How I lost 20 pounds in Second Life

Today, my scale shows that I’ve lost 20 pounds over the past three months. In addition, today at my doctor’s office, I learned that, my blood pressure was down, and so was my body mass index.

But this wasn’t on a diet or exercise plan. I didn’t stop eating carbs or embrace an all-cabbage-soup meal plan or start training for a marathon.  It was hard work, but it was mental work. Though I might do that marathon some day.

What I did was sign up for Club One‘s habit changer program in Second Life.

The point of the program is to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones. The way it works is that you go to the Club One Island in Second Life for four one-hour sessions each week. There is one class that’s all about helping you get more movement into your life. Another one that teaches nutrition principles. There’s one class dedicated specifically to changing habits, and the last class is a support group.

I faithfully attended each and every class. This required that I switch to Second Life Viewer 2, which took a little adjustment. I had previously been using the first-generation viewer, and had to relearn the controls.

I also had to change my wardrobe, since previously I only used Second Life for business meetings  — I added casual outfits to my typical collection of suits and heels. And I got a more casual hair style, as well.

But for the most part, the club provided the clothes I needed — sneakers, roller skates, workout pants, a Club One T-shirt, and swim suits.

Walking on a bridge in Club One Island.

The workout clothes were necessary — most of the sessions involved some kind of exercise. Club One Island has a virtual version of an actual Club One facility — the company has fitness clubs across California. So we spent time on exercise bikes, treadmills, weight machines, and other exercise equipment.

That part wasn’t that much fun — I’m not a big fan of exercise machines. But the treadmills were cool, because of the huge video screens with the motivational videos. A nice little bit of the warm-and-fuzzy.

But the other exercise sessions were much cooler.

We rode bikes around the island chain. We roller skated and hopped on Pogo sticks. We went hang gliding. We went surfboarding and wind surfing. We did yoga. We rode whales. We went dancing under the sea.

My favorite was wind surfing. Some day, as God is my witness, I will get out there on the waves that do that for real. Maybe the hang gliding, as well.

My favorite Second Life sport. Wind surfing. If you hit the Page Up button, you can do tricks. You can almost feel the spray of the water on your face.

The idea here is that if you see yourself — in avatar form — moving around and exercising, you’re more likely to do it in real life. It’s the kind of brain re-programming that elite athletes do when they do visualizations as part of their Olympics preparation.

It helps if the avatar looks like you, or the way that you want to see yourself. Over the course of the program, I not only got my avatar better hair that was more like my actual hair, but also adjusted her face and her body, making her hips a little wider, her tummy a little rounder. She still doesn’t look like the way I do in real life — she looks like the way that I imagine I look like, or used to look like, or may look like again.

I was lucky enough to get in as part of a research project, at no cost. The program will officially launch in January, at $750 for the twelve weeks, plus follow-up weekly support groups.

Knowing what I know now, would I pay $750 for a twelve-week program? No, I would not have. Even knowing what I know now, and what I learned from the program, I can’t see myself forking over that kind of cash.

Would I have paid $62.50 a week, for four one-hour sessions with trained nutritionists and fitness experts, with unlimited use of the island facilities to help me practice the good eating and exercise habits virtually before putting them into actual practice? Absolutely.

Note to program organizers: if I’m your target demographic, I’d lead with the per-week price rather than the final program total.

I’m a sucker for waterfalls. One of our support group sessions was held here. Nice!

What I learned

First, I want to explain that I was a a bad student. There were lots of new habits we were supposed to practice, most of which I never got around to doing.

I only did the ones that I liked, or that sounded really easy.

And, to be honest, most of what the program covered wasn’t new. We all know we should eat less, and exercise more.

The list below is just the parts of the program that clicked with me. For other attendees, this list would be completely and totally different.

Mindful eating

I vaguely remember hearing, sometime in the past, that you should eat slowly, savoring every bite, not gulping your food down all at once. But really, who has time for that?

I normally eat at my desk, while reading, while watching TV, while talking with my kids, while out with friends, or while watching movies in a theater.

