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Pokemon Go boosts physical activity, particularly among those who need it the most

Wednesday, May 24, 2017
By Will Alexander

Games like Pokémon Go promote modest increases physical activity and may act as a “gateway drug” for exercise for people who aren’t usually active, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). The study followed nearly 200 adult participants before and after the release of the smartphone-based game. Players walked an extra 2,000 steps (almost half a mile) on average a day while playing. More importantly, increases in physical activity were highest among individuals who stood most to benefit from additional activity, such as individuals who are overweight or obese, or who get little regular exercise to begin with.

Pokémon Go is a smartphone app that allows players to capture Pokémon, or virtual creatures with names like Pikachu, Gyarados, and Spearow. Released in the summer of 2016, the game uses GPS to match the player’s in-game location with a corresponding location in the real world, and rewards walking or cycling both indirectly (by offering access to virtual rewards and Pokémon) and directly (by hatching new Pokémon from eggs for traveling certain distances).

The findings reveal Pokémon Go’s potential both as a primary and secondary form of exercise. In the study, the percentage of people walking 10,000 steps a day--about four miles a day, easily enough to meet the recommended daily 30 minutes of moderate physical activity--almost doubled, from 15 to 27 percent. Increases in physical activity were highest for individuals over 30 years old (3300 additional daily steps), people who were overweight or obese (3000 additional steps), and who had low baseline activity levels (2900 additional steps). The full article in JAHA is available here.

This screenshot of Pokémon Go shows virtual characters and "Pokestops" laid over a map of Duke's campus.

“The best form of physical activity is the one that people will do, not necessarily the ones that have the highest energy expenditure,” said Ying Xian, MD, PhD, who wrote the study along with colleagues at the Duke Clinical Research Institute. “Even if marathon runners or regular joggers won’t benefit much from Pokémon Go, the game provides an alternative way to engage people who live in a sedentary lifestyle and otherwise would never participate in any traditional form of exercise.”

Xian noted that the additional 2,000 average steps, if applied to high-risk groups, would reduce the annual risk for a heart attack or stroke by roughly eight percent. That reduction, applied to even a fraction of the millions of people at risk, could prevent thousands of deaths and save millions of dollars in health-care costs a year.

There are limitations to the findings: participants self-selected to join the study, so they don’t represent the U.S. population as a whole, and Xian and colleagues were unable to follow-up with participants to see how long they kept up their habits. In addition, the popularity of Pokémon Go has declined since its peak last summer, though it still has 65 million monthly users, according to a recent Business Insider article.

Whatever its benefits for physical activity, Pokémon Go offers its own rewards for its fans. Kim Stahl, a Chapel Hill-based IT policy manager, has traveled more than 700 kilometers with the game since its release last summer, and continues to play on a regular basis. For Stahl, a third-degree black belt who hits the gym two to three times a week, any extra Pokémon-based activity is a welcome by-product of a chance to see the world in a new light.

“Pokémon Go makes life more interesting. It gets me to go out my way and see bits of art, interesting buildings, and historical sites--things I never would have noticed before,” Stahl said.

Pokemon Go and associated images are ©2016 Niantic, Inc. and Nintendo.