Since its initial release by San Francisco-based Niantic, Inc. last month, Pokémon Go has redefined the idea of success in the mobile gaming market. The international hit got 100 million total downloads and $10 million in daily revenue just three weeks after its release, encouraging players all over the world to head out the door and start hunting. One player logged 24 miles in two days while searching for Pokémon around San Francisco, while the first person ever to “catch them all” had to go on a global expedition to do it. Since then, the Guinness Book has officially awarded five world records to Pokémon Go: among them, Niantic’s app earned the highest revenue ($206.5 million), most downloads, and most charts topped simultaneously for any mobile game in its first month.
Beyond helping Nintendo’s stock prices, Pokémon Go has offered some unintended benefits for its users. By getting players to get up and move around to collect game items and search for Pokémon, the game subtly encourages physical activity. Pokémon Go might not be the first app to get people to exercise, but it is certainly the most successful. The potential benefits go beyond physical health, with many reporting improvements in both their social lives and mental health. This formula is perfect for those with life-altering illnesses (like cancer), providing distraction, motivation, and a light-hearted way to stay active. Those advantages might be more apparent among the younger, smartphone-savvy under-50 crowd, but even older players are getting caught up in the craze (and feeling better because of it).
The success of Pokémon Go has reminded doctors and the public how much mobile technology can help maintain fitness and health. 58 percent of American adults own a smartphone, and 70 percent of adults reported keeping track of at least one health indicator, such as blood pressure, weight, or sleep patterns. Apps such as Apple Health, Fitbit, Withings Health Mate, MyFitnessPal, Argus, and Moves already offer a variety of health tracking services, using built-in device hardware to track health indicators, steps taken, distance covered, and so on. Accessories and standalone items like the Apple Watch, wristbands, or transdermal patches allow health apps to go even further, measuring calories burned, heartrate, and even glucose and potassium levels. Doctors and experts still disagree over the extent to which these apps really improve health outcomes: some contend that randomized trials already provide evidence that apps increase compliance with doctor’s instructions and aid weight loss, while others point to evidence that show little impact. Des Spence, a general practitioner, considers the apps “harmless and likely useless,” but warns of the potential for “untested and unscientific” measurements of heart rate and blood pressure to cause anxiety for an “unhealthily health obsessed generation.”
The rising popularity of health apps also harkens back to years of debate over whether cellular devices could be carcinogenic. Some studies have purportedly shown evidence to support the claim, including a recent study by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) that linked wireless signals and increased rates of cancer in rats. As critics and outside observers have pointed out, though, the results of those studies have been inconsistent and largely inconclusive. The NTP’s, for example, exposed its rat subjects to much more relative radiation than the average person would ever receive from their iPhone or Android Decades of research have yet to establish any concrete links between phones and cancer risk, although the misconstrued results presented by fast-moving headlines have done nothing to set the public at ease.
The NTP isn’t the only body presenting an unclear picture of the debate. When the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) claims cellphones could be carcinogenic, for example, it also leaves out important details like levels of exposure. IARC’s scientists often look at much higher levels of exposure than would ever be experienced in the real world, and the France-based branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) states quite clearly that its job is to decide whether a substance can cause cancer at any point—regardless of whether a person would need to be exposed to an amount that goes far beyond what’s possible in reality. The body has previously been criticized for listing such commonplace items as wood dust and meat as “known carcinogens,” and that high bar helps explain why only one of the nearly 1,000 substances evaluated by the body has ever been exonerated of a link to cancer. Of course, by the time NTP or IARC’s “probable” findings hit the news cycle, they are immediately re-construed into hard fact.
Whether or not there is a link to be established between cell phone radiation and cancer, user habits may be rendering the debate a moot point. Far fewer people actually use phones to place calls now, with a growing majority switching to texting, messenger applications, and other ways of communicating that keep devices well away from the ear. Thanks to apps like Pokémon Go, the health impact of mobile technology may turn into a quantifiable positive.