PokemonGo and "Gaming" Exercise

National and international news over the last few months has been less than uplifting – in fact, it’s been downright bleak. It’s enough to make you feel like maybe humans just can’t get along.

But then last week, a little game came along that’s not only reaffirmed my faith in humanity, it’s even gotten people moving around more! That’s right – I’m talking about PokemonGo. Now, you may be scoffing at my hyperbolic endorsement a bit, but bear with me as I break down PokemonGo’s genuinely remarkable ability to pair physical activity with online gaming. The partnership is so intuitive and seamless, people barely even realize they’re exercising.

For those unfamiliar, I’ll quickly break down PokemonGo’s exercise integration: one of the key components of the game is collecting animals, or “Pokemon.” In order to collect them, you have to walk around and find them. When they appear on your screen, you can press on them, and then try to collect them. Walking truly is the cornerstone of the game – you have to walk to find Pokemon, you have to walk to make the eggs of Pokemon hatch, you have to walk to get more “supplies” to collect/hunt for Pokemon, etc. (For more details, check out Kotaku’s How To Play Pokemon post)

What’s especially striking is that walking is incidental to the experience of playing PokemonGo. Instead of walking being the “object” or purpose of the game, with Pokemon cast as an incentive, the game is centered around the accumulation and evolution of the animals, with walking cast as one component of participating. In a sense, it takes components of the Cue, Routine, Reward system, but remixes them so that the reward ends up negating the need for a cue. For reference, here’s how the Cue, Routine Reward system is described by the blog 99u:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.

It could be posited that the delight that comes through the augmented reality experience of catching Pokemon and pitting them against your competitors produces such a rush of endorphins that the means of getting there – walking – doesn’t require consciously creating a cue to remind yourself of the positive feelings you’ll get while playing the game. PokemonGo has designed game mechanics that create such a strong craving in users, the cues become unconsciously automatic. Pretty cool to think about!

It remains to be seen whether this behavior will hold in the long term, but for the short now, it’s fun as well as heartening to see more people using technology and gaming to get up, move around, and connect with one another. It’s a much needed cultural burst of sunshine among the dark clouds of civil unrest and violence that have been hanging around so far this year. So if you’ve been on the fence about downloading it onto your phone, or even if you’ve been an outright naysayer or skeptic – give it a chance and indulge in some fun, ACTIVE escapism. 

A wild Pikachu I encountered on W. 53rd between 5th and 6th Avenues. I think maybe he was on his way to do some shopping, but he ended up coming with me!

A wild Pikachu I encountered on W. 53rd between 5th and 6th Avenues. I think maybe he was on his way to do some shopping, but he ended up coming with me!

Mindfulness and Exercise

"Mindfulness” has been a dominant health and wellness trend over the last couple of years – the word gets thrown around in conversations about everything from eating to shopping. But what does mindfulness really mean, and how does it relate to physical activity?

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as  “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

So, why is it important to have “active, open attention” and to be able to “observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance”? As it turns out, this ability leads to a whole host of other mental health benefits:

•    Fewer depressive symptoms
•    Reduction in stress
•    Better working memory
•    Better focus
•    Less emotional reactivity
•    More cognitive flexibility
•    Greater relationship satisfaction
•    Better fear modulation
•    Greater self-insight

One of the best-known ways to become more mindful is to adopt the practice of mindfulness meditation, which encourages you to concentrate on your breath, body and surroundings for a designated period of time, usually while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. At 99% Fit we were also excited to learn that there are a few ways you can integrate mindfulness into some common physical activities.  For Dummies has some great, simple ideas for how to make running, swimming, and cycling opportunities not just for improving physical fitness, but mental fitness as well:

•    Running: leave the music at home (a tough one for me, I’ll admit!) and run outside so your senses have more to take in. Pay attention to your breathing, how your body feels, and your surroundings – the temperature, the pavement, the wind on your face. Observe any thoughts that arise calmly and without judgment
•    Swimming: as with running, pay attention to your breathing, your heart rate, your body, etc. Also, observe the sensation of your body moving through the water, and how it feels
    Cycling: Take note of how your body feels on the bike, especially points of contact like your hands and feet. When you start cycling, pay attention to the movement of your legs and the wind against your face. Try not to think too much about where you’re going; think about where you are in the moment. 

Anything that helps exercise enhance mental wellness in addition to physical fitness is obviously positive – but not just for the here and now. These benefits help us in the near term, but are also the building blocks for a long, fruitful, and healthy life. 

Your Brain on Fitness

For most of the fitness industry’s existence, the physical benefits of exercise have been touted. While those remain important, a growing body of research has catalyzed an exciting conversation about the mental benefits of exercise. The last few years have shown us that regular physical activity can make our bodies AND our brains much healthier and happier. Consider the following thorough (but incomplete) list of cool things exercise can do for your body’s super computer:

 

·      Regular exercise has been show to increase concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain –- a really important neurotransmitter that helps the brain cope with stress. So more exercise = less stress 

·      Physical activity has also been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression. Just moving your body around has the capacity to make you happier. 

·      Exercise can also help keep your brain in shape throughout old age – and prevent some of the cognitive decline we all assume happens when we get older. Studies have shown that people who exercise have less brain shrinkage and decay in white matter (two components key in brain function) in advanced age.

·      Since most of us are knowledge workers these days, this one’s especially important – if you’re facing writer’s block or are just generally creatively stumped, exercise can get those juices flowing again. Some research has shown that people who exercise can access an increased boost in creativity for up to two hours after completion of a workout 

·      Another important one for anyone stuck behind a desk for most of the day: physical activity can have amazing effects on your professional output. Research has shown that employees who walk at least 10,000 steps a day report boosts in energy, productivity, and job satisfaction (probably why all our FitBits and JawBones tell us to walk that many steps!) 

 

Physical activity has the power to improve virtually every aspect of our lives. The important thing to keep in mind is that exercise should be used in service of our goals – it’s a tool to help us get where we want to go. Whatever our dreams or demands happen to be – battling the blues, finishing a memoir, tackling tough client demands – exercise can improve and hone our abilities to accomplish those things. Because exercise has the ability to better our minds, by extension is has the ability to help us hone our identities – our overall sense of who we are, and who we want to become.