Most of us know that a walk outside is good for us.
Fads like forest bathing and #HotGirlWalks are all over our social feeds to underscore what scientists have been telling us for years: The natural world contributes to people's overall well-being in a myriad ways - both physical and mental.
Also, one of the most comprehensive studies ever done around activity tracking shows that walking at a brisk pace for about 30 minutes daily reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia and death.
But you know who's not doing it enough? Kids.
A National Recreation and Park Association report shows that children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation.
Technology use is up, unstructured playtime is down and the time kids spend outside decreases every year. Can an unlikely ally - in the form of a mobile video game -actually change that? A surprising number of experts are starting to say "yes."
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"It's the best kept secret of fitness and not the sexiest solution around," laughs celebrity personal trainer and model Jen Widerstrom as she shows me a colorful app on her smartphone over Zoom. "I'm on level 48, and just today, I hit 1,251,000 steps."
"It really is a game that convinces you that walking can be fun and interactive and gets you out into the community and seeing things," Widerstrom says.
Pikmin Bloom is the latest title from Niantic - the company behind this other little game you may have heard of called Pokémon Go (iOS, Android), you know, just one of the most popular mobile games of all time.
Like Pokémon Go, Pikmin Bloom builds on Nintendo's beloved franchise, overlaying digital characters with your real world thanks to the magic of augmented reality or AR.
"Human beings are at their best when the virtual world that we create leads people outside," founder and CEO of Niantic John Hanke tells me over Zoom. "Our games are all built to get people off the couch, outside, and into the real world."
I was an early tester of Pikmin Bloom when it was still in beta this time last year and started using it again regularly about two months ago. It connects to smartphone or smartwatch health data and lets you earn new characters, rewards and features inside the game the more you walk, jog or even skip around outside.
"It's a blend of an exercise application and a video game," Hanke explains. "There are these adorable small creatures that you collect and they follow you along on your walk. As you're moving, your steps get counted and you can plant flowers, collect new characters and feed and nurture your Pikmin. You're really taking the fun stuff that video games have in terms of characters, progression and leveling up and combining it with outside activity."
Niantic launched new features recently that let you team up with family and friends to complete a challenge as a group, win achievements and share results on social media. Kids too young for smartphones can play alongside parents on the grownups' devices and a new wheelchair feature logs pushes versus steps.
I also like to use it as a sort of life-logging app to see where I've been in the world and collect photos which is a feature Widerstrom mentioned too. She also uses the private groups feature with her clients and says they love when they log more daily steps than she does.
"It's a really interesting glimpse of the future where our digital and physical worlds connect in a more healthy way, especially for kids growing up behind screens," Widerstrom adds.
Mobile video games use AR IRL
With so much talk of the metaverse these days and questions around the ways our digital and physical worlds will continue to blend, some experts say apps like Pikmin Bloom are on the right track in boosting "green time" or time outdoors.
"Recent advances in mobile AR make it possible for the first time - for kids especially -to combine screen time and "green time" in an entertaining and productive way," Dr. Tali Ditye, cofounder and editor-in-chief of parent advice site Mommyhood101 writes via email. "My seven-year-old niece plays Pikmin Bloom regularly, navigating the neighborhood near her home in New Hampshire. She is off the couch, experiencing her real-world environments in a completely new way, gaining steps and confidence along the way!"
"AR has the potential to bring digital experiences into the world around you," Neil Voss, game industry veteran and co-founder of Anima, an augmented reality platform and creative studio, tells me via email. "We've seen that when you use that potential to send people on adventures - encouraging them to visit places to unearth things in the real world - it has tremendously positive outcomes."
The app isn't perfect and can be glitchy if you're in a place with low cell connectivity. Since it uses location data, it can also be a bit of a battery drain. But the hardest thing for me is to put it away.
"With Pikmin specifically, you can have it in your pocket and not 'actively' use it all the time," Hanke said when I asked him about that. "It continues to track your steps, summarize your count at the end of the day and what you've earned and motivate you to keep going the next day and beyond."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kids fitness: Mobile video games encourage exercise, going outdoors