This weekend in Homewood, Ill, a group of strangers started to gather around a park fountain. All were looking intently at their phones, and when they looked up, were startled to see a small crowd slowly growing around them.
It turns out all of them were using a new mobile app called Pokémon Go. Soon, the accidental gathering turned into a lively social scene, with people ranging in ages from 6 to over 50 chatting and swapping game tips.
Pokémon Go was released on July 6 and immediately became a smash hit. Given the franchise’s long and successful history, the real surprise may be the unexpected health benefits of the new game. Video game fans, young and old, are suddenly crisscrossing their communities, walking long distances and having fun doing it.
“My son and I have been playing for two days, and I can’t even tell you how far we’ve walked,” said T.J. Wasney, one of the players gathered in Homewood. “He loves video games, but that usually means talking him into leaving the house – not chasing him down the sidewalk, trying to keep up.”
The game is unique in that it requires people to move. And not just move in place, but to walk or bike significant distances, all in the name of hunting and catching virtual creatures called Pokémon. There are “Poké Stops,” where players can go to collect needed items, as well as “Poké gyms” where players battle against each other. All virtual locations are attached to real locations such as parks and businesses and require you to visit in person to participate.
“Walking is great exercise and very accessible to most people,” said Dr. Chinnammal Kandaswamy, a hospitalist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Video games are often associated with a lack of exercise, so it’s great to see something like this capturing people’s imaginations and getting them on their feet.”
Players can also collect eggs and work to hatch new Pokémon by traveling a given distance, typically between 2 and 5 kilometers, as measured by your phone’s GPS. While there are people trying to cheat their way out of exercise, the app doesn’t make it easy. Traveling too fast disables the GPS, which means you can’t just get in your car and beat the system.
“Typically, people should try and get at least two and a half hours of moderate physical exercise every week. This includes brisk walking,” said Dr. Kandaswamy. “There are also the added benefits of socialization, which can help people’s physical and mental health, and even reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke.”
Dr. Kandaswamy also cautions that it is important for people to pay attention to their surroundings when walking and stay well hydrated.
Numerous police departments are also warning players about the dangers of driving and playing the popular game. And in some instances, Pokémon Go has been used to lure people to a specific area where innocent players were robbed, according to one report.
So the main takeaway for the new mobile hit: while there are many benefits in terms of exercise and socialization, be aware of your surroundings and if you are going to use the app, do so safely and with parental supervision.