rigid plan, that's when the weight begins to creep back. And so, we believe that the behaviors they were able to practice in Second Life translated better compared to our traditional face-to-face group.

MARTIN: What about exercise? Do you take that into account in the Second Life program?

SULLIVAN: Oh, very much so. Exercise is a core component. We do have a gymnasium, we now have a pool, we have walking paths, we have all sorts of behaviors that you can do in real life, and while I know it might seem silly to think that my avatar is running on a treadmill in my virtual reality, you know, a lot of people that are overweight are not comfortable going into a gym, they've never used a treadmill. Their avatar doing those things in Second Life, we believe, does inspire them to do those activities in real life.

MARTIN: Debra Sullivan, she's a dietician at Kansas University Medical Center. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.