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Health Matters: Dynamic digitals – getting active with mobile games

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“Is Pokémon Go the answer to America's obesity problem?” asked one national newspaper article last week. “Pokemon Go is helping people lose weight as they try to catch 'em all” said another.

So is this a new frontier in public health?

Mobile games like this can and already do help us get more active and we need to keep looking for solutions wherever we can find them as too few of us, both adults and children, are achieving the levels of physical activity required to improve health.

In fact almost a third of adults are classified as inactive – doing less than 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week - despite a strong evidence base that shows physical activity can reduce the risk of over 20 different diseases and conditions from type 2 diabetes to dementia.

So it’s great to see a real growth in the availability of apps, widgets and wearables aiming to help us get more active every day, but the question on everyone’s lips remains; will the Pokémon Go phenomenon make an impact?

Pokémon Go gets people up and moving more through a virtual hunt for creatures set against augmented reality of the world outside the phone.

Although there are concerns about safeguarding issues and accidents, with reports of people so absorbed in the virtual world they ignore trip hazards, the incredible appetite for the new game has outstripped even the infamous Candy Crush.

But unlike its top slot predecessor, Pokémon Go is encouraging people to explore their local communities and could undoubtedly introduce them to new spaces and opportunities for social interaction.

It’s likely most Pokémon Go players are not moving fast enough to get the full metabolic benefits of being physically active; research shows we need to be moving at a minimum of a brisk walk, around 3 miles an hour, for at least ten minutes to gain the full physical health benefits.

But mental wellbeing benefits and some musculoskeletal benefits are gained by breaking up sedentary activity. Just getting outside, exploring and connecting with the environment and other people is probably having a positive impact on health (provided people remain aware of their surroundings and don’t trip over!)

You may also have seen ‘Zombies, Run!’ another example of an approach that uses gamification to increase the pace of activity as people try to outrun the virtual zombies.

Similar real world gamification of physical activity has been demonstrated to have a positive and sustainable impact on physical activity through initiatives like Beat the Street.

Reading CCG and Reading Council commissioned Beat the Street in 2014 and 2015, and the tracking and evaluation demonstrated a statistically significant increase in physical activity, and in those who took part both years the increase had been maintained between the two rounds of the ‘game’.

Here at PHE we use games in our 10 Minute Shake Up campaign run in partnership with Disney, which engages children and families in short bursts of exercise that both spark their imagination and connect them to teams led by their favourite characters.

And through our HealthX initiative we continue to look for new ideas for the next generation of digital tools and apps which can get people eating better and moving more.

Because gamification, something that we’ve done for centuries, is a great way of ensuring that activity becomes a regular habit.

Sport at its core is the gamification of physical activity and the driver for most people is participation in the game, whether competing as a team or an individual or simply against their own personal best.

But evaluating all of this is vital. When we published the national physical activity framework, Everybody Active Every Day, we highlighted the potential but also the lack of evidence of ‘what works’ when it comes to physical activity and technology.

I don’t know if the makers of Pokémon Go are undertaking any evaluation, but it would be interesting to know if users see a corresponding spike in their pedometer or accelerometer data and are now hitting their daily step targets as they chase down elusive Pokémon. I’m hoping someone out there is thinking about it!

Games can be a great way of getting more active with friends and family and if chasing down furry creatures in augmented reality helps you get you active and raise your pulse , then go for it!

Health Matters
Health Matters is a resource for professionals which brings together the latest data and evidence, makes the case for effective public health interventions and highlights tools and resources that can facilitate local or national action. Visit the Health Matters area of GOV.UK or sign up to receive the latest updates through our e-bulletin. If you found this blog helpful, please view other Health Matters blogs.

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