Life Health & Wellbeing

Monday 22 January 2018

Rude health: Measuring mania only leads to fatigue

Gadgets that track every ounce of activity exercise the sharp mind of Maurice Gueret, who finds only muddy waters

The world market in fitness trackers is now worth €3bn a year
The world market in fitness trackers is now worth €3bn a year
Maurice Gueret

Maurice Guere

Has anyone else noticed how many joggers have now taken up sprinting? Usain Bolt is far more likely to knock you over on a Dublin footpath these days than Eamonn Coghlan. Those of us who prefer leisurely dog walks now treat oncoming specimens in Lycra as if they are high-speed trains. Retract the lead, make a single file of animal and owner, and don the muzzle as a whoosh of sweaty, pained-looking humanity flies by. I blame these daft activity trackers that are all the rage. Neither the dog, nor I, care too much about how many calories we burn, which leg we cock or how many sniffs, wags, waves or conversations we have along the way. It's all exercise. Enjoy it.

The world market in fitness trackers is worth well over €3bn a year. Estimates suggest this may double by 2020. In Singapore, their minister for health recently funded a study to see if wearable devices were of any benefit to health. Eight hundred workers were divided into four groups that received activity gadgets, cash, charity donations or nothing at all. Six months in, the cash-incentive group was doing the most vigorous exercise. After a year, the group using a fitness device were doing a few more minutes exercise a week than the rest, but the authors identified no evidence of improvement in health outcome. The only thing constant measuring gives you is fatigue.

* I was writing recently about doctors and their cars. The chosen few with their Aston Martins may be giving the rest of us banger-owners a bad name. It's interesting that when cars first came to Ireland, doctors were very much at the vanguard of Irish motoring. In many localities, it was the GP who was the first car owner. In 1924, there was a well-attended protest meeting of new motorists in Dublin's Mansion House. There was considerable anger at the high level of motor taxation levied by government, and medics were to the fore in protesting. Among the speakers was a well-to-do ear, nose and throat man from St Vincent's called PJ Keogh. He played his golf at Portmarnock, saw private patients on Fitzwilliam Street, headed up the clay-pigeon shooters of Ireland and attended plenty of political fundraising dinners in his day. Dr Keogh told the meeting that "the motor car was an essential part of a medical man's outfit and might be the means of saving many lives a year".

* Before he got his first car, Dr Keogh used to take the train to see patients when he was asked to consult. In 1912, he took one down to Kildare to open up and drain an abscess that had developed on a patient's tonsils. The condition is known to doctors as a quinsy. On his return to Dublin, a junior surgeon asked him what the fee was for the outing. He replied, "Seventeen pounds, four shillings and ten pence." The house surgeon was amazed at the preciseness of the sum. He asked Dr Keogh how he arrived at that figure. "Simple . . . It was all the money they had in the house," was the reply.

* Cork's North Infirmary will be 30 years closed next year. As the oldest general hospital in the city, it began life in 1720 and gave service to cholera victims of the Famine, wounded gunmen during the War of Independence and many ordinary citizens before and since. Built on the site of a church that was burned during the siege of Cork, stories of hauntings have circled the North Infirmary ever since. There was one about a phantom nun who might have made a fatal mistake on the wards and could never rest afterward. There was another story of a lady who died in childbirth and came back to look for her child. Part of me would love to investigate some of these stories for a TV documentary, but the other part of me is a big coward. I was contacted recently by a nurse who trained there in the 1960s. Student nurses were called probationers back then, almost as if they, too, might commit some terrible crime on the wards. She was interested in the stories I was telling of Dublin hospitals handing out Guinness, and confirmed that the North Infirmary had a 'men only' policy in handing out a free bottle of stout every day on the medical wards. The ladies got nothing, and she wonders how the ladies of today would react to such a discriminatory policy. She cannot quite recall whether the daily bottle was from Murphy's or Beamish. But it most certainly wasn't a Guinness.

* I get the odd bit of criticism for not doing enough health promotion in the column. Everyone else is telling you how to live these days, so it's no harm to shake the odd pinch of scepticism over their advice. There is only so much that lifestyle can do for a poker player. The cards you are dealt are, perhaps, more important. And we all lose in the long run, anyway. Health advice is perhaps best reserved for the young, but then they don't listen either. However, the HSE is concerned this autumn about the danger of going on mud runs. There has been a big surge in running through muddy farmland as an adventure sport. Public-health doctors are warning of the dangers of animal poop and animal pee. Citing campylobacteriosis, norovirus and leptospirosis infections in America, nasty diarrhoea in France and an unspecified outbreak of something-or-other last year in Cork, mud-run organisers have been warned. If you do feel the need to run with the herd, then it's best to avoid swallowing any water or mud, cover cuts with waterproof bandages, wash with soap immediately after and get a good shower. And be warned. Symptoms of some farm-acquired diseases can take weeks to arise, so see a doctor should you develop anything.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the Irish Medical Directory

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