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Could virtual reality stave off the obesity epidemic?

29 Feb 2016

Virtual reality could be used to combat obesity and a variety health issues, according to new research published in the Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking journal.

According to the research, virtual reality offers promising new approaches to assessing and treating people with weight-related disorders. In fact, early applications are revealing valuable information about body image, and the advantages of virtual reality for evaluating body image disturbances.

In the article titled, 'Virtual Reality in the Assessment and Treatment of Weight-Related Disorders' the authors describe studies that demonstrate how virtual reality environments can produce responses similar to those seen in the real world.

It provides examples in which virtual reality technology is used to determine how people perceive their bodies, and how it can be used to treat body image disturbances and improve adherence to physical activity.

There are many potential applications, the authors argue. For instance, using virtual pets can increase fruit and vegetable consumption in children, and virtual reality can improve a person’s fundamental body image, and provide a healthy solution for eating disorders.

For the study on the effects of virtual pets, researchers gave a group of children a virtual dog and a set of goals focused on their fruit and vegetable consumption.

According to the researchers, children vicariously experienced future health outcomes of produce consumption by seeing, hearing, and feeling their virtual dog's physical and mental health improve or deteriorate based on nutrition in the physical world. 

When it comes to eating disorders, according to the researchers virtual reality allows an individual to enter scenarios that simulate real-life situations and to encounter food cues known to trigger his/her disordered eating behaviour.

Furthermore, in relation to body image, virtual reality enables three-dimensional figures of the patient's body to be presented, which helps him/her to reach an awareness of body image distortion and then provides the opportunity to confront and correct distortions, resulting in a more realistic body image and a decrease in body image dissatisfaction, the authors say.

One study concluded that virtual reality might have potential in the treatment of disturbed body image, but more research needs to be done into the impact virtual reality environments and avatars have on someone’s perception of their body and general behaviour.

Dr. Wiederhold, PhD, MBA, BCB, BCN, Interactive Media Institute and Virtual Reality Medical Institute, says, “Many chronic conditions are associated with a dysfunction of the stress system: obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes; hypertension; anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and pain syndromes.

“I am appreciative to the researchers and clinicians worldwide who are exploring innovative ways to utilise technology to provide more effective assessment and treatment methods to a greater number of individuals.”

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