Are apps like Fitbit doing "more harm than good"?

A leading computer scientist is not a fan of step counting apps

Are apps like Fitbit doing "more harm than good"?

Picture by Richard Drew AP/Press Association Images

Using an app to count the amount of steps you take every day could be doing you "more harm than good", according to a leading US computer scientist.

Dr Gregory Hager of Johns Hopkins University has argued that "very few" of the estimated 165,000 healthcare apps currently available are based on scientific evidence.

He is particularly critical of apps and devices that set users a target of 10,000 steps.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 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?" he continued. 

"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?"

Exercisers run up and down the Santa Monica Steps, Monday, May 23, 2011, in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

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

None of those, however, are available to the public; they are all research tools.

He 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."

London-based personal trainer Sharif Nashashibi is not as opposed to the pedometers, but believes they can be psychologically counterproductive:

"It's better than nothing. But if you are walking all those steps and then you find that you're not achieving the goal that you wanted, it could have a demotivating factor: 'Well, I tried and it didn't work.' So they're not going to use it any more."