Last Updated on July 10, 2016 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
As you’ve certainly gathered by the low quality of my Instagram photos, I don’t have a high tech smart phone. Hell, I had to figure out a way to circumnavigate the installation of Instagram in the first place, as my phone claimed it didn’t have enough storage space. So needless to say, I haven’t downloaded the new “Pokémon Go” app that everyone is going absolutely wild over. But I can tell you why I’m already a huge fan.
Actually, “wild” is an understatement. Seemingly EVERYONE on my Facebook feed is suddenly obsessed with catching Bulbasaurs and Charmanders, both kids, parents, and adults without kids alike. In case you haven’t heard of it, Pokémon GO is a new, free app for cell phones, that allows you to “catch” virtual Pokémon characters in the real world. Essentially, you walk around outdoors (in malls, in your house, etc) looking through the screen of your phone and images of the characters will appear in random places, superimposed over the real life scene in front of you. Your goal is to catch as many Pokémon and Pokémon eggs as possible. In order to hatch eggs that have Pokémon in them you have to put them in an incubator and walk the required distance for them to hatch.
Yesterday I headed down to the beach with my kids to relax, only to almost get stepped on by two teenagers and an adult who were wandering obliviously, faces in their phones, playing Pokémon Go. When we came home from the beach, the neighbors daughter was wandering around the shady, grassy area of our apartment complex, phone in hand. I can’t confirm, but I’m pretty certain, that she too was trying to catch a Zubat.
(I have a 7 year old son, incase you are wondering about my vast Pokémon name vocabulary.)
This morning, after reading an article titled “Sore Legs Becoming a Pandemic as Pokémon Go Players Accidentally Get Exercise” I made a tongue in cheek Facebook post offering to start a Pokémon running business. Stick your cell phone in my hydration pack, I’ll run 10 miles, and hatch all of your eggs. Extra charge if you need me to stop mid run and “catch” a Pidgeot. (At this point, I’m using a Pokémon reference guide to name these things. I’m not that good.) I mean, I have to run anyway, might as well make some money off of it, right?
All jokes aside, I have seen an equal amount of criticism as I have seen enthusiasm over the Pokémon Go app. People who claim that it is shameful that it takes a video game to get people off of their couches and outdoors. People who feel this is just another step towards dumbing down our society. And part of me, the part that hates seeing people with their faces buried in a screen, the part that hates how plugged in our society has become, agrees.
But the fitness professional and outdoor, fresh air lover in me? I would like to personally high five the creators of this app.
One thing I’ve learned over my relatively short career is that many people hate exercise. For a number of reasons that I could write an entirely different blog post about, people loathe the idea of moving their bodies over and above what is required in their day to day activities. They don’t have the time. Exercise is uncomfortable. They hate to sweat. Exercise is boring. The list goes on and on and on. And for some people, that thought process will never change. I can ramble on until my face turns blue about how amazing and wonderful trail running is, or how awesomely strong I feel after a good strength training session, but it will fall upon dead ears and blank stares. So many people lack the internal (intrinsic) motivation to get moving for physical and mental health. Exercise is admittedly hard. But Netflix is easy. Candy crush is easy. Watching Game of Thrones is easy. Life is hard enough as it is, people want to relax.
Do I like that thought process? No. Not at all. Not even the tiniest bit. But I cannot deny that for many, this is their reality.
But what often works for this particular population is an external (extrinsic) motivator. Whether it be hitting 10,000 steps on their fitbit. Or signing up for a Color Run. Or earning a cash rebate from the HR department or their insurance company for checking into the gym a certain number of times per month. Or in this case, catching a super rare Rayquaza (I referenced aforementioned 7 year old for that one.) These particular people aren’t necessarily exercising or moving because they want to, because it feels good, or because they know that it’s good for their health (or at least this isn’t the only reason). They are moving because another external reward is motivating them to do so. A new badge on the fitbit website. A finishers medal. A Jigglypuff. The end reward acts as a distraction from the thing they didn’t really want to be doing in the first place.
Or in the case of Pokémon Go, the thing they might not even realize they are doing.
The hope is that the external motivator helps create enough of a distraction to successfully create a regular, healthy habit of physical activity. Of course, there is a lot of research that shows increases in external motivation can actually decrease internal motivation. But when it comes to exercise, I’ve often seen people develop internal motivation as the effects of the exercise they are externally motivated to do begin to take hold: increased strength, increased cardiovascular endurance, weight loss, improved mental well being, etc. They like feeling good, feeling strong, and suddenly, even without an external motivation, will begin to crave exercise anyway.
(See: Pokémon Go Is Having an Effect on Players’ Mental Health. This article is very real and very heartbreaking.)
And as far as getting people outside? Check out these quotes from some of my Facebook community:
From Cynthia B: “Our park is normally quiet around 2pm. It was drizzling yesterday, and there were at least 15 kids there. All ranging in ages from 12 to 15. There was a couple, maybe early 20’s, they asked if we were there playing Pokémon go, and told us they caught a Pikachu. Apparently it’s rare.”
Cheri V: “My nieces that usually don’t move walked a 5k this morning playing this game.”
Jennifer V: “Our whole church group (mid twenties to thirties) just walked to lunch instead of driving! All to hatch eggs.”
Jenn C: “Great family activity! We go on Poke-walks every night now!”
Another friend of mine posted that he saw at least 30 people at a local park playing. Many of his friends replied that they too saw huge crowds of people at other local outdoor venues playing. In the middle of July. In 100 degree temps.
So my fellow outdoor and fitness enthusiasts, if you find yourself staunchly turning your nose up at the sudden Pokémon Go craze, remember this: at least people are getting outdoors and moving. I’ll spare you the detailed explanation of the countless benefits their bodies and minds are receiving from simply being outdoors and MOVING.
Do we wish they were doing so simply to enjoy the beautiful sights mother nature has already given us, to enjoy the fresh air on their faces, and experience the endorphin rush that comes with increased exercise?
Well, yeah. Of course.
But the reality is that our society is inactive, obese, and unhealthy. The reality is that our society is incessantly plugged in. But I for one will take activity any way we can get it. My hope is that those internal motivations to move, to enjoy the fresh air, to explore, will grow with time. Perhaps those nightly walks will become a habit, even if the cell phone battery is dead. And so will exploring new towns, and monuments, and walking many miles a day, and loving the fresh air, even if there are no Gligars to catch or eggs to hatch. And maybe I’m being a hopeful optimist here, but maybe, just maybe this will get the next generation off of their computers and moving more, as they were meant to do.
And we’ll have Pokémon GO to thank for it.
Note: Because I’d feel wrong for not mentioning it…please pay attention to where you are walking. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Please for the love of all things don’t Pokémon GO and drive. Why the app creators would even put these things on roads is beyond me. There are scarily already reports popping up of people falling, getting into car accidents, and even finding dead bodies while playing. And please, please, please, regardless of how many miles you’ve walked that day chasing Pokémon, unplug from time to time.