Prescribe Pokémon Go

Dr Joe Kosterich laments the fact that today's youth spend all their time staring at technology. But what if the technology encourages them to go outside?

 A lament of many over the last decade or so has been that teenagers and children do not get outside to play and spend too much time staring at screens. This was initially due to TV and video games - and more recently, phones.

 So it is great that technology and being active outdoors are not mutually exclusive. I am of course referring to the latest craze, Pokémon Go, based on characters first created for video games in the 1990s.

 Like many pop-cultural phenomena it had gone off the boil. In early July the game was launched in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Within days it had more users than Tinder and nearly as many as Twitter.

 Essentially, players with smartphones go out looking for virtual creatures called Pokémon. These can be found on a GPS-based map of the real world, and once found they can be captured by the player or "photographed" (with a screenshot).

 A generation who played the original games when younger have picked this up and are off the couch and looking for Pokémon. In the US it has led to a significant increase in the number of steps taken by the “average” person each day.

Let's be honest, most public health messages are boring and delivered by people who look miserable.

 The founders of Cardiogram, an Apple Watch app that tracks the steps of some 35,000 users, told the Washington Post that within two days of the game launching, the number of people it tracked who did 30 minutes of exercise each day jumped from 45% to 53%. The company does not know who is playing Pokémon Go - it just sees raw data on exercise levels.

 Many public health campaigns to get people to “find 30” or “get off the couch” or “be active everyday” have fallen on deaf ears. Let's be honest, most public health messages are boring and delivered by people who look miserable.

 As doctors, we know how hard it can be to get people to exercise. We also know the multiple health benefits of regular physical activity on both the mental and physical health of patients. But the problem has always been how to make it happen.

 The beauty of Pokémon Go is that it gets people outside and is fun. In addition to this, some people are making new friends. There are anecdotal reports of some with anxiety and agoraphobia overcoming their fears of going outside.

 As usual, there are po-faced killjoys looking for something to complain about. And yes, somebody might walk into a tree. So what?

 A breakthrough has occurred. Whilst smartphone apps like Fitbit could previously track our activity, they didn’t provide a reason to exercise. This game does.

 The novelty will wear off and use will subside in due course. However, due to its success there will be more games that combine smartphones and virtual reality with being active in the real world. This will help many people be more active, fitter and healthier.

 In the meantime, we can consider prescribing Pokémon Go.

Jow KosterichDr Joe Kosterich MBBS
Doctor, speaker, author of three books, media presenter and health industry consultant, Dr Joe Kosterich wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life.

He is a regular on Channel 9 and radio, writes for various medical and mainstream publications, as well as maintaining a website and blog providing health information. He is the health ambassador for locally grown fresh potatoes. Dr Joe also gives practical motivational health talks for the general public and organizations.