Jessica Harvath, Ph.D.

Our Better Selves

Why Pokémon Go Is the Future of Fitness

The game's addictive format helps players forget they're exercising.

Posted Jul 13, 2016

A group of pale teenagers huddle together in the parking lot, craning necks at cell phones.  Just beyond, down the path in my neighborhood park, an adolescent girl walks alongside her friend and gestures at her phone, explaining how to obtain Pokéballs.  The park, typically sleepy on a Wednesday afternoon, is weekend crowded with people staring at screens—people who, like 27 percent of Americans, might describe themselves as completely inactive.

Poké Fever has spread.  The game has officially eclipsed Twitter in popularity, and public spaces like my neighborhood park are crawling with fledgling Pokémasters.  In this augmented reality video game, players use the camera on their phone to create a live backdrop for Pokémon battles (the uninitiated can get a full primer here).  Nostalgic fans of the Pokémon games, serious video gamers, and fad surfers alike are taking a walk outside.  But will the game’s popularity convert couch potatoes to athletes?

Voltordu/pixabay
Source: Voltordu/pixabay

Pokémon Go’s format holds promise as a scaffold to long-term health behavior change.  Firstly, it doesn’t tout itself as an exercise app—it’s a game, to be enjoyed in and of itself.  Because the game is intrinsically rewarding, people aren’t paying attention to how far they walk—they’re distracted by the lure of a rare Pokémon that might be just around the corner.

People also aren’t bogged down by the connotative baggage of the word “exercise.”  For many, exercise is a four-letter word for an unpleasant and repetitive movement performed because the doctor says so or to achieve an unrealistic standard of beauty.  Extrinsic motivation—or motivation for external rewards—is less effective than intrinsic motivation—doing something for its own sake.  When we do something because we want to, we persist longer, feel better about ourselves, and are more engaged with the process.

Jeff Blackler/flickr
Source: Jeff Blackler/flickr

Doug Byrd, a Pokémon Go player who reports weighing over 500 pounds, didn’t set out to walk six miles, but he surprised himself when the game gave him a medal for his perseverance.  In a comment below his medal, Byrd noted, “I could lie and say I set an outrageous goal for myself and somehow managed to meet it; but really I was just trying to catch some pokemon [sic].”

Pokémon Go can also help people improve their self-efficacy for activities like walking.  Self-efficacy, simply put, is the belief you can do something.  Self-efficacy is considered a key predictor of health behavior, and self-efficacy beliefs influence whether people adopt new healthy behaviors, discard unhealthy habits, or maintain positive health change.  Whether it’s running a marathon or walking up a flight of stairs, if you don’t believe you can do it, odds are good you won’t attempt it.

In his seminal research on self-efficacy, Albert Bandura discovered that the most powerful way to change self-efficacy beliefs was through “personal mastery experiences.”  For example, even if both runners are equally prepared, someone who has successfully run a marathon in the past might feel more confident about her ability to hoof long distances than a novice runner.

But these personal mastery experiences present a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: how is one to gain confidence in doing a thing without having done the thing first?  Pokémon Go circumvents this obstacle by dangling a digital carrot in front of players throughout game play: the object of the game is to catch Pokémon, not walk long distances.  There’s no judgment or failure for short forays, so players like Byrd can be pleasantly surprised by how far they go while gathering objective evidence they are capable of walking long distances.

Pokémon Go’s team model offers another bridge for health behavior change: social support.  All players sign up for a specific team—red, blue, or yellow—and join forces with other team members to claim dominance over a PokéGym.  Pokémon Go groups on social media plan meetups, and just like gym buddies, increase likelihood of participation.

Even people who have a high level of physical fitness are finding ways to use Pokémon Go to get a challenging workout—one Instagram user created a workout routine for collecting items at Pokéstops.  But is Pokémon Go the fitness app to end all fitness apps?

However good as the game is at getting a broad swath of humanity moving outside, Pokémon Go has a dark side.  The highly rewarding nature of the game is addictive, and while the laser focus the game inspires helps players to ignore their aching feet, it also prevents them from paying attention to their surroundings.  In addition to the dangers associated with not heeding one’s surroundings (injuries, robbery, or—in the case of one unfortunate player—coming across a corpse), players risk missing out on beautiful surroundings if they can’t tear their eyes away from the screen.

Jillian Ploetz, founder of a Facebook group called Pokémon Go Mommies, has one solution: her children are not allowed to look at the screens unless their phones vibrate and signal the arrival of a new Pokémon.  In the meantime, they have nothing to keep them occupied except the scenery.  For this practice to be broadly adopted, however, teens and adults will have to regulate their own use. (In a culture that already struggles with unplugging from technology, this seems unlikely.)

Whether Pokémon Go players develop a taste for walking in and of itself, it seems clear that public health officials and fitness app developers will heed the game’s success.  A fitness app that lets me forget I’m working out?  Sign me up.