Manitoba·Opinion

Pokemon Go shows us healthy living must also be fun, health experts say

Pokemon Go, the mobile phone augmented reality game that has taken the world by storm, has become a fitness icon. It's also important reminder that more and more evidence about the benefits of exercise will never be enough to get Canadians moving.

Healthy behaviour must be easily integrated into our daily lives, researchers say

Pokemon Go brought many video game enthusiasts out onto the streets, pursuing the fictional characters on foot. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pokemon Go, the mobile phone augmented reality game that has taken the world by storm, has become a fitness icon.

While evidence of the long-term health benefits is not clear, it is apparent that the game does more than just allow players to live out their childhood dreams of becoming Pokemon masters. Pokemon Go, which requires players to walk or run around in the real world to catch Pokemon creatures in their virtual world, serves as an important reminder that more and more evidence about the benefits of exercise will never be enough to get Canadians moving: Any enduring solution to our expanding waistlines depends on figuring out how to integrate healthy behaviours into our daily lives.

Winnipegger Josh Derbecker, 27, says he walked 30 kilometres in three days as he played Pokemon Go, which he called a dramatic change from his usual activity level. (CBC )
Today, non-communicable diseases are responsible for 88 per cent of deaths in Canada, including chronic conditions such as stroke, diabetes and cancer. Increased risk of these diseases is strongly associated with lifestyle factors, such as unhealthy diets, tobacco use, physical inactivity and alcohol overconsumption.

To combat chronic disease, advocates in medicine and public health have long tried to promote healthy behaviours among Canadians. For example, many are familiar with the recommendation to walk 10,000 steps a day and to get 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. Yet despite widespread knowledge about what we should all do, the results have not been promising. Based on American data, we can estimate that the average Canadian walks around 4,000 to 6,000 steps a day and only half of us exercise for 150 minutes weekly. 

The good news is the Pokemon Go phenomenon shows us that large-scale changes in healthy behaviours — such as physical activity — are possible if we are more creative in how we encourage them.

Entertainment inspires change

Pokemon Go isn't the first example of the entertainment industry inspiring such changes to health-related behaviours. Many other instances, both good and bad, have been noted.

For example, public health authorities are well-acquainted with the "Angelina Jolie effect," which describes the surge in genetic testing for breast cancer and inquiries about risk-reducing surgeries that first occurred after Jolie announced her preventative double mastectomy in 2013. Our own research has shown how Hollywood celebrities frequently drive the popularization of fad diets and lifestyle gimmicks — sometimes for the better, too often for the worse — highlighting how our decisions are shaped by factors beyond scientific evidence of effectiveness.

Pokemon Go players must walk around the real world to navigate the game screen, a marked difference from most video-based pursuits. (Stephanie Sirois/CBC)
This disconnect between what the evidence says we should do and what we as a society actually do is a major pain point for those advocating for healthier lifestyles. Our country spends enormous amounts of money on the science behind lifestyle practices, so it's naturally disheartening when the evidence is ignored. But the Pokemon Go phenomenon suggests we may just need to change our approach to the problem.

Promoting healthy diets and urging people to go to the gym multiple times a week can have short-term benefits. However, for the majority, these practices may be unaffordable or soon become unsustainable. For long-term success, healthy behaviours need to include activities we want to engage in.

Ultimately, promoting healthy lifestyles must be less about waving the evidence in front of people and more about making these practices easy, normal and even fun. We must engage in the science of what motivates people to act and study how to nudge people towards healthy habits by designing them into our work routines, the places where we live and the activities we do with family and friends.

Pokemon Go is an example of making physical activity enjoyable. We need more creative approaches like it. Now is the time to invest in developing these new approaches and rigorously evaluate whether they actually work.


Tanishq Suryavanshi (@nishqy) is a medical student at McMaster University and a research assistant with the Global Strategy Lab at the University of Ottawa's Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics. 

Steven J. Hoffman (@shoffmania) is an associate professor of law and the director of the Global Strategy Lab at the University of Ottawa's Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics.

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