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The Pokémon GO Craze Had Health Benefits—For a Little While

Though avid players walked about 11 extra minutes per day, the boost only lasted around six weeks

(George Clerk via iStock)
smithsonian.com

The augmented reality game Pokémon Go spread like wildfire during July and August of 2016, and the medical community was enthused. Players prowled the real world while searching for these virtual monsters, leading many to believe that it was a new and exciting way to get an increasingly sedentary population moving.

In an editorial in the British Medical Journal in August, Dr. Margaret McCarthy wrote “The possibilities for apps to make the streets an active, reclaimed playground in which to have interconnected fun are boundless. Increased physical activity is a tantalizing side-effect. Game on.”

But until now, researchers hadn't scientifically investigated the craze and the claims that the game will help Poké-catchers get active, reports Nicola Davis at The Guardian. The study, published in the BMJ's Christmas edition, suggests that the activity boost wasn’t quite as much or as long-lasting as they’d hoped. On average, Pokémon players added about 11 minutes of walking to their regimen compared to people who never downloaded the app.

These numbers came from participants in United States and Sweden between the ages of 18 and 35. This included 560 die-hard Pokemon players and 622 who never downloaded the app. Using data from the players' iPhones, they determined average number of steps per day before and after they began playing the game. They compared this count to non-platers iPhone-recorded step count.

“It is very objective data," Katherine Howe, lead author of the study, tells Davis. "It wasn’t self-reported so we really had an accurate reading of how many steps the users and non-users of the game walked." 

But the Poké-boost did not last long. The researchers note that the increase in steps tailed off after about six weeks, writes Karen Kaplan at The L.A. Times. In fact, that pattern jibes with what Christian Suharlim, a co-author of the paper and research associate at Harvard’s Center for Health Decision Science, experienced while playing the game. He and Howe conceived of their study when the two became obsessed with the game over the summer, and realized they were walking much more than usual. But Kaplan reports they burned out after about a month of playing.

But just because Pokémon GO was not the health-revolution some people hoped for doesn’t mean it isn’t a good start.“There is a huge potential for augmented reality games to be beneficial for our health—they give us a reason to go outside, walk and socialize,” Howe tells Davis. “So I think there is a huge potential to develop these games to not only increase physical activity but also boost mental wellbeing, mood and social interaction for people of all ages.”

Then again, there are some health risks associated with augmented reality games as well. Another study that appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine in September reported that the Pokémon GO caused around 10,000 instances of distracted driving per day, putting players at risk for injury or death. In fact, the game led to several shootings and fatal car accidents.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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