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A player avatar runs on a treadmill in the virtual world of Second Life. Researchers used the online game to see if it could help people maintain weight loss habits in the real world. (Courtesy of Univeristy of Kansas Medical Center)

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

by Steve Mullis
May 19, 2013 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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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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