• Dr. Todd Hurst, MD

Could Pokemon Go Save Your Life?



As a cardiologist with a special interest in preventing heart disease, I know a lot of things that can save lives.  Not smoking, a healthy diet, treating high blood pressure… the list is long.

Do we need to put the mobile app Pokémon GO on the list?  

If you’re not playing Pokémon GO, you’ve likely heard of it.  The smartphone game already has more daily users than Twitter, but what’s particularly interesting about the app is that it might be more than just entertainment.  It also may be the first effective digital health app.  

Unlike most digital games that promote “couch time”, Pokémon GO encourages players to get out of the house and walk.  When my kids first told me about the game, I didn’t see the relevance to my cardiology practice, but then I met John.  John was new patient who came to me after having a heart attack.  Like many, he was struggling to get his blood pressure and other numbers in the right range, but I soon learned there was more to his story.

  • John had survived a cardiac arrest.  When he had his heart attack, his heart went into a rhythm called ventricular fibrillation which causes death in a few minutes if not treated with an electrical shock.

  • He is only 38 years old.  With a wife.  And 3 young kids.

John was very fortunate.  Cardiac arrest is common (about a 1000 per day in the US), but recovery is rare.  Less than 10% survive an out of hospital cardiac arrest.  

John’s story is a stark reminder that heart disease causes devastating loss on a regular basis.  More striking; most of those events never needed to happen.

Life’s Simple 7

It may be hard to believe, but most heart disease is preventable.  One of the most rewarding parts of my job is telling my patients that they DO have control over their future health and that heart disease IS preventable.  In fact, optimizing 7 things (called Life’s’ Simple 7 by the American Heart Association) can lower your risk of heart disease up to 80%.

Those simple things are:

  • Normal cholesterol

  • Normal blood pressure

  • Normal glucose (blood sugar)

  • Normal body weight

  • Physical activity

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Not smoking

When I told John about Life’s Simple 7, he was encouraged.  Now he knew what he needed to do.  His next question?

“Where do I start?”

Physical Activity as a Keystone Habit

For John – and many of my patients – physical activity is a great place to start.  While each of Life’s Simple 7 are important, I emphasize physical activity with my less active patients because I’ve found that it can be a keystone habit to better health. Becoming physically active often leads to better numbers (like blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol) and starts a positive cascade of healthier choices.  

When I asked John how active he was, his answer was the one I hear most often, “Not as active as I should be.”  John’s not lazy, he is an accomplished business man and works hard.  He’s also intelligent and knows that his blood pressure, blood sugar and weight would be better if he were more active.  Despite this, he hasn’t been able to make physical activity a routine part of his life.

Until recently.

John has been tracking his steps for several months with his Fitbit and he noticed a big increase in his step count in the last several weeks.  At first he wasn’t sure why.  He wasn’t exercising more, but then he realized that it was because of a new game that his kids were playing.  Pokémon GO.

John’s evenings are spent with his family, typically centered around television or video games.  But when his kids became “obsessed” (his word) with Pokémon GO, he found himself walking his neighborhood with them looking for Pokémon to capture and getting eggs to hatch.

While John’s experience is just one story (and time will tell if he sticks with it), a Google search shows that many share his experience; playing Pokémon GO is fun AND leads to increased physical activity.

Is this missing ingredient in “digital health”?

For all the promise of activity tracking devices and health promoting platforms, digital health applications have generally been a disappointment.  Most of us in healthcare are still looking for effective ways to help our patients benefit from better lifestyle choices.  


And the beat goes on,

R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE


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