Step-counting apps could be harming users, scientist claims

Leading researcher says devices are driving people to chase over-ambitious goals

Step-counter apps could be doing harm by driving people to chase over-ambitious goals, a leading  scientist has claimed. File photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Step-counter apps could be doing harm by driving people to chase over-ambitious goals, a leading scientist has claimed. File photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

 

Step-counter apps could be doing harm by driving people to chase over-ambitious goals, a leading computer scientist has claimed.

Dr Greg Hager, from Johns Hopkins University in the US, maintains “very few” of the estimated 165,000 available healthcare apps are based on scientific evidence.

Despite this, the apps are likely to have an enormous impact on public health due to their popularity.

Dr Hager was especially critical of apps and devices that set the user a target of 10,000 steps.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston, he 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.”

Survey

Meanwhile, a survey of several hundred mental health apps used for coaching and diagnosis found only five that could be linked to an evidence base, he said.

None of the five were available to the public and were all research tools.

Dr Hager said: “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.”

PA