Somehow, the Club One instructors managed to convince to try to eat mindfully. They suggested a wide variety of techniques to accomplish this. We practiced some of these in a virtual restaurant on the island.

The one that worked was going outside and eating my lunch under the open sky. No books. No iPhone. No computer. Just me, my lunch, and the wide outdoors.

Take a bite. Put the fork or sandwich down. Chew. Relax. Enjoy the weather. Enjoy the taste of the food. Then take another bite.

Peaceful, pleasant. A hard habit to get into, but now it’s become routine. I go outside to eat lunch.

And what happens is that you start to appreciate the taste of things more. And you start noticing that you’re getting full.

Which leads me to…

Mini-meals

I’m not normally a mini-meals kind of person. When I cook dinner there’s salad or another vegetable course. Then a protein of some kind — fish, chicken, beans. And some pasta or rice. The salad usually has shredded cheese in it, and a creamy dressing.

Sounds good, right? Sounds good to me, too. And when going out for dinner, I like to order the soup, and a pasta entree. Maybe an appetizer, or some breadsticks. And a dessert.

You add that up, and that’s over 1,000 calories for just one meal — if you’re lucky. Combine that with a job that mostly involves sitting behind a computer, and you’ve got your recipe for thunder thighs.

So they asked us to try eating mini-meals. Just three hundred calories each. And have a lot of them — one every three hours.

Now, the average woman needs around 1,500 calories a day (if she weighs around 150 pounds). So that’s five meals of 300 calories each. If you’re a guy weighing 200 pounds, you’d need around 2,000 calories a day, for 400 calories per mini meal.

Nice, round numbers.

But it doesn’t take much to get up to 300 calories. A can of soup and a slice of bread. A bowl of cereal with milk. A hard-boiled egg with two pieces of wheat toast. A tuna salad wrap. One of those Smart Ones or Lean Cuisine frozen entrees. Two granola bars. A six-inch sub from Subway. Two Taco Bell fresco grilled steak soft tacos — or one fresco chicken burrito.

So I watched the calories and read the labels and tried doing the mini meals. And it worked. If I got 300 calories into me, I didn’t feel hungry for the next three hours. If I couldn’t eat immediately afterwards, a 100-calorie snack would tide me over for another hour. I started keeping pre-measured baggies of trail mix and fiber bars in my purse, just in case.

If I went longer between meals, I would get ravenously hungry and eat too much. If I waited less — or ate more than 300 calories — I would feel uncomfortably full.

I don’t know why this works — okay, actually I do. They showed us a virtual model of a stomach and we got a lecture on blood sugar levels and digestion speeds.

So, anyway, I kept at it. It’s become a routine. And when I don’t overeat at lunch, I don’t get sleepy in the middle of the day. I’ve quit coffee and Diet Coke.

It’s been a significant lifestyle change, but not a painful one. And a lifestyle change that I like. I’ll stick with it.

The first bite’s the best

This really stuck with me. The first bite of anything tastes the best. As you eat more of it, the taste starts to decline. At the end, it becomes almost flavorless and you’re eating it out of habit, more than anything else.

They tried to teach me to stop eating and throw away the rest when it got to this point. But I can’t throw away food! The best I was able to do was save the rest for later.

Getting less food to start with solved the problem for me.

A corollary to the “first bite is best” principle is that when you switch foods, the first bite tastes great again. So if you have a lot of different foods on your plate, it’s easy to over eat.

As a result, I’ve tried to limit my mini-meals to just one or two kinds of food. And that worked well for me.

Cheating

One thing that I learned early on in the program is that there’s no cheating. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want. If I don’t feel like a mini-meal, I don’t have to have one. If I feel like dessert, or going out to dinner, I can do that too. And I don’t have to beat myself up about it.

Previously, when I’d have a really bad food day, I’d feel really bad afterward, and promise myself that I’d make up for it the next day. And, the next day, depressed at the thought of having to diet, I’d overeat again. It would become a vicious cycle.

Not everyone in the program reacted this way to overeating, but I did.

