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.


Stop the (March) Madness for the Sake of Young Athletes

Within days, March Madness will take over the United States. Sixty-eight teams will compete in the NCAA Basketball Championship—one of the most thrilling tournaments in college sports. But some people are calling for an end to the madness, specifically the “exploitation” of the athletes.

This “exploitation” takes many forms. First, the athletes are completely unpaid – in fact, accepting any payment or gifts renders them ineligible. Yet, the NCAA’s football and basketball programs alone generate over $6 billion in annual revenue! At that rate, experts estimate that the average Duke University basketball player deserves $1,025,656/year. But instead, the money funds multi-million dollar contracts for coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA executives (Alabama’s head football coach made $7.1 million in 2014).

Such “unpaid labor” becomes more egregious when you consider the athletes’ work ethic. According to a 2011 NCAA survey, elite college athletes spend an average of 43.3 hours/week on their sport including practices, games, and travel. They also average 38 hours/week on academics, bringing their total workweek to 81 hours! This far exceeds many full-jobs and leaves little—if any—time for paid work.

As a further blow, most athletes have major expenses (tuition, accommodations, food etc). After all, only the most talented athletes win a full scholarship….and even then, they fall short $3000. Other athletes receive an average scholarship of $10,400 or nothing at all. Unfortunately, tapping trust funds is rarely an option, as many college athletes “come from poverty-stricken communities”. Consequently, according to the National College Players Association (NCPA), as astonishing 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line.

Of course, collegiate sports also take a toll on athletes’ bodies (not just their bank accounts). According to the New York Post, “nearly all who play football — and, increasingly, basketball, baseball and other sports — will experience wear and tear on their bodies that they may not have anticipated”. This includes brain injuries (from concussions), shattered bones, worn-out joints, and torn muscles, ligaments and tendons. Indeed, athletes “risk life-altering injuries [or death] every time they go on the field or court”.

In its defence, the NCAA notes that member schools give over $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships to 150,000 students annually. Some also provide tutoring and life skill training.

The NCAA itself offers funds for student assistance, academic enhancement, and training. It provides paid internships at its Indianapolis headquarters. It finances research into player wellness and safety. And for those unlucky athletes who sustain a catastrophic injury during play, the NCAA sponsors an insurance program.

But perhaps most importantly, in its view, the NCAA provides “opportunities and experiences“. By funding championships in 24 sports, the NCAA give players the exposure needed to “parlay their college records into offers from professional sports teams” (though this benefits only 1.2% of men’s basketball players and 1.6% of football players). The NCAA also enables athletes to play the sports they love and “enhance their overall college experience“.

As a former NCAA athlete, I agree that playing softball was greatly enriching. Some of my best college memories are of practicing at sunrise, traveling to Florida for spring training, and clinching the conference championship. But I can also attest to the financial struggles, long hours, and injuries of college athletes. For this reason, I think we must “go to bat” for athlete rights and interests.

To get the ball rolling, groups have advanced some creative ideas. The NCPA, among other things, has proposed that the NCAA use its $11 billion contract with CBS to provide “truly full” athletic scholarships. The money could also cover graduation bonuses to athletes who complete their degrees. Others have called for reduced contact during practices and an NCAA fund that athletes could access long after college, “when their injuries come back to bite them”. Finally, a group of Northwestern University football players (unsuccessfully) petitioned for the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

The ball is now in the NCAA’s court! If you want to support youth athletics, please give to our partners, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Tacoma Baptist Athletics, and Girls on the Run of Puget Sound.

The World Cup Round-Up: The Ugly Truth behind the Beautiful Game?

cart1World Cup action is officially underway in cities across Brazil. But amidst all the excitement, there are some troubling reports. According to eyewitnesses, stray dogs are being “rounded up and removed” by dogcatchers in host cities like Recife. And with little space to house the dogs, Humane Society International (HSI) fears an “organized extermination”.

Unfortunately, this is not the first case of alleged animal culling for a major sporting event. Recently, Russia came under fire for “eradicating” dogs in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Associated Press reported that Russian authorities hired pest control firm Basya Services to “rid the streets of Sochi of 2,000 stray dogs”. Similarly, in 2008, the Beijing government collected thousands of cats in advance of the Summer Olympics Games. The cats were purportedly crammed into cages and left to die in secretive government pounds on the edge of the city.

Wendy Higgins, communications director at Humane Society International, argues that the exterminations are “a knee-jerk reaction to prepare cities for the global spotlight.” Some city officials believe that strays will overrun the streets, distressing visitors and hurting the city’s “clean” and “welcoming” atmosphere. Others fear that a stray dog or cat might “wander into an…event”, as during a rehearsal at Sochi’s Fischt Stadium. In the words of one official, “God forbid something like this happen[ed] at the actual opening ceremony…it [would] be a disgrace for the whole country.”

