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Did Pokémon Go get Americans to exercise? The research says yes — but not for long.

Pokémon Go got users walking for a short while — but those physical activity levels quickly dropped off.
The Washington Post

When the augmented reality game Pokémon Go launched last summer, it was instantly deemed a health fad.

Unlike most games, which only engage your thumbs, Pokémon Go requires you to walk, run, and even jump — all great forms of exercise. Fans and observers offered anecdotal evidence that the game was causing a surge in physical activity, leading to a "pandemic" of sore legs. Some even suggested Pokémon could be the solution to the obesity crisis. The cheer was spurred on by the game's creator, John Hanke, who said he designed the app with health in mind, hoping to encourage exercise among users.

Six months have passed since the game's release, and researchers are starting to publish data on Pokémon Go’s actual effects. The most long-term study I’ve seen on the matter comes in the Christmas edition of the BMJ. As it turns out, Pokémon Go is not the cure for obesity fans and Hanke dreamed of.

Average number of daily steps by week before and after installation of Pokémon Go.

This graph from the BMJ study says it all. The researchers, from Harvard University, looked at the impact of Pokémon Go on 560 American young adults before and after they installed the game. They found users took nearly 1,000 additional steps in the first week — but by the sixth week, that burst in physical activity completely dropped off. So Pokémon users returned to their pre–augmented reality walking levels within a matter of weeks.

"Our results indicate that the health impact of Pokémon GO might be moderate," the Harvard researchers wrote in the BMJ. "Even if smaller amounts of physical activity might also be important for health outcomes, the increase in steps from Pokémon GO, as with many physical activity interventions, was not sustained over time."

This finding squares with another, shorter-term paper on how the game affected exercise levels. Here, researchers from Microsoft used sensor data and information about engagement with Pokémon Go from 32,000 Microsoft Band users over a period of four weeks. They found an increase in physical activity — but that dropped off after about 30 days (though by a lesser degree among the heaviest users of the game).

The real mystery health researchers — or augmented reality game creators — need to solve is how to turn that temporary exercise burst into long-term behavior change. That’s the health holy grail no one has yet figured out.

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