Can we help each other get in shape?

Three years ago, I participated in a groundbreaking fitness and lifestyle modification program in Second Life, as a result of which I made long-term changes — and lost 20 pounds. (Read more about my experience here and more about the Club One program here.)

It may seem crazy that virtual exercise can make you lose real weight, but it works.

And not just for me — research is accumulating that virtual fitness groups and support program may be more effective than traditional ones. Indiana University conducted a research study based on the Club One program. (Read the full study here at the Journal of Medical Internet Research.)

Last week yet another study came out, this time from the University of Kansas, showing that participants in the virtual program lost weight. And, more importantly, that they kept off more weight than participants in a traditional program. (This study was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.)

There are more studies, using avatars in other platforms as well. It all seems to come down to the Proteus Effect — when we identify with our avatars, we are more likely to change our actual behavior to match that of our virtual selves.

Surfing in Club One in Second Life. Why can't we do this in OpenSim?
That’s me surfing in Club One. Even though I only did this virtually, I have a memory of myself surfing. I remember the waves and the spray of the water.

Unfortunately, Club One hasn’t been running their public virtual sessions lately, focusing instead on offering the virtual program to corporate clients.

One reason could be Club One’s high price tag, since they have a couple of trained professionals running each session. In addition, Second Life land is expensive — the four-region Club One island costs around $1,200 a month in Second Life.

Self-help program

So for the past three years I’ve been toying the idea of setting up a peer-to-peer virtual support group to help people get in shape.

Now, I’m not saying that we can replace professional counselors, nutritionists, or doctors.

But much of the Club One program was based on common sense principles and mutual encouragement — and this is the part, I think, that a group of regular folks can duplicate on their own.

Here are some potential ideas of meetings, based on my experience with Club One, my experience with physical therapy, and my experience with other peer-to-peer support groups:

Virtual exercise: Everyone gets together and participates in a virtual exercise. Later, when you remember it, you mind will process it as if you had actually been exercising, and you will start to think of yourself as someone who does that particular exercise, making it more likely for you to do it in the future. For example, we can change into hiking clothes and go on a virtual hike around our island. Or go on a virtual run. Setting this up just requires a nice landscape and easy-to-follow trail. Slightly more complicated to build, but doable, could be a bike ride or a horseback ride. We could also create exercises around any other activity animations we can find, such as swimming, jumping jacks or situps, and, of course, dancing. Club One had all of these, plus stationary bike rides and treadmills, weight-lifting machines, surfboarding, parasailing, even whale riding.

Goal-picking experiences: Club One did not order its participants to follow any particular diet or exercise program. Instead, they encouraged you to pick your own. It could be as simple as “walk for thirty minutes a day” or “could more healthy food at home” or more specific, like “count calories,” or “replace bad fats with good fats, bad carbs with good carbs, and bad proteins with good proteins,” or very specific, like Weight Watchers or South Beach diet plans, or one recommended by your doctor. I can imagine, say, building a resource room for each of the most popular alternatives, with reference materials, links to outside resources, and T-shirts explaining what plan you picked. Every once in a while, we could hold a session where people who haven’t yet can pick a plan, and folks who have a plan can decide if they want to keep it or switch to a different one.

Techniques-based experiences: Many of Club One’s sessions featured tips and tricks, tools, and helpful techniques for sticking with your plan. Such as not eating after 6 p.m., or having a glass of water before every meal, or taking the time to each slowly and appreciate each bite, or having five “mini-meals” instead of three big ones, or adding healthy snacks between meals to keep from getting hungry, or various ways to add exercise throughout a day. Each of these tools or techniques could have its own resource room, where we could practice the technique virtually, as a group.

Temptation-oriented experiences: Some Club One sessions featured virtual environments specifically designed to practice difficult skills. Such as ordering healthy, small portions at restaurants, or saying no to relatives who keep urging you to have second and third helpings of cake. For example, they had a room where you walk in, and chat bubbles come at you from all directions, saying things like, “If you loved me, you’d eat this cake.” Typing “no” in local chat makes them pop — but it takes more than one “no” to make some of them go away!

Affirmation experiences: Club One also had some relaxation areas. I remember being able to go to a beach cabana, get a virtual massage, and hear positive, affirming messages and relaxing music.

Fireside chats: Many — perhaps most, if I remember right — Club One sessions featured or included fireside chat sessions, where each participant talked about their goals, and the problems — or successes — they were having achieving them that day or that week. We also talked about upcoming events, such as trips or holidays, and how we were planning to deal with them. We also talked about particular problems we were having and offered each other advice and support. Sometimes, these sessions were around an actual campfire on the beach. Sometimes, in a scenic spot by a waterfall. I remember one session we were literally up in the sky, sitting in a cloud bank. There was also a treehouse meeting area.

Club One spent a lot of time and money designing their environment. In addition to all the things I’ve already mentioned, they also had a virtual store in which we could practice reading product labels, and simulations of the digestive system, which was a setting for an exercise about blood sugar levels. There was a fully-equipped virtual gym, where you could learn how to use all kinds of exercise equipment. A virtual restaurant. An apartment building. A mountain with a hang-gliding station.

Over time, if enough people pitch in, maybe we could crowd-source something similar.

If we do, I pledge to make the OAR files available to anyone to use for any purpose. Corporate meetings or other support groups, for example. Or professional personal fitness instructors or nutritionists could take these environments and use them as the basis for their own, professionally-run support groups. These kinds of support groups could be a big seller for virtual worlds, and I want to do everything I can to help as many of them get started as possible.

Kitely is probably the best place to get land for such a group right now, since the hosting costs will be minimal, and we could easily download copies of the entire environment to share with people. Kitely is also easy to log into for first-time OpenSim users.

Plus, Kitely is going to be hypergrid-enabled soon, so folks with existing avatars on other grids will be able to teleport in.

Can you help?

Are you interested in helping out? This project is going to need everything from exercise outfits, to animations, to fitness equipment, to meeting and event setups. It will also need volunteers to help organize events and help prepare materials. I’ve set up a Facebook group called Maria’s Virtual Fit Club for folks interested in staying updated about the project.

If you have items you’d like to donate, you can drop them off in-world at our Kitely region’s building sandbox (it’s the small paved area at the landing point), or email me at [email protected] and we can meet up in-world. You can also email me any files you’d like, such as animations, or fitness activities. (If you do email me anything, please don’t forget to include the license terms!)

I just picked up an ice skating rink and a rollerskating rink from Linda Kellie’s shopping mall, and will be installing both of them. She also has a push-up fitness activity that’s I’m planning to try out.

Maria Korolov