Get up and Pokémon GO, but watch your step

August 12, 2016 Providence Health Team

This post originally appeared in HealthCalling, a blog and news site for St. Joseph Health.

If you’ve seen more people than usual walking around with their heads bent over their smartphones, or wondered just what a Jigglypuff or Squirtle is, then you’ve encountered the Pokémon GO phenomenon.

This “augmented reality” game—in which a player tracks down digital cartoon Pokémon characters using the phone’s GPS system and camera—is a fad that’s as hot as the summer weather. In the first five days after its July release, Pokémon GO notched 7.5 million downloads in the United States alone, and brought in more than $1 million each day to creators Nintendo and Niantic, according to Forbes.

It’s also the latest example of how digital games can help get people moving, says Michael Stouder, M.D., a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group.

“Parents can appreciate games such as Pokémon GO because they defy the stereotype that playing video games is a sedentary activity. Instead of sitting on the couch or hunched over a computer, players are up and moving,” Dr. Stouder says. “And in the case of Pokémon GO, you have to go outside to play. Being active outdoors can be great physical activity for your kids.”

Games to get you moving

Pokémon GO is the latest in a line of interactive digital gaming that puts an emphasis on the “active.” “Exergaming” dates back to the 1980s, when exercise equipment was often hooked up to a gaming system. In the late 1990s, Dance Dance Revolution came out, which required players to copy the game’s moves to boost their scores. And in the past decade, there’s been a steady increase in these types of interactive games.

Nintendo introduced the Wii gaming system, which allowed users to move around their living rooms while playing games that focus on dance, golf, tennis, bowling and other activities. Other home video game companies, such as Sony and Microsoft, followed suit. Augmented reality phone apps have also been on the rise over the past few years, though none have matched the popularity of Pokémon GO.

Gateway to regular exercise

“While it’s certainly more beneficial to move around while playing a video game rather than sitting still, it shouldn’t take the place of regular exercise, as studies differ on whether these games offer enough intensity in a workout,” Dr. Stouder says. “However, if a parent has a child who needs encouragement when it comes to getting enough physical activity, these games could be a good gateway to exercising more. For instance, in Pokémon GO, a player can get eggs that only hatch into Pokémon characters after the person has walked a certain distance, such as a 5K.”

Dr. Stouder says a child may be more eager to walk to accomplish the game's objective, and more willing to walk even when not playing the game. But he cautions players to use good, common sense to avoid injury.

Use caution when playing

The Wall Street Journal reports that cellphones are responsible for an estimated 10 percent of all pedestrian injuries each year and gaming apps can be a big distraction.

“Already, there have been reports of Pokémon GO players tripping and falling, or narrowly avoiding being hit by a car or falling off a subway platform, because they’re not watching where they are walking,” Dr. Stouder says.

“Users should get in the habit of looking up frequently from their phones while walking, and putting phones down when crossing streets or getting near traffic. For children especially, the game should be played in a familiar environment away from traffic and on flat, even terrain. Catching a Pikachu isn’t worth it if a person ends up losing their step and spraining an ankle or breaking a bone.”

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