Step counting apps and fitness trackers do more harm than good, experts warn

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Most of us have a step counter of some description, it might be on our smartphones or it might be a watch, but one expert has claimed that they are a waste of time and potentially dangerous – citing that they force people to focus on unrealistic health and fitness goals.

Dr Greg Hager, from John Hopkins University says that “very few” of the estimated 165,000 healthcare apps and fitness trackers are actually based on any scientific evidence. These types of apps have been downloaded more than one billion times.

Dr Hager was particularly critical of those apps that encourage users to walk 10,000 steps, saying that there was little point in setting a minimum target.

Dr Hager was recently speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston and said: “Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and
I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message ‘you did 10,000 steps today’.

“But why is 10,000 steps important? What’s big about 10,000?

“Turns out in 1960 in Japan they figured out that the average Japanese man, when he walked 10,000 steps a day burned something like 3,000 calories and that is what they thought the average person should consume so they picked 10,000 steps as a number.

“But is that the right number for any of you in this room? Who knows? It’s just a number that’s now built into the apps.”

Later Dr Hager went on to discuss mental health apps and said that only five of several hundred surveyed could be linked to an evidence base, and none of these were available to the public.

Dr Hager added: “I think apps could definitely be doing more harm than good. I am sure that these apps are causing problems.

“Without any scientific evidence base, how do you know that any of these apps are good for you? They may even be harmful.

“The 10,000 steps example typifies the problem in many ways.

“We all know that probably the more you exercise, the better it is for you. But if you are elderly or infirm then this is not going to be good for you.”

A report released last year found no evidence to suggest that fitness trackers provide any kind of health benefits.

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