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Do fitness apps make you healthier?

With an increasing number of people turning to fitness tracking apps and wearables to monitor their weight loss progress, count their daily intake of calories and receive notifications when they've reached a fitness goal, it's estimated that the health tracker app and wearable market is to grow considerably by 2020.

Smartphone apps that track how many steps you take, provide exercise routines and let you share your weight loss journey with your friends via social media have become the go-to method of keeping fit. But studies have shown that these apps may be doing more harm than good.

What do studies say?

In 2016, an app that claimed to improve people's mental agility was fined $2 million from the Federal Trade Commission in the US for misleading consumers and preying on the elderly. The company admitted that they deceived users and that their claims had no scientific base.

While it's easy to dismiss this as an isolated incident, it is common to find fitness apps which lack enough or any scientific evidence to back up their claims. More worryingly, other studies have shown that these apps may actually be damaging their users mental health.

One study looked at the weight loss impact of fitness apps on young people over the course of 2 years. It was found that those who used the fitness apps lost less weight than those who did not use the app.

Out of 23 health apps, less than half were effective in their aims to improve people's health. An alcohol cessation app was trialled on a group of university students. The results from this trial surprisingly showed an increase in alcohol consumption from those using the app. However, another app designed to support people after alcohol rehabilitation appeared to decrease the chances of those people from reaching for a drink on a bad day. Another study looking at the relationship between frequently logging data into tracking apps and weight loss concluded that such apps can be beneficial.

Should you use health and fitness apps?

The decision on whether you should use a health and fitness app depends on the kind of person you are and what you want to get out of the app.

For some people, an app might not be enough to motivate them. If you don't think a stand-alone app is enough to help you, it may be more worthwhile to invest in a device such as a fitness wristband or some connected scales. These connected devices make it easier to track your exercise and weight loss efforts without the need to constantly update the app.

The first step to determining which app you should use is to underline the improvement you want to see and identify what may be stopping you. Perhaps you have difficulty making healthy decisions while out and about? If so, you may want to look for apps which show the calorie intake of various meals. If you know you could move more, a walking or running app could be more suitable.

You may need more than one app to help you with your goal. For weight loss, an app which catalogues healthy recipes with the calories could be useful when combined with an app which suggests exercises.

In the same way that quitting habits is difficult, forming new habits such as healthy eating and exercising regularly takes some getting used to.

Tips when using fitness apps

Let the app get to know you. In many fitness apps, they will ask for your height, weight, age, gender and other factors which could affect the output. Once you've given the app the information it needs to determine the most accurate results, let the app track your normal day. This will give you an indication into what areas you could improve upon and what you are doing right. Monitor your intake of calories over these days and keep a record of everything you do.

Be consistent with the data you put in. If the app allows you to input what you've eaten, be honest and consistent. After each meal, log what you ate in the app as soon as you can. This will allow the app to determine the best course of action for you.

You are not defined by numbers. Many apps use arbitrary numbers as goals. These can be 10,000 steps, 3 miles (ca. 5 kilometres) walked, 2,500 calories consumed or 8 hours sleep. Treat these numbers as rough guides and don't be upset if you don't reach them. The human body is a complex organism and no two bodies are the same. A person with a small stride will take more steps than a person with a wider stride within the same distance. Your thyroid could also have a drastic effect on the numbers you see.

Don't become obsessed with the app. Many fitness apps treat exercise like a game, playing on the brain's reward system to make the exercise seem fun. This can lead to an unhealthy obsession with the app - especially if you compete against your friends and family using the app. If you find yourself pacing up and down your living room just to reach your daily step goal, you might be doing more harm than good.

Exercise shouldn't be a chore. Fitness apps can't differentiate between running, cycling or dancing - this is simply due to the way the accelerometer (the gyro which tells the phone which way up it is) in your phone operates. Instead of seeing this as a limitation, use it to your advantage and do something you enjoy such as a sport or dancing.

Take it at your own pace. This is especially important if you are tracking your health along with your friends and family. Don't make drastic changes to your lifestyle based on what the app says. Instead, look for smaller and more manageable changes. These can be as simple as cooking with less oil, eating smaller portions, getting off the bus a stop earlier and walking the rest of the way or going on a walk during your lunch break.

The verdict on fitness apps

Fitness apps are inaccurate and don't work for everyone. Tracking what you eat with an app can be useful in understanding behavioural patterns and making changes to your lifestyle. Binge eating and low levels of exercise can be identified and improved upon using an appropriate app. But you should always express caution when using an app alone which has no data on your heart rate, blood pressure or other biological measurements.

A physical fitness tracker, such as a smartwatch or fitness band, can track your heart rate and exercise more accurately. Some can even monitor your sleep patterns and inform you of the quality of sleep you had. When combined with a suitable app, a physical fitness tracker can provide much more accurate data, allowing you to make appropriate adjustments to your lifestyle.