'Pokémon Go' Players May Double Their Daily Step Counts

Pokémon Go creates an augmented reality experience. The game allows users to see characters bouncing around in their own town. (Image credit: Matthew Corley / Shutterstock)

The doctor's orders are in: Catch a Pokémon a day. The popular smartphone game "Pokémon Go" can increase people's physical activity and appears to be particularly beneficial for overweight players, according to a new study.

"Pokémon Go" is an augmented-reality game —it lays an image over a user's view of the real world. And to "catch" the Pokémon that a user sees in an image, he or she must move around in the real world. With their smartphone camera on, players find virtual animated creatures hiding in random corners of streets.

Following the huge success of the game since its release in July 2016, many have wondered whether the app also offers health benefits by dragging people out of their houses for a walk around the neighborhood. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)]

"'Pokémon Go' is probably one of the most popular mobile games in history," Hanzhang Xu, a graduate student at Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, told Live Science. "It has great potential to promote physical activity, but very few studies have examined this question."

Xu and her colleagues gathered data from 167 iPhone users who had played "Pokémon Go" in July 2016. The users provided information about the number of steps they took each day, using the step count that is automatically stored in the iPhone Health app.  

The results showed that players were twice as likely to reach 10,000 daily steps — the recommended minimum daily activity — after they began playing "Pokémon Go." The percentage of days in which they walked more than 10,000 steps increased to 27.5 percent after they began playing, up from 15.3 percent before they started to play "Pokémon Go."

The study participants' average daily step counts increased by about 2,000, bringing the average daily step counts for all participants to about 7,700.

The gains were larger for the participants who were more sedentary or overweight before they started playing the game, suggesting that these groups benefit the most from playing the game. [Exercise and Weight Loss: The Science of Preserving Muscle Mass]

"For example, individuals with the lowest physical activity level at baseline, [and those who were ] overweight or obese, walked around 3,000 additional steps per day: That is almost double their physical activity from the baseline," said Xu, who presented the results today (March 8) at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention / Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2017 scientific sessions.

Although the gains from playing the game are not as impressive as those that people might get from doing an intense workout at the gym, the average increase of 2,000 additional steps per day may have tangible benefits. Previous research suggests that an increase of 2,000 steps per day lowers the risk of heart attack or stroke event by 8 percent in high-risk individuals.

It is possible, however, that the increase in physical activity after they start playing "Pokémon Go" may dwindle over time, the researchers said. Nevertheless, the results seen with "Pokémon Go" suggest that mobile games may have a better chance of promoting an active lifestyle than simply telling people to walk more might have.

"Lack of enjoyment and lack of time are the most common reasons for not being physically active," Xu said. "We believe our study could have implications for the design of other digital health interventions that encourage people to exercise more."

Original article on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.