By Dennis Thompson
WEDNESDAY, March 8, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- People playing Pokemon Go on their smartphone receive an unintended dose of physical activity during their quest to capture virtual critters, a new study finds.
Pokemon Go players were twice as likely to walk 10,000 steps a day than they were before taking up the game, researchers reported.
Overweight or sedentary people appeared to benefit most from the game, in which players walk to various physical locations in the real world to catch virtual Pokemon they can "see" through their smartphone cameras, said lead researcher Hanzhang Xu.
"For example, individuals with the lowest physical activity level at baseline walked nearly 3,000 additional steps per day after playing Pokemon Go," said Xu. She is a graduate student at Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, N.C.
Pokemon Go became one of last summer's hottest fads following its release in July. Some health experts surmised the game could prove a boon to players' health, since it requires walking around to find the virtual creatures, Xu said.
To test this, Xu's team recruited 167 iPhone users playing Pokemon Go. The participants were asked to report their daily steps as tracked by the iPhone Health app between June 15 and July 31, 2016.
Before taking up Pokemon Go, participants walked an average of 5,678 steps a day. Their daily steps increased to 7,654 after starting the game, an average increase of nearly 2,000 steps each day, the findings showed.
"Considering the low level of physical activity in the United States, doing some physical activity is always better than sitting on the couch," she added.
The percentage of days upon which players met their 10,000 daily step goal nearly doubled after they began playing Pokemon Go, increasing from about 15 percent to more than 27 percent, the researchers added.
The success of Pokemon Go shows that such "augmented reality" games could be key in making physical activity fun for those not normally inclined to exercise, Xu concluded.
"Lack of enjoyment and lack of time are the most common reasons for not being physically active," Xu said. Mobile games incorporating physical activity may provide an alternative way to promote physical activity, she suggested.
Still unknown, however, is whether the added movement reported in this brief study is sustainable.
"The initial interest may decline over time," Xu acknowledged. "Therefore, we would like to see whether playing Pokemon Go has long-term health benefits for players." Proven long-term benefits -- as well as interesting new game features -- could help keep players motivated and active, she noted.
New York City cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg has observed the allure of Pokemon Go firsthand. A friend she shops with on Saturdays always takes time to walk by areas where Pokemon are plentiful, or locations where she can get extra points in the game.
"This is a great way for people to engage their friends in competition, and for families to exercise together," said Goldberg, medical director of NYU Langone's Tisch Center for Women's Health.
Even though Pokemon Go players aren't working up a good sweat, observers shouldn't make light of the physical activity involved in the game, she added.
Xu presented the study Wednesday at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Portland, Ore. The findings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. The study was self-funded by the Duke Clinical Research Institute.