Fitness & Motivation Lessons from Pokemon Go

A Wild Pikachu Appears by Sadie Hernandez - Pokemon Go

Unless you’ve been stuck inside Rock Cave for the last few months without an HM05, you probably know about Pokemon Go. As a side-effect of its wild popularity, people have been touting it as being one of the most successful fitness apps to date and some have even been suggesting it’ll have a big effect on fighting obesity.

While I think it’s being a little optimistic to think a little extra walking is going to get everyone fit, it definitely is getting otherwise sedentary people out and moving around – so what is Pokemon Go doing so differently from the Fitbits, Jawbones, VivoFits, et al. that never sparked nearly as strong of a fitness craze as expected? Moreover what lessons on motivation and taking control of our own fitness can we take away from its successes?

Pokemon Go vs. Fitbit

When Fitbit launched people thought that it would have a huge impact on lowering obesity rates and helping to improve overall fitness levels. Gamification (adding game elements like scoring and competition to encourage user engagement) was, and still is really, a hot and exciting method for getting people to do things – particularly in conjunction with the growing quantified self movement. Fitbit ticked both boxes. It provided a solid game element in trying to score your recommended 10k steps per day, providing badges and rewards for meeting goals, and in allowing you to compete with friends, and it gathered enough data on steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, sleep quality, weight change, etc. to be a solid entry in the self-quantification realm.

It’s done well, but it never took off quite like Pokemon Go has. I think the key reason being the Fitbit focuses on gamification, while Pokemon Go approaches things from the opposite direction with ‘fitnessification’.

Alright, I made that word up for lack of a better one and it needs work – the point is that while Fitbit attempts to make fitness into a game, Pokemon Go takes an existing game and plugs in a fitness element.

This might not seem like an important distinction, but it makes a noticeable difference. No matter how many game elements are included in the Fitbit system, your overall goal is still to walk. You can look at it as getting 10,000 points per day if you want, but you know you’re doing it for fitness. Sure the badges and the competition and things motivate you, but beneath that you understand the point is to get you to walk.

Pokemon Go is the opposite. The point is not to walk, that’s just something you tend to have to do in order to play the game. Your goal is to catch Pokemon, take gyms, things like that. The fact that you have to be up and moving around most of the time to accomplish that is secondary.

This is a much better approach to things, because in the end what people care about is having fun. Things like Fitbit, Fitocracy, Duolingo, or HabitRPG attempt, to varying degrees of success, to inject the fun of a game into a productive activity. That certainly helps, but it will never be as successful as injecting a productive activity into a game.

Wii Fit did an alright job of helping people take some steps toward fitness, but in the end it fell to the same problems – the design of all the games was built around making fitness fun, rather than starting with something already fun. After a while people just tire of it and it gets relegated to the closet.

Imagine if you took something like Final Fantasy VII but changed the battle mechanics so that you had to do push-ups or squats to win battles. You wouldn’t play that game to get fit, you would play it because it’s a good game. You would do a ton of push-ups and squats too, not because you think you should exercise but because Sephiroth murdered Aerith and is killing the planet and that bastard has to pay.

Lots of people would probably wind up in the best shape of their lives too.

So, assuming you’re not a game or app designer, what’s the takeaway here?

The Secret to Staying Motivated

If you’re struggling, rather than approaching things like Fitbit and trying to inject fun into your fitness routine (or whatever you’re trying to improve) take the better route – find something fun that also has some small element of what you’re trying to improve in it.

If the prospect of going to the gym or out for a daily run makes you want to crawl back into bed then why force yourself to do those things just for the sake of progress when there are fun options out there? Take a martial arts class, a dance class, a parkour class, go rock climbing, or kayaking, or swimming, go play basketball, or tennis, or even something like tag.

Are these things necessarily going to get you in the same kind of shape adhering to a well-structured strength and conditioning program would get in?

Almost certainly not.

But Pokemon Go alone isn’t going to have anyone dropping a hundred pounds and running in marathons either. Small progress is something though and – unless you’re missing out on potentially better progress by stressing over the small stuff – that small amount of progress is leaps and bounds better than making no progress at all.

Embracing this mindset will make it much easier to continually make some kind of progress in your goals. Any time you’re trying to think of some way to make something you don’t want to do but feel you need to do into something fun, change the equation around and try to think of or create something fun that contains aspects of your goals.

Do you have any examples of other ways to incorporate learning or fitness goals into games instead of the other way around? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Sadie Hernandez

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com