The instructors kept insisting that I wasn’t supposed to force myself to do something I didn’t want to do. Instead, they gave us tools to help us do what we did want to do.

For example, one technique — out of many — which worked for other people, was the “STOP” method. That’s when you Stop. Take a breath. Think about the Outcome you want to achieve — health, fitness. Then Praise yourself for doing the right thing. So: Stop. Take breath. Outcome. Praise.

Yeah, like that was going to work for me!

Actually, it worked too well — I tried the STOP method when driving past Taco Bell once and realized after doing it that I no longer wanted to eat at Taco Bell. The next time I drove by Taco Bell and wanted that chicken burrito, I knew that if I did the STOP method, I would no longer want that chicken burrito. But I really wanted that chicken burrito. So instead of doing STOP, I pulled into the parking lot. Mmmm… I can still taste that chicken burrito, and the quesadilla I had with it to keep it company.

But I felt guilty about it. Wasn’t I supposed to be avoiding junk food?

That’s when I decided that I would not cheat anymore. If I want something, I would just have it. And it wouldn’t be cheating. In fact, there’s nothing in the Club One program that prohibits junk food. They want you to eat healthier — but only if you want to. And there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from healthy food once in a while.

So now I say to myself: “I can anything that I want. Anything at all. Now what do I really want? I mean, really want?”

As a result, there have been evenings where I sat on the couch in front of the TV eating popcorn and ice cream. But that’s okay.

I don’t feel bad about it. And the next day I have my normal mini-meals and healthy snacks and everything is just fine.

And most of the time, when I stop and ask myself, “What do I really want?” I will often opt for the healthier choice anyway. I guess it’s another form of mindful eating.

If you eat 1,500 calories a day, that’s enough to maintain your weight if you weigh 150 pounds. The rule of thumb is that you need ten calories for every pound you weigh. I weigh a little bit more than 150 pounds. Just a little bit. Okay, a healthy bit. But anyway,I can eat quite a bit over 1,500 calories and still come out below my maintenance level — the amount of calories I need to eat to maintain my current weight.

So if I have a large meal once in a while, that’s not going to do any harm. If I was eating healthy mini-meals most of the time — and I was — that creates a lot of leeway.

There were people in my group who had other situations. For example, some liked to go out with friends and had to deal with drinks and bar food. Others had buffets at work, or food pushed at them by relatives. Some had to travel a lot.

The Club One program covered these situations and many others, and provided lots of helpful tools and techniques for us to use, and opportunities for us to practice those habits in a safe, supportive setting.

I kind of feel bad that it was all wasted on me. And the thing is, I’m sure that many of those techniques could have come in really handy.

But you can’t change every single habit you have all at once. So, food-wise, I think I made a pretty decent start just with the changes I’ve made so far.

Exercise

Getting movement — any movement — into your life was a big part of the Club One philosophy. They don’t care if I walk up and down an extra flight of stairs, or walk the dog, or work out at a gym, or take a yoga class, or play Wii Fit or go out dancing. They just want me to move.

I feel kinda bad that I didn’t find activities that I liked doing and make them into a habit over these past 12 weeks.

I used to do more physical stuff. I used to hike, go bike riding, running, and I did martial arts. But now I’m out of shape, and if I run, I’ll hurt my ankles. And I don’t like being the least fit person in a martial arts or yoga class. I did some swimming over the summer, which I love — but now that the weather is cooler I’m not doing that as much anymore either, since I prefer to swim outside.

I have so many excuses for not exercising, you can’t believe it. It’s too cold. It’s too hot. It’s too wet. I’ve got too much work. I don’t have enough work and as a result I’m too depressed to exercise. I don’t have any time. My feet hurt. I’d rather see a movie instead. I’d rather read a book instead. I’d rather do anything else instead.

But the Club One instructors — and the rest of the participants in the program — kept after me to try different things. There has to be something I can do to get some movement into my day.

