How do you make millions of Americans get off their couches and go on long, healthy walks everyday? Just offer them some Pikachus.
“Pokémon Go,” the wildly popular mobile game from Niantic, is doing just that, even if players aren’t necessarily in it for burning calories.
The game requires players to physically travel long distances in search of animated creatures, or Pokémon, who appear superimposed over the real environment on their phone screens. People praising the game on social media have quipped about getting sore legs after hours of nonstop walking.
I don’t play “Pokémon Go” much, but I went on a creature hunt while wearing a Fitbit just to see how much exercise I could get in. I walked a rectangular route between Folsom Avenue and Stockton Boulevard in East Sacramento, which has pretty flat terrain.
I quickly discovered that one of the hottest places in East Sacramento with Pokéstops – or places to collect balls that players throw at Pokémon such as Pikachu, Raichu and Pinsir – was East Lawn Memorial Park. I felt uncomfortable playing there and readied myself to close out of the game the instant I saw a mourner. But I never encountered one. Instead, I bumped into other people visiting Pokéstops at notable tombs and headstones.
Even as a frequent gym-goer, I found ending the game on a bench at the 48th Street light-rail station brought welcome relief to my legs. The Fitbit app on my phone told me I had walked 3.68 miles – 6,900 steps – and burned 345 calories over 90 minutes. That’s about the same amount of calories in a Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s.
My Fitbit doesn’t track my heart rate, but I suspect that I never reached the American Heart Association’s “target zone” for moderate exercise. As a 22-year-old, that would fall between 100 and 140 beats per minute. However, my heart rate may have spiked when a dog startled me with a loud bark while I was engrossed in the virtual world of Pokémon.
Mical Shilts, a professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University, Sacramento, said getting in more exercise than normal is proving a big payoff for all the digital fun and games.
Shilts said she wants to learn more about the data that “Pokémon Go” collects before she lets her 9-year-old son download the app.
“If (the creator) had actually sold it or advertised it as something to promote physical activity, it probably wouldn’t have been as popular,” Shilts said.
“Sometimes people don’t feel confident enough to go to a gym. But most people have the confidence … to walk outside, and go to a local park or playground.”
Nintendo, which popularized the Pokémon characters and has a stake in Niantic, broke ground with fitness video games in 2006 when it released the first Wii console, which featured motion-based games and exercise programs.
I might have burned more calories playing “Pokémon Go” if I had approached the game a little differently. I made the mistake of playing in a largely residential area that yielded fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops than a more urban area would have. I only caught one Pokémon – a Pidgeotto bird – during my outing, which may have suppressed my step count. More importantly, there were no public restrooms to be found. “Pokémon Go” became an afterthought as other needs grew.
One more thing: It definitely would have been more fun to play the game with a friend. Virtual critters and my own thoughts could only keep me entertained for so long. Every “Pokémon Go” player that I’ve talked to in Sacramento says the social aspect of the game is a huge part of its appeal.
Audrey Kitchell, 26, said “Pokémon Go” put an end to a “slump” of nights spent watching movies at home in midtown Sacramento.
“I hate to exercise. I hate running around,” Kitchell said. “I like to walk, but I wasn’t doing it for a while. Now I’m walking a ton, and getting to see a ton of different things.”
Joshua Hicks, Kitchell’s boyfriend, added: “This is really gotten us back into the groove of doing things again.”
Kitchell, an autism specialist, says “Pokémon Go” has also had a dramatic effect on some of her young clients. “Most of the time they are very antisocial, and they want to stay inside and play their games,” she said. “Now they have to go outside and be around people, which is kind of awesome.”
Michael Nguyen, 30, said he lost 5 pounds in his first four days of playing “Pokémon Go” with his wife in East Sacramento. They now walk about 4 kilometers, or about 2 1/2 miles daily, and up to 8 kilometers (5 miles) on weekends playing the game. Nguyen said “Pokémon Go” provides “a concrete reason, a concrete goal” that motivates him to exercise more.
At least one feature of “Pokémon Go” seems have been designed as a motivation for exercise. Pokémon eggs hatch only when the player logs a certain distance on their phone’s GPS or pedometer. There are 2-kilometer, 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer eggs, which yield Pokémon of increasing rarity. Driving won’t make them hatch faster – the game has a built in “speed limit” of 10 mph.
“If I have a 10-kilometer egg, I go out and walk 10 kilometers until it hatches,” said Brendan Kroning, a 23-year-old from south Sacramento.
Some “Pokemon Go” players are incorporating the game into their regular exercise routines. Katie Sadoff, also 23, activates the game when she goes for a run, and stops to look for nearby Pokémon when her phone vibrates. She’s also interested in trying interval workouts that would have her sprinting from one Pokéstop to another.
The time commitment required to succeed in “Pokémon Go,” however, can come at the expense of other activities.
“I definitely have not played a lot of the (video games) that I usually play,” said Bryan Kramer, 26, from American Canyon. “I’ve probably been neglecting my PlayStation.”
Josh Mandell: 916-321-1076, @Joshuamandell