Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Counting the Extra Footsteps From Pokémon Go Mania

Fitness-tracking apps find that players are moving more, even if the game isn't much of a workout.

A four-mile walk home wasn't a normal part of Peter Morency's routine before Pokémon Go entered his life. But on Wednesday evening the 25-year-old Tufts University administrative assistant ditched the Boston-area bus and caught a virtual bestiary—Drowzee, Bellsprout, Poliwag, Clefairy, and Charmander, all characters from Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s blockbuster mobile game—during a leisurely two-hour stroll. 

Millions of Pokémon Go users are suddenly getting real exercise while playing the game, which is done by walking around the real world with a smartphone, and evidence of the increased activity has started showing up in data collected by wearers of fitness-tracking devices. Jawbone Inc. found that wearers of the Up fitness band who referenced "Pokémon Go" on the device's app took more steps last weekend than in the five weekends prior.  

Pokémon Go was released on Wednesday, July 6. The following weekend saw the average number of steps for Jawbone's self-declared Pokémon users reach 10,936, according to data provided to Bloomberg, nearly double the average of 6,063 steps taken by those same users over the July 2-3 weekend or the 6,566 steps in the last weekend of June. Jawbone declined to specify the number of Pokémon users within its data set, describing the sample as "significant enough." There is, of course, a self-selection bias in the data: A Jawbone spokesman noted that many users who made a reference to Pokémon did so in part "because they had gotten an unusually large number of steps over the weekend.

Another app that saw an uptick, Cardiogram, works with the Apple Watch to track, graph, and analyze the heart rate data of its users. Before Pokémon Go, the average Cardiogram user was getting from 37 percent to 46 percent of the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. That number jumped to 45 percent of users the day Pokémon Go was released and hit 53 percent by the end of last weekend.

The spike activity comes from a sample of about 35,000, but Cardiogram co-founder Brandon Ballinger warns that the data are inherently biased. "Among all the U.S. population, Apple Watch users are more active than average, and Cardiogram users are more active than those," he said. Still, Ballinger was impressed with his findings. "If this effect is durable, it would be the biggest public health development this year. I would love to see more health apps come out with Pokémon Go-like dynamics." 

The game tracks users walking through the real world, granting them "eggs" that hatch into rewards after traveling distances of two, five, or 10 kilometers. Pokémon are visible in an augmented-reality display on a mobile device. In the initial aftermath of the app's release, players found themselves surprised at their sore legs, a revelation some mocked. There's even a dubious micro-economy of Pokémon assistants willing to walk on behalf of another player, for a fee.

Under Armour Inc., which operates the wellness and activity tracking app My Fitness Pal, did not see a significant uptick in the number of steps their users took in the days since Pokémon Go was released. My Fitness Pal links with a variety of fitness trackers. An Under Armour spokeswoman said the company's data scientists did notice a small percentage of users labeling their workouts "Pokémon Go," and those users generally burned 250 to 300 calories during that instance of exercise.

The average Pokémon Go user experience involves a lot of walking without much high-intensity fitness, although some players are trying to change that. The website LifeHacker developed Pokémon Go interval training routine, and another app-themed interval workout has been making the rounds on social media. These workouts add a layer of strenuous activity to what is a relatively calm game: catching the most common Pokémon, such as a Pidgey, and do 10 jumping jacks; find a rarer character, and do a 30-second sprint. 

Morency, who says he doesn't drive, has already logged 27 kilometers while playing Pokémon Go and estimates he'll be walking a lot more. "I started to walk different ways," he said of his commute to work. "Because there might be a different Pokémon in this area." 

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