Thinner avatars give overweight kids the push to exercise

SINGAPORE - An obese child who sees a thinner virtual version of himself running after a football on a Wii screen is more likely to want to exercise than if he were to use an overweight character.

That was what a team of researchers from Nanyang Technological University found when they studied the effects of certain types of video games on children's attitudes towards exercise.

Part of their research zoomed in on the use of avatars - digital personas - by overweight children when they played physically active games on motion-sensing devices like Wii and Kinect.

Among the 140 children studied, those who used avatars with "normal body size" had better attitudes and were more motivated to exercise than those using larger- sized avatars.

International research shows that people tend to project who they are in the virtual world onto real life, noted principal investigator May Oo Lwin.

She added that fit avatars boosted the confidence of the children, who are aged nine to 12 and enrolled in their school's obesity management programme.

The avatar study is just part of a project by the team, said Associate Professor Lwin, who presented the early findings at the Singapore International Public Health Conference on Tuesday.

The project has so far tested the effects of "exergaming", or video games that require physical exercise, on more than 1,000 primary and secondary school students.

Those who went through physical education lessons with exergaming reported higher motivation to exercise compared to those who just had regular lessons.

Younger children respond more to immersive games played on Kinect, where they are part of a virtual world. This could be because they like the less structured and repetitive nature of the games, said Prof Lwin.

Also, "threat-framed" messages like "if you don't exercise regularly, you may put on weight" were more effective than "coping" messages like "you can do it" when told to students before they played the games, she said.

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