And I do want to move. I want to be fit, and flexible, and start hiking and running and yoga again. But with my work schedule, and the kids…

So about half-way through the program, I got a brain storm and ordered a mini-stepper from Amazon. It cost around $50. And when it arrived, I found that if I put my laptop on the high shelf over my desk, I could be on the stepper and type at the same time.

So for a couple of weeks, whenever I was in a Club One session, I would also be on my stepper. That’s four hours of stepping a week, at a minimum. Nice! It was good stepping, too — I would get all sweaty. And I would step without even noticing that I was doing it. It wasn’t painful, boring, tedious exercise like those machines at the gym.

And I hurt my ankle. So I stopped for a week. Started up the following week. Hurt my other ankle. Stopped for another week.

I was ready to give up, but the instructors talked me into trying something different. Instead of doing it for an hour at a time, do it for just ten or fifteen minutes, every morning. That’s my new plan.

So yesterday when I got to my computer for the morning meeting on my company grid, I did the first 15 minutes of it on the stepper. Today I am doing the same.

I’ll see if that works. I like the stepping, and I like knowing that I’m moving and doing something. Maybe I’ll even throw in a few situps. And I’ve got other back-up plans, as well. Like walking the dog, or going swimming at the local pool. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll find something that works.

Whatever I try, the Club One guys will be behind me all the way — even though my 12-week program ends this week, the support will continue through weekly follow-up sessions. I’ll definitely be there.

What I liked

I already mentioned that I liked the wind surfing. I also liked the Club One swimming pool, and the surf boarding — anything to do with water, really!

I loved the fact that almost everything was done outside, in a really gorgeous environment. Waves, waterfalls, lush scenery — the Club One sessions were always a welcome break. They spent a lot of money on this (I’ll tell you how much in the next article about them) and it shows.

I liked the peer support. Being able to talk to other people going through the program with me, and getting their feedback, was really nice. When I did something well, they were happy with me. When things didn’t work out, they didn’t let me beat myself up over it.

Thanks, guys!

What I didn’t like

There are a lot of pathways, road and bridges around the four sims of Club One Island. I’ve fallen off of all of them, I think. Whether I’m walking, bike riding, or on a Pogo stick, I found a way to fall off of edges and get trapped under water or buildings.

Part of it was that I was often using a slow computer and a wireless Internet connection. But some of this could have been fixed with better design — fewer sharp corners, for example. Or transparent fences around roads or bridges — invisible, so they don’t block the view, but solid so that you don’t fall off the edge.

Another thing was that we all got a free apartment as part of the Club One program, which we get to keep now that the program is over. That part’s actually nice. It’s stocked with various tools to help you out. I’ve found that I wasn’t using most of them, though. Instead, I used the Lose It! app for the iPhone, which is a super easy way to track calories from meals — and calories burned with exercise.

Also, the apartment is a bit isolating. Sure, the view is nice, but you’re in there all alone with those charts and graphs. The building it’s in is a standard apartment building layout, with stairs and an elevator. After I got stuck in those stairs and in that elevator more than once, I started teleporting in and out. As a result, I never saw my neighbors. They were probably teleporting in and out as well.

In fact, there was so much teleporting around that I still haven’t built up a decent mental map of the island. Walking around is hard — what with all the falling-off-of-cliffs issues I was having. So I’ve never really explored the area very well.

By the time the program starts up again in January, they might well have fixed these issues already. Or maybe I’m the only one with a slow computer logging in over a wireless network.

The other thing that I didn’t like that much was that there wasn’t as much opportunity to interact one-on-one with the other participants as I would have liked. It would have been fun to break up into smaller teams to do some of the exercises, and get a chance to bond more closely with folks. Again, they might include that in the next run of the program.

Final verdict

I got maybe 10 percent of what the program had to offer.

That 10 percent, however, has made a substantial difference in my life and has pulled me out of some ruts I’ve worked myself into over the years.

The changes weren’t painful, they make my life immediately more pleasant, and I look forward to the support groups to help me maintain them, and make sure they’re permanent.

At some point, I might want to kick things up another notch, and I can see doing this program again, focusing more heavily on the movement aspects of it.

