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Research will include use of virtual simulation

U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a $4.7 million grant to a new obesity prevention and healthy lifestyle program at Oregon State University. The project will compare how successfully teenage athletes learn healthy behaviors through real world teaching and interactions in simulated virtual worlds.

The study participants, a group of 500 4-H soccer players aged 15 to 19, will be divided into three groups.

One group will be taught healthy lifestyle behaviors through traditional educational techniques.

The other two groups will practice activities — such as filling a plate in a high school cafeteria — through a virtual world built in the Second Life computer simulation. One of those virtual learning groups will use a computer simulation based on the real world; another will enable students to customize their virtual-environment situations.

According to Melinda Manore, project director and a professor of nutrition at Oregon State University, the participants in the virtual groups won’t have to report their progress because the researchers will be able to monitor them.

The five-year study is set to begin in June. Participants will be residents of Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. In addition to tracking how active participants are through their electronic monitors, the researchers will track the participants’ body mass index and their ability to follow USDA dietary recommendations.

Manore said the study organizers are trying to find the best way to interact with the students in the study.

“Kids are into technology, and they spend a lot of time with it, so we want to know if there is a way to tap into that and develop a program that can be used both at home and in the classroom to encourage healthy behavior,” Manore said.

Manore said they have not yet developed the simulations, but they envision a system where students can log in and practice behaviors they will use in the real world, such as ordering at a fast food restaurant. The system can give the participants immediate feedback on how successful they are in selecting healthier options and give them rewards for making good decisions.

Manore said participants will wear electronic monitors to measure their activity. By logging into the virtual world, they can track their results and set future goals.

Manore said they chose active teens because the research is focused on obesity prevention, not obesity treatment. She added many active teens believe they can eat whatever they want because they’ll burn it off.

“These youths are active now, but what happens when they don’t have a team sport to motivate them?” Manore said. “Many parents of active teens allow their kids to eat unhealthy food, because they don’t worry about their weight. This is about building healthy behavior that becomes part of their life.”

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