Watching a digital avatar of oneself in action on a treadmill could be an effective motivational technique to start exercising, found a new study.
According to a Stanford University research project, participants who watched digital versions of themselves run on a treadmill ended up exercising nearly an hour longer than those who watched their avatars hang out or viewed avatars of other people exercising.
"We're definitely surprised that the manipulation worked," Discovery News quoted Stanford doctoral student Jesse Fox, who oversaw the studies, as saying.
"I was very fascinated," she stated.
Fox, who describes herself as a social scientist who didn't even own a computer, was curious how digital technologies could impact health and other behaviours.
In three studies, each of which had about 80 participants, she found that virtual representations are a powerful motivation tool.
"When we see models that look like us, we're inclined to imitate the behaviours," she said.
Fox concluded it could be narcissism, or perhaps an emotional tie, but the sight of a virtual self exercising and making healthy food choices seems to have a positive impact on behaviours-at least in the short term.
For the studies, digital photographs of subjects were rendered into avatars.
Participants wore a virtual reality helmet that projected images of their avatars running on a treadmill.
Other subjects watched avatars they didn't resemble exercise, and a third group watched their digital selves just hang out.
Fox revealed that when participants were contacted a day later, those who had watched their digital selves exercise reported working out nearly an hour longer than the other subjects.
"There is quite a bit of research in psychology indicating that if people mentally visualize themselves performing some task or behaviour, they can then in reality actually improve their performance on that task," John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center, wrote in an email.
"It's often used in sports psychology. The premise seems to be that if you can imagine it, you can start to make it real. Avatars and virtual environments take that process one step further.
"Avatars become a way to make more tangible what you would like to imagine yourself to be, which then might activate the potential to actually become what you imagine," Suler added.