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Can Health Tracking Apps Spur Risk-Taking?

Man on moutainbike
(Image credit: <a href=''>Mountain biking</a> via Shutterstock)

When G. Smith, a cyclist in New York City, installed Strava on her phone last summer — a GPS tracking app that allows users to see and share their times on trial routes — she was alerted that the time she had clocked on her route home from work was close to the record for that course.

The app said she was only six seconds from being "Queen of the Mountain," or QOM, the title given to the user with the fastest time on a particular course.

"Six seconds? I thought. I can beat that!" Smith said. "So on the next ride home, I went hard. I was going to win this!"

Smith (who did not want her full name used in this article for privacy reasons) did gain the title of QOM that day, but she was later annoyed that she had been so worked-up by the notification.

"Somehow, I let this stupid app seep into my brain to turn even my wandering, ambling ride home after a hard day at work into a competition," Smith told LiveScience.

While Smith did not injure herself that day, some experts say that health gadgets and apps that track our physical activity — part of the so-called "quantified self" movement — may bring out people's competitive streak, and could sometimes increase the risk for injury.

However, others argue that it takes a specific personality to engage in competitive or risky behavior, and that no app or gadget should be blamed for such behavior. [See 9 Odd Ways Your Tech Devices May Injure You ]

The debate over whether tracking apps — Strava in particular — can lead to risky behavior was sparked a few years ago after a San Francisco area cyclist was killed trying to break the Strava King of the Mountain downhill speed record on a particular route. The cyclist's family said Strava was responsible, and sued the app maker, but the case was dismissed this summer.

In a statement, the company said, "The court recognized that Strava, as a neutral online facilitator for a community of athletes, does not control who, where, when and under what conditions someone may choose to ride a segment (a stretch of road or trail defined by Strava users) and that it did not increase the inherent risks of cycling," according to the news website AllThingsD.

After the cyclist's death, Strava instituted a feature to allow users to flag certain routes as hazardous, which disabled comparative rankings on those routes.

Christina Frederick-Recascino, a psychologist and professor of human factors and systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said it's possible that health gadgets or apps that allow users to track physical activity information — such as number of steps walked, miles run, or the time it takes to finish a route — could set people up for injury in some cases.

"By focusing solely on the outcome, what the little display says at the end, you're missing the process, you're missing the experience," Frederick-Recascino said.

Such an outcome-driven focus can cause people to miss cues that they are working themselves too hard, such as fatigue and muscle strain, Frederick-Recascino said. A tracking app might not provide information about the best running form, for instance, but this information may be important for preventing injuries, she said.

However, Steve Portenga, an assistant professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, disagreed that tracking gadgets and apps played a role in injuries.

"If someone is predisposed to making bad decisions, taking risks, [tracking devices and apps] might open up some avenues to doing that," Portenga said. But "they probably would have found another way to do something risky with or without the app," he said.

"At the end of the day, I don't think any of these apps remotely come close to causing or creating or adding to anything that isn't already going on," Portenga told LiveScience. People have always been able to race against fellow runners or cyclists on the road, and a simple watch lets people track their racing times, and compare them with others.

To avoid strains, fatigue or injuries while using tracking technology, Frederick-Recascino said not to let the device set your goals. "You set your goals, and then use the device to monitor those," Frederick-Recascino said.

Common sense is also important. People have a responsibility to monitor their own bodies, and know their limits, Portenga said.

Smith said she uses Strava sparingly, and fights to ignore the email notifications that come in. While she thinks some of the features are fun, she dislikes the fact that it turns everything into a competition.

"This idea that everything is a segment, and you can't shut off the notifications that flood in saying 'just-go-faster or someone else is better than you,' is what makes the whole idea both meaningless and twisted," Smith said.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.