Health clubs might have a new and unconventional rival to fear: virtual gyms. Indiana University researchers recently conducted a study and found that participants who watched virtual versions of themselves working out lost just as much weight during a 12-week period as those who worked out in an actual gym.

Participants spent at least four hours per week in a real or virtual gym and learned about nutrition, physical activity, changing habits and how to benefit from social support. Members of both groups lost an average of 10 pounds and had similar decreases in body fat.

Those exercising virtually could watch their likenesses work out with the help of a trainer, using a weight loss program called Club One Island on Second Life, an interactive 3D virtual reality site that allows users to create avatars.

“It's counterintuitive, the idea of being more active in a virtual world, but the activities that they do in a virtual world can carry over into the real world,” says assistant professor Jeanne Johnston, who led the study.

Although the weight-loss results were the same, the study found an interesting difference between the two groups. Members of the group that exercised virtually reported positive changes in behaviors such as healthy eating and physical activity, whereas the participants who worked out in a real gym reported no changes.

“The virtual world program was at least as beneficial as the face-to-face program and in some ways, more effective,” Johnston says. “It has the potential to reach people who normally wouldn't go to a gym or join a program because of limitations, such as time or discomfort with a fitness center environment.”

“It takes away that barrier of ‘a club isn't right for me,’” says Celeste DeVaneaux, CEO of Club One Island. Many members of the virtual club have found that they enjoy moving again and work out in real life while their avatars exercise on the computer, she adds.

Initially, some traditional health club operators had concerns that the site would take away business, but the opposite seems to be happening. DeVaneaux says she has heard of many members joining fitness facilities after using the program because they feel more comfortable working out after watching their avatars do it.

“I think it will drive more members to traditional health clubs than it will ever take away,” she says.