Real Gym Not Working for You? Try a Virtual One

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It sounds like an oxymoron — getting in shape by sitting in front of a computer screen. But a new study has shown that regular visits to a virtual health club in the online world Second Life could help you lose weight in real life.

Researchers at Indiana University lead the study, which involved overweight or obese people taking part in a 12-week weight loss program. But while some of the participants were involved in a real world, face-to-face program, others were part of a program at a health club in the online virtual world Second Life.

And as it turns out, participants in the online weight loss program lost as much weight as those in the real world program.

As reported on the BBC’s Health News site, researchers told the American College of Sports Medicine Conference in Denver that they believed the confidence and motivation built in the virtual gym continued in normal life. Even more surprisingly, they concluded that the Second Life group might be better off than the conventional group in terms of being able to keep the weight off.

Lead researcher Dr. Jeanne Johnston devised a weight loss program with a Second Life interactive weight loss community called Club One Island, and overweight or obese people were recruited to take part in either the virtual program or a conventional, “face-to-face” weight loss program in the read world. Both courses involved four hours a week at meetings, and the participants in both cases were mostly women in their 30s and 40s.

At the end of the 12 weeks, both groups had lost 10 pounds on average. Even more surprisingly, when the participants were surveyed on whether their behavior had changed, the Second Life group appeared to have made more healthy changes in their life — increasing physical activity and eating better. This suggests that they might be able to maintain their weight loss (or even lose more) better than the face-to-face group.

“The virtual world program was at least as beneficial as the face-to-face program, and in some ways, more effective,” said Dr. Johnston. “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.”

It’s an interesting thought — perhaps the anonymity of having an online persona would defuse the intimidation factor of sharing your dieting woes with a bunch of strangers in a weight loss group setting. Adding an online component to a weight loss regime might be a great way for people to meet like-minded individuals in the comfort of their own home. And online communities can be incredibly involved and supportive, some might say even more so than in the cold, cruel world.

But do you think a virtual community could really be as effective as meeting with other warm bodies? People who are into Second Life tend to be really into Second Life, so maybe it’s more about the close-knit nature of that community than the effectiveness of online weight loss programs in general.

And wouldn’t there be that temptation to just go to the online health club and never hit the real gym or get any real-world exercise at all?

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