But culling stray dogs and cats is not only inhumane – it “does not solve the issue of overpopulation”. The real solution, according to animal welfare groups, is mass sterilization. In the words of Alexandra Rothlisberger, Senior Program Manager for HSI Latin America, “Long-term sterilization and vaccination are the only street dog management methods that effectively address the issue”. Given this reality, the HSI has sent a letter to Recife’s mayor urging him to implement a subsidized sterilization program. HSI is also supporting Brazilian animal organizations offering spaying and neutering services.

Of course, sterilization will not immediately reduce the stray population. Rather, it is a long-term solution to the overpopulation problem. Thus, in the interim, opening or expanding animal shelters is necessary. In Sochi, for example, numerous animal charities “stepped in” to create extra space. Dog lover and billionaire Oleg Diripaska also famously “fund[ed] a dog shelter close to the city, on the Black Sea”.

To learn more about animal welfare, and how you can help, please contact Humane Society International, The Fuzzy Pets Foundation, or our partners: the Animal House Shelter, City Dog Rescue, or the Austin Humane Society.

Flickr photo credit: Karunaker Rayker


Striking Out: Youth Participation in Team Sports Declining

footballIn the coming weeks, summer sports leagues will kick off across the United States. Children and teenagers will take to the fields, diamonds, and courts. But don’t expect to see as many as in past years. According to recent data, youth participation in America’s most popular team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball, and football—has fallen. In fact, it fell by roughly 4% between 2008 and 2012.

By sport, football participation rates dropped by 2.3% at the high school level and by 4.9% for ages 6 – 14. Basketball rates dropped by 1.8% at the high school level and by 6.3% for ages 6 – 14. Baseball rates modestly increased (by 0.3%) at the high-school level, but dropped by 6.8% in Little League. Finally, soccer rates stagnated, despite large gains in recent decades.

To explain these trends, some cite economic factors. They argue that the costs of sports are increasing, while many families and schools are cutting expenses. This has led families to delay or limit their children’s participation in sports, and has reduced physical education programs.

Others suggest that the cause is increasing pressure on youth to become elite athletes. Such pressure has contributed to a rise in single sport specialization (facilitated by year-round leagues in many states). It has also prompted zealous parents and coaches to overwork young athletes, to the point that “the sport is [no longer] fun”.

On a related note, young athletes today have “too many other options” for amusement.  “Social networking, video games, and other technology” are just a few. In the words of one Athletic Director, “Kids are more trained now to stay at home and play videogames. Sports don’t intrigue them.”

Lastly, some point to growing concerns about physical injuries. Pop Warner’s chief medical official, for example, believes that head injuries are the main reason behind the drop in football participation. In recent years, these injuries have received significant media attention. Even this blog has featured a post about rising concussion rates in youth sports.

Whatever the reason, the decline in team sport participation among youth could have considerable implications. After all, sports are “an antidote to growing problems like youth obesity”, which has doubled in children and quadrupled in teens over the last 30 years. Furthermore, according to the President of the American College of Sports Medicine, “it is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood [will] remain active into their adulthood”. Team sports also promote social interaction and strengthen key skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to boost youth participation in team sports. To begin, parents can enroll their children in several sports, since “very few [such as gymnastics and figure skating] require athletes to specialize before the age of 10”. Parents should select the sports based on the children’s interests. They should also seek teams with narrow age ranges, as children close in age will have “similar physical, social, and cognitive development” and will generally “get along better”.

In addition, parents and coaches can help make team sports fun for young athletes. They can reduce pressure by “help[ing] kids set realistic goals—such as achieving a personal best”.  They can attend matches and cheer from the sidelines, regardless of the children’s performance. And they can integrate fun games (e.g. tag or frisbee) into warm-ups or practices.

Finally, anyone can donate to youth sports organizations. Such organizations include the Kids 4 Sports Foundation, Kids in the Game, and our partners, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Tacoma Baptist Athletics, and the Palm Beach Sharks. Please donate today!

Flickr Photo Credit

Melting Away? The Future of the Winter Olympic Games

winter olympicsThis weekend, the 2014 Winter Olympics will launch in Sochi, Russia. The event will involve 2800 athletes competing in 15 disciplines. It will also air in over 200 countries to an audience of 3.8 billion people, making it one of the largest cultural celebrations on earth.

But Winter Olympics in places like Sochi may soon be a thing of the past. In fact, according to a report from the University of Waterloo, only 11 of the 19 winter Olympic cities could reliably host the games by 2050. This number drops to only 6 cities (or less than 1/3) by the end of the century.