In the next article, I’ll talk about how they set up the program — how long it took, how much it cost, what vendors they used — and how it’s paying off for their business.

I’ll also talk about lessons from this that other kinds of companies can apply if they want to create new habits or change old ones in their employees, or their customers. I’ll also explain how you can get in for free over the next couple of months and try out the activities for yourself, and steal ideas for your own projects. Sorry, I mean, get inspiration for your own projects!

I’m not affiliated in any way shape or form with Club One. I’ve never been to one of their physical facilities, and have never heard of them until last spring, when I saw a report about the results of the first research group, and contacted them to get more info.

The reason I’m writing all this about my experience with the program is because there’s a good chance that we’ll be seeing a lot of similar programs popping up. Not just for health and fitness, but other habits as well. and the lessons learned from what works — and what doesn’t work — can be applied in many other areas.

Meanwhile, here are some videos from the folks at Club One about their island experience:

More information about Club One Island here.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • This is so cool!
    I am constantly amazed at how many people find opportunities to improve their real lives from within their virtual lives.
    Perhaps it isn’t the body we inhabit that defines us, but the dreams we are willing to pursue.

  • Myron —

    I don’t actually have a “virtual life” — I used my regular work avatar for the program, with my real name hanging on a label over my head, and people talked to me under my real name.

    Which is what I would have done if I had, say, joined Weight Watchers — I wouldn’t have gone in under a pseudonym.

    I’m not much of a gamer, or a role player, and for entertainment I still prefer TV and books to games and virtual worlds. If I’m going to be entertained, I want to sit back and relax and have someone else do all the work. 🙂

    To me, the Club One sessions felt very “real”. I have memories of surfing, doing yoga, chatting with people that feel very similar to “real” memories. And my reactions to things, while muted, were very much what my reactions would have been in a physical setting. So, for example, I love swimming in real life. And I enjoyed swimming in Second Life. It felt pleasant and cooling –even though I wasn’t actually there. Now, swimming in an actual pool would have had an even stronger effect, on me — but the virtual swimming whetted my appetite for the real thing.

    Wind surfing was interesting in that I would never have considered doing. It seems too hard, something that young, fit people do. But having been out there on that board, I now have memories of me wind surfing, having fun, and it was easy and joyful. I can see myself doing it now! And yes, I fell off the surfboard in Second Life — and I’m sure I will in real life as well, and even more so — but it was fun. I now see myself as the kind of person who wind surfs. And I wasn’t that kind of person three months ago.

    — Maria

  • Update — almost a year later. I replaced my "LoseIt" iPhone app with "MyFitnessPal" (both are free, and offer similar functionality, but I've grown to like the second one better).

    I finally joined a gym, where I go to swim. I love swimming — it's my favorite exercise. I don't do anything else at the gym, because I don't like it, and I stopped worrying about it.

    I've fallen on and off and on again the mini-meal bandwagon. I'm back on it now, and it was remarkably easy to pick up the habit again. I guess after doing it for 12 weeks, it's become ingrained.

    I moved my office and lost track of my stair stepper. But now as I'm writing this, I'm thinking that I'll bring it back. I enjoyed using it quite a bit! Maybe while watching TV.

    I slipped up on my trigger food — french bread – and without the support group, it slipped back into my life. I can't stop eating it. I love it. I can't eat it in moderation. Plus, I found a new trigger food. (It's embarrassing, I won't add it here.) I will try to structure my life so I avoid it as much as possible. It would be a lot easier, of course, if I still had the support group backing me up.

    Unfortunately, Club One has postponed the start of the next cycle of the fitness and nutrition program in Second Life. As a result, I'm considering organizing something informal to replace it. If you'd like to join me, just email me at [email protected]

  • Update — year and half later. I work standing up — that stuck! But the Diet Coke monkey is back on my back. I’m still eating plenty of vegetables — but let my gym membership lapse. 

    So it’s a mixed bag. But I’m hoping to get a support group going in OpenSim, and get back on track!