Science tackles the good and the bad of health apps

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Experts aren’t quite sure whether health apps, those which encourage people to exercise, eat well and watch out for themselves, are really making a difference.

In the British medical journal BMJ, one researcher writes that the apps have the potential to encourage better health and habits.

But another refers to the lack of evidence showing the apps are effective and raises the question as to whether they might cause unnecessary anxieties.

Health apps have been around for more than 10 years and tens of thousands are available on smartphones.

Some have been shown to improve health and have “great potential to reduce morbidity and mortality,” argues Iltifat Husain, editor of, and assistant professor of emergency medicine, Wake Forest School of Medicine in the US.

He says two randomised controlled trials have demonstrated that weight loss apps on personal digital assistants increased compliance and improved weight loss when compared to traditional programs.

He argues that doctors shouldn’t wait for scientific studies to prove benefits because these have already been shown and a lot of people are already using them.

Research has shown that the fitness apps Fitbit and Jawbone accurately count steps and physical activity but this doesn’t mean a user will have improved exercise rates.

Husain says the US Food and Drug administration only regulates apps which turn smartphones into medical devices. This means untested apps can be sold with unvalidated health claims.

In a second BMJ article, Des Spence, a general practitioner, says most health apps are “mostly harmless and likely useless”.

However, he warns of the rise of apps used alongside wearable devices which can monitor heart rate and blood pressure.

He says these are untested and unscientific and play on the fears of an “unhealthily health obsessed generation”.

These types of apps can “ignite extreme anxiety” and “medical harm” through overdiagnosis.

The series of articles includes a personal commentary by a healthy user of a health apps.

Sylvia Warman, an office orker in London, uses the fitness app FitBit One which measures the number of steps taken and monitors sleep patterns.

Warman says she finds the app easier to use than traditional pedometers, and can see averages, make comparisons and measure calories burnt.

As a result, she has become more active on a day-to-day basis.

She also documents her sleeping patterns, and explains that the app links to others to compare walking routes and record food and alcohol intake. Warman stopped taking alcohol for six weeks as an experiment and found that this helped her to sleep better. She has also improved her diet.

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