Pokemon Go gets Us Going

Have you noticed throngs of people roaming your city with their eyes fixed on their smart phones? They congregate at landmarks and, from time to time, let out cheers of excitement. Chances are they are playing Pokémon Go, the latest video game craze!

The game, available on Apple and Android phones, guides players to local sites using GPS technology. At some sites, players can capture virtual Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) displayed on their phones over real-world locations. At Pokéstops, they can find useful items and Poké eggs, which hatch into Pokémon after the player walks 2 – 10 km. Finally, at “gyms”, they can train and battle their Pokémon. The objective is to catch and “evolve” as many types of Pokémon as possible.

Within days of its release on July 6, this “augmented reality” game topped the US App Store. It surpassed Tinder and Twitter in terms of installs and daily active users, respectively. Furthermore, it increased Nintendo’s market value by over $7 billion!

But Pokémon Go is not just benefiting the Japanese company. Doctors believe it is also boosting the health of the game’s ~21 million players. As described above, Pokémon Go forces players to walk extensively throughout their community. According to Jawbone, the average user’s daily step count rose from 6,000 to nearly 11,000 steps in the weekend following the game’s release.

Professor Matt Hoffman can testify: “I’ve spent an hour or two at a time venturing around the community to find Pokéstops. There’s no doubt about it, I am exercising more as a result of playing the game”. In many cases, such exercise replaces detrimental activities, like sitting for extended periods and smoking/drinking to “de-stress”.

In addition to the obvious physical benefits, Pokémon Go is also enhancing the mental health of some users. For people with anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia, it provides “motivation to go outside and explore the world” as well as “a distraction from their fears and inner monologue”. In the words of one user, “I walked outside for hours and suddenly found myself enjoying it. I had the instant rush of dopamine whenever I caught a Pokémon and I wanted to keep going”.

Moreover, unlike most video games, Pokémon Go brings players together in real life (at Pokéstops, gyms etc). Players can interact and discuss their mutual desire to “catch ‘em all”. The result is a “sense of belonging, which can have a positive impact on our emotional and mental health”. This is especially true for individuals will social phobia or autism.

Of course, players should exercise common sense when playing the game. They should follow heat and outdoor safety precautions and avoid walking to dark, isolated places—especially in light of recent robberies. Also, they should look up! Already, several players have landed in the ER after falling into ditches, tripping on curbs, and walking into objects while glued to their phones.

In sum, Pokémon Go is more than a mere video game. It is a “catalyst” for physical activity, a “healthy habit motivator”, and a true community. “If it’s not just a fad”, says Dr. Bhardwaj, “these health benefits are going to be quite significant”.

Want to improve health outcomes for you or your family? Try Pokémon Go and contact Healthy Lifestyle Choices, Shape Up America!, Action for Healthy Kids, Girls on the Run, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and the YMCA.