Pokemon Go! - And Games That Are Good For Your Health

The growing trend in technology designed to foster healthier lifestyles shows no sign of slowing down. Popular gadgets, video games, phone apps, and other games attempt to encourage people be more active and make better eating choices. The latest craze for smartphones is an app called Pokemon GO. Based on the Japanese franchise, the game motivates users to get out of their house and walk around to “capture” pokemon, which are fictional creatures lurking in the real world, and train them for mini “battles”. Although this augmented reality smartphone game has only recently been launched, it is wildly popular and already a force to be reckoned with. AppInstitute boldly proclaimed that “Pokemon GO is the biggest US mobile game ever,” with nearly 75 million daily users in the U.S. alone, and gaining momentum globally. With an average of about 40 minutes, users spend more time on the game than any other mobile app, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Not surprisingly, that may be because the appeal of the game extends beyond age, with users between the ages of 12 to over 40 years old.

So what does the craziness of Pokemon GO mean to us from a health perspective? Many users report unexpected side effects of playing such as increased physical activity, increased social engagement, and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Other possible health benefits also include improved fitness, increased hydration, and changes in eating habits, leading to users to shed some extra weight. The game itself is not a health app, but rather it motivates users to change their usual behaviors. It encourages users to walk outside for long distances (2km, 5km, or 10km) to hatch eggs. Although this game is fun and sets challenging goals to complete, it is more of a supplement to regular exercising. The Centers for Disease Control recommends about 2 ½ hours (150 minutes) a week of physical activity for adults, and this game provides that added incentive for people to walk outside instead of binge watching shows on Netflix. It is an important stepping stone for personal motivation towards long term exercising and healthier lifestyles. Years of research validate the extensive benefits to the body with each additional hour of physical activity. CDC states that implementing physical activity such as walking in your daily routine can improve your overall health and minimize the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Some users claim that the game has helped them tip the scales since the game has launched by losing 10 pounds to nearly 20 pounds. Studies from Washington University’s Nutritional Science Department show that losing even 5% of body weight can result in immediate improvements in blood pressure, blood sugar, and respiration. Weight loss has significant effects on the body, positively impacting nearly all organ systems. In the musculoskeletal system, weight loss can result in increased muscle contraction, reduced muscle fatigue, improved bone density, all of which reduces the risk of fractures. Additionally, in the cardiac and respiratory systems, improved circulation, increased breathing rate and volume, improvements in forced vital capacity are also evident after losing weight. Even more so, the long term benefits include a stronger immune system that would provide defenses against infections.  

An additional health benefit of using the app involves social engagement which may protect against symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. In particular, the Gym feature of the app enables the player to gather at designated battle arenas with the intention of defending and winning against other strong Pokemon. The incentive to win, along with the physical motivation to get up and move allows players to meet new people and build on relationships with common interests and experiences. This social component of the game may help individuals protect against common symptoms of depression such as social withdrawal and anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health recommends a combination of both exercise and social engagement to protect against depressive symptoms. Pokemon Go users may alleviate experiences of depression and anxiety by forming new friendships or feeling motivated to get out of bed and interact with their world. And for the users who don’t battle in fierce arenas or fight against other Pokemon, simply talking about new experiences involved with the game is a fun, healthy way to motivate users to simply talk to each other.

Social anxiety and self esteem issues can be reduced through Pokemon Go, but another added element can aid in mitigating those experiences as well. The option to date other users with whom you share a common interest: catching Pokemon. Project FixUp created a platform for Pokemon Go users to sign up to meet other users, pushing for more in-person interaction, versus other online dating apps such as Tinder or Plenty of Fish. Project FixUp’s “Pokedates” is another innovative way for people to venture out of their comfort zones and try something different, if they choose.

While Pokemon Go has various beneficial elements, with promise for better health outcomes, users should be wary of certain usage behaviors. Players should not use the app while driving or in dangerous locations, such as highways or deserted areas. Remaining attentive while playing Pokemon Go is urged when the app starts, however it is important that users stay vigilant to avoid any kind of accidents.

In fact, to promote optimal Pokemon Go habits and shed light on the game’s advantages, here are some anecdotes from our writers at NYC Pain Specialists.

“Sometimes there are days when I feel overwhelmed as a graduate student,” says Kashfia Haque, “Since I started playing the game I’m much more motivated to go out for long walks, and I noticed that I feel significantly less stressed and anxious than before. The only major change was that I was walking outside for an additional 5 miles a day now.” Yet there were times when she admits that the game was distracting her from paying attention to her surroundings. Kashfia says that “I wasn’t looking up from my phone often enough and I walked straight into a pole! That’s when I realized I probably shouldn’t keep staring at my phone all the time”.    

Tazin has had a similar experience, stating that “anyone who knows me knows that I hate to run. But I was sitting with my sister by Central Park trying to catch some Pokemon when I saw a huge herd of people running across the street. It was a mad dash for a Snorlax, one of the rarer Pokemon to catch in the game. My sister and I figured that someone was using one of the hack websites to find the Pokemon, but we were too tired and sweaty to join the crowd. Or so we thought. The next herd started running about half an hour later and her and I joined in - my sister with her sprained ankle and me with my flat feet - just to try to catch a Dragonite (a very rare pokemon). It was wild, but I don’t regret taking that jog in the hopes that I would have a special Pokemon in my collection.”

Yet the news stories about players getting into dangerous situations do not appear to diminish the game’s overwhelming popularity and the health benefits for individual players. As time went on from the game’s launch, less players are as engaged with the game. Even as the initial craze dies down, the game’s ability to motivate players to change their habits into positive behaviors such as becoming more active and meeting new people remains evident for veteran players as well as for new players. Pokemon GO reminds us that motivation to engage in healthy habits like being more active and socializing can come from unexpected places.