The culprit is climate change. The IPCC projects that the average February temperatures of the winter Olympic cities will rise by 1.9 – 2.1° Celsius by 2050 and 2.7 – 4.4° Celsius by 2100. As a result, many of the cities will lack the necessary conditions for Olympic events in over 25% of winters. These conditions, as defined by the University of Waterloo, are a snowpack of 30+ cm at high elevations and daily minimum temperatures below 0° Celsius (allowing snow and ice surfaces to recover from daytime melt).

The reality has forced “Olympic organizing committees, sporting federations, and the IOC to continually develop and refine strategies to reduce the risks of adverse weather”. Current strategies include scaling up snowmaking machines, refrigerating bobsled and luge tracks, moving events indoors, and stockpiling snow. But future strategies may include more extreme measures, such as cloud seeding (or spraying silver iodide into the atmosphere to encourage precipitation). Popular skiing destinations in Idaho and Nevada are already using the practice to increase snowpack.

However, in the words of Daniel Scott, an associate professor at Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, “There are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with. By the middle of this century, these limits will be surpassed in some former Winter Olympic host regions.”

Thus, a more dependable solution is to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change. For its part, the International Olympic Committee has “amended the Olympic Charter to include a binding commitment to sustainable development”. It has also worked with host cities to mitigate and offset emissions (e.g. through energy efficient infrastructure, reforestation etc). Now, the 200+ Olympic member nations must show similar dedication, both through national and international actions. Otherwise, we may need to start preparing for North Pole 2090.

To learn more about climate change and its impacts, please contact the Climate Reality Project, 350.org, or the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Flickr Photo Credit

The Dizzying Rise of Concussion Rates in Athletics

footWith the NFL and NHL seasons well underway, concussions have returned to the national spotlight. In fact, in the last week alone, at least five pro athletes in the US sustained concussions during play.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a “bump, blow, or jolt to the head”. As the brain does not completely fill the skull, the brain “rebounds off of the front or the back side of the cranial cavity” resulting in bruising or shearing. Immediate symptoms can include headache, confusion, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, fatigue, and – in 10% of cases – loss of consciousness.  Long-term symptoms are more serious and include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, sleep disturbance, irritability, and depression.

According to studies, concussion-related hospitalizations have risen significantly in recent years – particularly among youth. Experts offer several possible explanations. First, on a positive note, concussion diagnosis has improved: “People are recognizing the signs and symptoms [and] are more aware of the complications. So people are coming in more.” This enhanced awareness may stem from educational campaigns or increased media attention on concussion-related deaths and injury among professional and varsity athletes

Matthew Gfeller Foundation
Others maintain that concussions are actually increasing in frequency. In the words of one expert, “Children today are bigger and faster and the increased weight and velocity may also be causing more of these injuries”. More youth are also participating in organized sports, which “tend to be more intense in terms of practice and competition”. Finally, the rising culture of “staying quiet when injured and getting back in the game”, may be exacerbating head injuries.

To treat concussions, the American Academy of Pediatrics advise patients to “restrict both physical and mental exertion” (including schoolwork, playing video games, and watching TV) “until symptoms have resolved”. This generally takes a few weeks, however, “symptoms of a severe injury could persist for months or even years”. In severe cases, doctors may also perform surgery to relieve brain pressure from swelling.

Unfortunately, options for preventing concussions are limited. While wearing helmets can reduce skull fractures and lacerations, it cannot stop the brain from “rattling around” in the skull. Instead, medical professionals encourage athletes (especially those with multiple past concussions) to retire from contact sports completely. But this may soon change. Research suggests that there may be ways to increase the volume of the cerebral venous system, creating a sort of “bubble wrap” effect. This naturally occurs in woodpeckers, longhorn sheep, and potentially humans at high altitudes (where concussion rates are 30% lower).

To learn more about concussions, or to support concussion awareness, please contact the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, the Brain Trauma Foundation, or our partners, the Brain Injury Association of Tennessee and the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

Flickr Photo Credit: John McStravick

Op4G's Volunteer of the Month: JP Borderleau!

hockeyOp4G’s Volunteer of the Month is JP Borderleau! Since 1999, JP has volunteered as a coach for the Chicago Tomahawks – a youth special needs hockey program and member of the American Special Hockey Association.

The program offers weekly hockey practices and games to 70 special needs players in the Chicago area. Furthermore, once a year, the program sends players to a national hockey festival for individuals of all physical and mental abilities.

JP’s motivation to coach grew from his love of hockey and his desire to help his community, particularly the youth population. In his words, “The most rewarding benefits for youth’s participation in sports is the increased confidence they gain out of the rink or gym”.

JP’s passion for sports, fitness, and helping others also extends beyond his coaching. In his day-to-day life, he is the joint owner of Precision Multisport in Evanston, Illinois. The company offers everything from personal training to group workouts, helping adults reach their personal health goals.

If you’d like to recognize an Op4G member and volunteer from your community, please contact support@op4g.com.

Flickr photo credit: clyde