Hey Candy Crush addicts, those super-fast reflexes you’ve been developing can finally be put to use — with a game that research shows can actually help you lose weight.
Scientists from the University of Exeter and Cardiff University in the UK have created an online computer game that they say can help train people to resist unhealthy foods. Here’s how it works: You have to repeatedly avoid pressing images of certain items (like cookies) while responding to other images (like fruit and clothes). The end result, researchers say, is that you’re trained to associate unhealthy foods with “stopping” — consequently avoiding them more in real life.
It may sound too good to be true, but their research has found it actually works on some people. The study, published in the journal Appetite , included more than 80 adults. Those who played the game lost an average of 1.5 pounds a week and ate 220 fewer calories a day. Study participants also reported that they didn’t like the foods that they were trained to associate with “stopping” as much as they did before playing the game.
Cognitive neuroscientist and lead study researcher Natalia Lawrence, PhD, has been researching the concept for five years and tells Yahoo Health she’s happy it so easily translated from the lab into real life. “I was surprised that people lost weight in such a short period of time — some colleagues suggested this wouldn’t happen,” she explains.
While most people aren’t exactly clamoring to go on a weight-loss plan, 88 percent of study participants said they would be happy to keep playing the game and would even recommend it to a friend.
But how can pressing keys on a keyboard (or not, for that matter) have such an impact on what we eat? According to Lawrence, the regions of our brain that are associated with reward are also linked to movement. Therefore, training yourself to avoid pressing a key when you see certain foods can make you feel less of a reward with regard to that food.
Worth noting: The study only included people who said they were regular snackers and had some issues with controlling how much they ate, so more research is needed to determine whether it works for everyone.
Lawrence also points out that the study was conducted over a short period of time, so researchers currently aren’t sure what impact the game may have on a person’s overall eating habits.
Orlando-based psychologist Alan D. Keck, PsyD, says that given what we know about human behavior, the findings make sense. “There are two common behavior-change processes going on at the same time in this game, and both have been found to be effective,” he tells Yahoo Health.
The first — having people choose healthy foods — is typically the most effective for changing someone’s behavior, he says, because it focuses more on what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do. When we’re told not to do something (like don’t eat a bag of cookies), we typically do it anyway, he says.
The second — repeated exposure to bad foods and resisting them — is a tactic that is often used with people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Keck says: “Every time you avoid the behavior, the impulse to have your usual response to it gets a little bit weaker.”
Lawrence is hopeful that with more research and tweaking, the game could eventually be a new way to help people lose weight. “I think this approach is one promising tool that could help to control cravings,” she says.