Virtual Weight Loss: Online Meetings Yield Healthy Results

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Online weight-loss support programs have been gaining in popularity, and a new study suggests that for some, they work better than their real-world counterparts in building a person's confidence.

The results showed that participants in a weight-loss support group that "met" in a virtual world were more likely to report eating healthier and being more physically active after 12 weeks than those who participated in a support group that met in real life.

"They were more confident in their ability to exercise," and more confident that they would maintain their real-life exercise regime in the face of detractors, such as bad weather or going on vacation, said study researcher Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor of kinesiology at Indiana University.

There was no difference between the online group and the real-life group in terms of how much weight they lost . Johnston said the difference in confidence levels between the groups may mean a difference in their ability maintain their weight loss over time; however, longer-term studies are needed to investigate this.

The online support group met in the Web-based world known as Second Life, in which people create avatars to represent themselves in their interactions with others. The virtual "room" where the meetings took place included treadmills and exercise bikes that the avatars could use in their workouts, Johnston said.

Of course, these virtual workouts didn't burn any real-life calories, but they built participants' confidence in their ability to exercise, Johnston said.

"I think it has something to do with the visualization," of seeing your avatar go through a workout, she said. "Being able to go to virtual world — you don’t have to drive there, you can hide any gained weight — it makes you less self-conscious."

"Online management of weight problems, through a variety of different tools, is going to become increasingly popular," said Dr. Louis Aronne, clinical professor and director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study.

Aronne created an online weight-loss program called BMIQ, and said that research has shown that a key component of making these programs work is capturing the spirit of a real-life meeting.

"When dietitians provide support in online setting, online groups have good results. They're very similar to going to a group, going to a physical meeting," he told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Both Aronne and Johnston said that online programs won't work for everyone. "For certain people, these tools will be as good [as real-life support]. For others, they won't be," he said. Some people just need to meet face-to-face with other people, he said.

Another drawback is that for participants in online programs, it may be easier to become distracted, Aronne said. And those who are not tech-savvy are unlikely to benefit from such programs.

Johnston's study was done in collaboration with a fitness club, but she received no funding from that company for her research, she said. She presented her work on Friday (June 3) at American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Denver.

Pass it on: Online weight-loss support programs may raise participants' confidence more than in-person meetings.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, sister site to LiveScience. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily managing editor KarenRowan on Twitter @karenjrowan.

Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.