Pokémon GO, the biggest augmented reality sensation ever, broke app store records this opening weekend. But it also did something even more important: it gamified physical activity.
You've probably heard that sitting will practically kill you, and that you need to avoid a sedentary lifestyle at all costs. Going to the gym just doesn't cut it—you have to regularly move around. While there are plenty of ways to get regular activity, from my tiny paper cup trick to finding various ways to take the scenic route when walking and making some of your favorite hobbies into exercise-only activities, Pokémon GO managed to rank as one of the most effective techniques within hours of its release.
So how does a game that requires you to catch Pokémon actually provide exercise and stand to improve your health? The answer lies in non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT:
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual's daily NEAT. It is, therefore, not surprising that NEAT explains a vast majority of an individual's non-resting energy needs.
To put it simply, thermogenesis is the process of creating heat in your body, and NEAT describes non-exercise activities that lead to thermogenesis. While that can describe several activities, you're probably familiar with the best: walking, or the thing you do most in Pokémon GO.
Plenty of social media posts clearly demonstrate how much NEAT this game generates. Some highly motivated players are actually getting full-blown exercise via long bike rides and jogs. This works because Pokémon GO requires you to move for many in-game activities, as gamer and writer Kayli Hons points out:
To play Pokémon GO, you have to GO! Even with the use of in game items that lure Pokémon closer you will not find Gyms unless you venture out to the marked areas. They are visible on the map, but no interactions are available until you are nearby. You also have to move to hatch those eggs! So, walk, run, skip or hop your way on out the door and into adventure!
Niantic, Pokémon GO's primary developer, took it even a step further. If you want to hatch eggs to birth new Pokémon, you have to walk two to five kilometers (player's choice, with more rewards for longer distance). Don't misunderstand: walk means walk. You can't drive your egg around town because the game knows if you're moving too quickly. You're rewarded for moving normally, at standard human speed.
Pokémon GO isn't particularly special as an augmented reality experience. The game itself is very simple and the initial release full of problems. That said, it's important to acknowledge the incredible effect such a simple game has had on society. Aside from the massive number of people playing a game publicly in a manner never seen before, to motivate so many to get up and move around in a world of the willfully immobile is absolutely incredible. Who knows if the effects will last, but if a silly little game results in a healthier population, we just witnessed the first time a video game brought great change to the world.