Why an app a day can keep the doctor away

From your sleeping patterns to eating habits, your phone can keep you fit. By Rob Sharp

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The Independent Online

Forget the bathroom scales. Those wishing to keep tabs on their health will soon be able to wear an "intelligent bracelet" to keep tabs on their movement andfood intake.

The band, packed with microchips that monitor the user's health levels and an accompanying smartphone app, is the latest product exploiting the obsession with using technology to measure everything from how frequently we have sex to how many footsteps we take in a day.

US consumer technology firm Aliph, known mainly for its leisure products, has raised $70m (£43m) from US banking corporation JPMorgan Chase & Co to help fund a new piece of "functional jewellery", the Jawbone UP, launching across the world later this year.

The wristband measures movement, food intake and sleep patterns, and joins a slew of recently-released iPhone apps and miniature gadgets allowing consumers to focus on every element of their lifestyle, in a bid to live healthier lives.

While Jawbone's manufacturers claim there are health benefits to such personal micro-monitoring, some experts have raised concerns over such devices' reliability, and whether it is wise to publicise details of one's bodily functions across the internet.

"Jawbone has a great existing brand name and they have obviously been monitoring the success of other companies within the field," said Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch Europe.

"The lucrative nature of the health gadget market has led to the funding they have been able to attract.

"For years venture capitalists have been talking about the power of this sector – and how what was lacking was people's ability to monitor their own health. The recent addition of product to smart phones is a killer combination."

Bandar Antabi, director of European business development at Jawbone, said: "We are trying to provide a utility to allow people to live healthier lives."

The company claims the device will monitor people's activity "24/7" combining a mobile app that analyses their activity with a website which ticks off one's goals and sets exercise challenges.

Jawbone has won plaudits for its bluetooth headsets, considered to be so deftly designed that one was exhibited in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of an industrial design exhibition. The firm now hopes to emulate other recent successes in the health gadget field, which include Nike Plus, a sensor inserted into a shoe which can connect with an iPhone or iPod Nano, to record someone's running speed.

US health company PulseTracer has launched Basis, a wrist monitor that traces heart rates, temperature and skin response, while a similar firm, Affectiva, has put out Q – a wrist sensor that monitors motion, temperature and electrodermal activity, a key indicator for stress, relaxation and arousal.

However the flood of information should come with its own health warning. Fitbit, a compact wearable device that clips on to clothing, also captures information about health activities, including steps taken, distance travelled, calories burned, exercise intensity levels and levelsof sleep.

Users can log nutrition, weight, and sexual activity on a special website to help analyse their health. But last month, technology website thenextweb.com reported that details of users sex lives were freely available via Google.

This was due to an error in Fitbit's default privacy settings. Users shared details such as: "active, vigorous effort, started at 11.30pm".

"While nowhere near is startling as finding your credit card details published on Google, this is perhaps a little too much information to be sharing with the world and something current and future users should know about," wrote Zee M Kane, thenextweb.com's editor.

Some have cast aspersions on the reliability of such gadgets and gizmos. Earlier this month, researchers from Clemson University in South Carolina created a watch-like device, the Bite Counter, which counts every bite that users make.

The gadget analyses "wrist-rolling" motions to come up with an average daily calorie count. However US medical researchers poured scorn upon it, saying it was difficult to for such a system to accurately estimate calorie intake.

"A much better way, demonstrated in several research studies, is regular monitoring of weight using a common household scale," said Dr Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

British exercise professionals are also divided over how useful such products are.

"I tend to like feedback tools," said Kate Sheehy, a London-based physiotherapist and fitness books author. "I would definitely give them to a patient. If it motivates people then it helps. But these things are often like going to the gym. There is an immediate uptake and then the numbers using them will die down."

Chartered physiotherapist Lesley McBride, who works with the England rugby under-20s squad added: "We do use a lot of tools, to measure heart-rate, for example, but we wouldn't just jump on a bandwagon.

"We would have to be sure that it did what it said it does. While such tools can be useful, there are so many gimmicks out there that you need to be careful about what you endorse."