Fitness trackers and mental health apps could be doing more harm than good because they are not based on sound science, researchers have warned, slamming some health app developers to “snake oil salesmen of the 1860s”.
Greg Hager, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said that in the absence of trials or scientific grounding it was impossible to say whether apps were having the intended effect.
“I am sure that these apps are causing problems,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. Hager cited the one-size-fits-all targets provided by some fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit, which sets users a goal of taking 10,000 steps a day, reports the guardian.
Hager claimed the 10,000 steps target dated back to a 1960s Japanese study that showed there were health benefits for men who burned at least 2,000 calories per week through exercise – roughly equivalent to 10,000 steps each day. An early pedometer was known as the manpo-kei, which means “10,000-step meter” in Japanese.
“But is that the right number for any of you in this room?” Hager asked. “Who knows. It’s just a number that’s now built into the apps.”
“We have an incredible number of apps in the wild basically being downloaded by people who may or may not understand what they are actually telling them or what the context for that is,” he said. “Until we have evidence-based apps you could amplify issues. I mean, imagine everyone thinks they have to do 10,000 steps but you are not actually physically capable of doing that, you could actually cause harm or damage by doing so.”
However, others suggested that the fears had been overblown.
“Everyone sees a gravy train and are not hesitating to jump on board even if there is little of no evidence of utility, on the basis that there is a vast amount of money to be made,” he said. “This field is currently in its infancy and can be likened to the snake oil salesmen of the 1860s,” he added. “Originally, snake oil was an effective Chinese remedy for aching joints and inflammation. Then it was ripped off by unscrupulous fraudsters.”health apps