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How ‘Pokémon Go’ Became Your Favorite New Fitness App

Remember the Wii Fit? Yeah, me neither.

Pokémon/Nintendo/Ringer illustration
Pokémon/Nintendo/Ringer illustration

When Jillian Ploetz first tried Pokémon Go this past Saturday, she decided it was lame and handed it off to her kids. That simple act changed her entire weekend.

“Right off the bat, it got them wanting to get out of the house,” said Ploetz, a beach body coach from Buffalo, New York, who has since started a Pokémon Go Mommies Facebook group. “Usually you take a little kid for a walk and their legs hurt the second that they hit ground — they’re making excuses. And with this, they are begging to leave the house.”

The following day, Ploetz and her two daughters went Pokémon hunting again, walking three-and-a-half miles. To ensure they were still aware of their surroundings, she created a rule: They could only look at their phones when it vibrated to tell them there’s a new Pokémon in the area. In between notifications, though, she noticed her 6-year-old daughter engaged with her surroundings in ways uncommon to her.

“She’s asking about berries — are they poisonous?” Ploetz recalled. “She’s asking about different kinds of trees and potholes. It’s the exploration that kids are normally supposed to have, not all electronic.”

Since the augmented-reality app debuted last Wednesday it has made people go — to put it in terms Pokéheads will understand — Zubatshit insane. Among Android users, Pokémon Go has already surpassed Tinder — a three-year-old app that is essentially a shortcut to getting laid — in daily active users. A black market of enterprising drivers offering to chauffeur users while they play has already cropped up on Craigslist. The Diglett has become the equivalent of an eggplant emoji. On Sunday, I looked out my window at 10 p.m. and saw three people standing on the sidewalk, their screens all glowing, clearly out for a late night Pokémon stroll. It wasn’t even clear if they knew each other.

But along with new side-hustles and unexpected friendships, the game’s fast-growing fan base has recognized a welcome side effect to all its Pokémon hunting: exercise. By design, Pokémon Go requires players to explore new areas of the world around them. The game places more Pokémon, Pokéstops, and gyms in densely populated areas away from housing and encourages you to walk significant distances to collect medals or to incubate eggs. As a result, the game has become the latest, unexpected entry into the get-fit-quick catalog — the techie version of Jared Fogle’s Subway diet (sans, you know, a mascot who’s a monster).

Though it’s impossible to measure the physical benefits of a game that was created less than a week ago, people are sharing stories of surprisingly active weekends. Doug Byrd, a man who said he weighs “in the 500 pounds range” shared a screenshot of a medal he received for walking 10 kilometers (more than six miles) on Imgur. “I could lie and say I set an outrageous goal for myself and somehow managed to meet it; but really I was just trying to catch some pokemon [sic],” he wrote below the image. On the flip side, typically active people have begun incorporating the game into their workouts. Vince Costante, a personal trainer based in Las Vegas, made an Instagram post two days ago describing “the Pokémon Go cardio workout,” where he jogged between Pokéstops “no matter the distance” and a mandatory 100-meter sprint every time he caught a Pokémon. (Needless to say, both his Pokémon collection and muscles are … robust). Similarly, an Instagram account named @pokemon.go.exercise suggests people do specific exercises for every item they collect at a Pokéstop (i.e., “one egg = 10 lunges”). A Facebook page based in Washington state named Pokémon Go Nerd Workout Crew already has more than 700 likes, and a member of the group told me its upcoming second event has received an “insane” amount of traction.

Andrew Campbell, an e-sports entrepreneur who has been playing the game since its release, has noticed a welcome change in his physical activity. The 26-year-old New Jersey resident, who describes himself as “vitamin D deficient” and “not embarrassed about it” said that, despite traversing about 18 miles in six days playing the game, he never once felt obligated or annoyed by the walking requirement. That, he said, is why Pokémon Go will succeed where other active-gaming products such as Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution failed.

“Nobody is playing Pokémon with the idea, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get in shape because of this game,’” he said. “That workout pressure isn’t there. I didn’t even realize I could walk that much because I was just walking around staring at my phone. It’s sort of like if you go skiing or snowboarding. You get a really good workout, but it kinda doesn’t feel like it because you’re so distracted from the thrill.”

In fact, according to David A. Dzewaltowski, a professor of physical activity and public health at Kansas State University, the distraction of the game is exactly what could make it a successful vehicle to encourage exercise in a largely sedentary society.

“If we can start to think of ways technology can foster activity where the goal may not be activity but the technology provides activity, you’re going to have people of all ages involved in the game,” he said. “That’s very different than this stressful thing of ‘I’ve got to watch my steps and count my steps.’ It’s essentially providing a way to get activity where the goal isn’t necessarily the activity and the health outcome itself.”

Even for someone as active as Ploetz, who plans to meet up with other members of Team Valor — one of Pokémon Go’s three teams — next weekend, it’s a welcome variation to her typical regiment.

“I’ve never been a gaming junkie,” she said. “I’ve never been into any sort of video games or trading cards. I never played Magic; I’ve never played Pokémon. To say that I’m going to a meetup for this is amazing.”