Expert Opinion

How Pokémon GO has the potential to benefit your health

In this blog post, Matthew Hobbs, PhD Candidate in obesity and the environment and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Sport, Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett University, explores the recent success of Pokémon GO and its unexpected importance for physical activity and health.

For those who haven’t already heard about the Pokémon GO app you will have soon. Pokémon GO is an updated version of the 1996 Nintendo game in which players, catch, train and battle creatures called Pokémon. The only difference is that now they are required to go outside to do it – to the park, forests, the local community centre and other key landmarks. As stated on the official Pokémon website, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game that challenges users to find and catch Pokémon characters in their real world surroundings. As the gamer moves around their smartphone vibrates to let them know they are near a Pokémon. The app is only (officially) available in the US, Australia and New Zealand however as the figures below show it has caught on more quickly than the developers could have imagined. The app was released on the 6th July 2016 and by the 8th July 2016 was already installed on more US android phones than Tinder. By the time you read this it will more than likely have more users than the well-established social network of Twitter.

As with any success comes some criticism and negative attention which of course the app has also received which I will discuss briefly. The app inherently warns players to be aware of their surroundings during their virtual treasure hunt. However, individuals have ended up trespassing, in hospital or in a more serious twist of events the game led a teenager to the discovery of a dead body in a river in the US.  The unintended health benefits? Despite these considerations, there is also one other unintentional outcome that its makers may not have anticipated: people are moving more and getting outside. I have witnessed this phenomena first hand – one friend downloaded the app Sunday evening at 9pm and by Tuesday evening at 9pm he had already accumulated 5km walking the streets (according to his Garmin Vivosmart HR activity monitor).

At present the evidence we have that users are more active is anecdotal but I will let you make your own mind up if you search for the hashtag #PokemonGO. So what is the evidence for Pokémon GO increasing physical activity - the app most certainly seems to be encouraging physical activity in the short term. Importantly, it also seems to be encouraging physical activity in individuals who may not always venture outside for physical activity. However, from a public health perspective it is not clear if this short term success will translate to long lasting health benefits and behaviour change. Indeed, a recent systematic review (Norris et al. 2016) assessing the impact of active video games on physical activity in schools suggested the evidence of using active video games for physical activity was mixed.

What are the potential health benefits of Pokémon GO?

Despite this mix of evidence and potential disadvantages, Pokémon GO may be good for your health for several different reasons:

1)     Increases in physical activity  Accumulating more physical activity will mean you are more likely to meet the government’s health guidance for 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity five times per week. This is associated with reduced chance of all-cause mortality, metabolic health issues such as type 2 diabetes and some cancers (Department of Health, 2011).

2)     Increased contact with nature and the outdoors Empirical evidence demonstrates that contact with nature (potentially encountered when gaming) positively affects blood pressure, cholesterol, outlook on life, stress reduction, and behavioural issues among children (Keniger et al. 2013).

3)     Green space vs. screen space Given that green space has been replaced by ―screen space in children’s free time this may be an important opportunity to reconnect young people with nature, their built environment and to get them outdoors albeit with a Pokémon as the motivation (Keniger et al. 2013).

4)     Obesity Pokémon GO is not the answer to the obesity epidemic as some individuals have proposed. Physical activity is certainly a piece of the wider jigsaw and physical activity has been shown to be important for weight maintenance (keeping the weight off once the weight has initially been lost). However, weight loss and maintenance varies greatly by each individual (Swift et al. 2014).  

 The Pokémon GO paradox Computer games and screen time are associated with a range of unhealthy outcomes such as poorer dietary quality, being bullied, less physical activity, skipping school, alcohol use and unhealthy eating habits (Busch et al. 2013 and Hobbs et al. 2014). However, Pokémon GO may have challenged that trend at least in the short term with anecdotal increases in physical activity. It is important that there remains no scientific evidence that has shown increases in physical activity. However, from a personal perspective it will be interesting to follow its progress to see how the app progresses when it is officially released in the UK; watch this space!    

Busch, V., Manders, L, A., de Leeuw ,J, R. (2013) Screen time associated with health behaviours and outcomes in adolescents.American Journal of Health Behaviour, 37: 819-830. Hobbs, M., Pearson, N., Foster, P, J., and Biddle, S. (2014) Sedentary behaviour and diet across the lifespan: an updated systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Keniger, L., Gaston, K., Irvine, K., Fuller, R. (2013) What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10, pp.913-935. Swift DL, Johannsen NM, Lavie CJ, et al. (2014) The Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Weight Loss and Maintenance. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases 56: 441-447.   

Matthew Hobbs

Matthew Hobbs is a PhD Candidate at Leeds Beckett University studying the built environment and its relationship with obesity. He is also a Lecturer in Physical Activity, Exercise and Health at Leeds Trinity University.