Get fit with Apple Watch
Can Apple’s wearable beat dedicated fitness trackers?
Wearables are already big business in the fitness world. Users talk of the ‘quantified self’ as the latest advance in fitness optimisation. That may sound glib, but if you’re looking to get fit and stay healthy then performance data is crucial to achieving that goal. So when word got out that Apple was working on a wristwatch with fitness tracking features, my interest naturally piqued. When I heard various models would be available, one called the Apple Watch Sport, I knew I had to check it out.
The spec sheet is impressive: the Watch packs an accelerometer, a gyroscope and optical heart-rate sensors, but no GPS (more on that later). What struck me when I got hold of one though was how light and durable it feels on the wrist. Much has been written about the design’s solid water-resistance, but the aluminium case and scratch-resistant glass display really do feel fitness-ready. Twinned with a white ‘fluoroelastomer’ flexible strap, it’s secure yet comfy, and certainly looks like a sleek athletic timepiece. But how would it perform – and more importantly, would it translate to a fitter, healthier me?
My first job was to get familiar with Apple’s Activity app, which tracks your movement over the day and divides this data into three metrics called Move, Exercise and Stand. I opened the app and expected to have to input my personal information, but instead it automatically imported my stats from the iPhone’s Health app. What I did have to enter was my daily activity goal, or how many (active) calories I aimed to burn. I started with a round figure of
1,000, tapped the Start Moving button, and went on with my day.
About ten minutes into my walk to work that morning, I looked at the time, then swiped up to access the Watch’s Glances feature. My activity was shown as three concentric rings; the outer red ‘Move’ ring had progressed about a fifth of the way round to indicate calories burned – a swipe left revealed an exact number: 124.
Ten minutes later I arrived at the office, sat at my desk and checked my wrist again to find almost a third of the circle complete.
Not long after, I felt a subtle ding on my wrist. The Watch display informed me that I’d been sat still for an hour and it was time to get up. I’d received similar subtle warnings from Jawbone’s UP24. Many of us are guilty of remaining sedentary for far too long. It slows metabolism, which affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat. In fact studies have linked excessive sitting with being overweight, type 2 diabetes, and even premature death – regardless of how much exercise you do. I received three more notifications that morning, heeding each one, and noticed that by lunchtime the Activity app’s blue Stand circle had filled up by a third. I took a stroll through town during my break and by the time I got back to my desk the red ring had moved ahead again, although the green Exercise circle was yet to stir.
My walk back home is uphill and always gets my heart going. I was able to check this with a swipe up on the Watch face into Glances, and received a measurement of 90bpm. I also noticed that, reacting to my increased heart-rate, the green Exercise circle had now progressed by almost a third, so I chose the long route home in an attempt to take it into the final stretch. By the day’s end, my activity update showed completed Move and Stand circles, but for Exercise, I came up short. Clearly I had not been intensive enough!
I arrived, sat at my desk, checked my wrist again to find almost a third of the circle complete
Generally, Apple Watch has to be removed and charged every night, so no sleep data is logged – unlike the UP24, Misfit Flash and Fitbit Charge and Surge units. That’s a shame, since sleep can be a good indicator of overall health and is especially insightful if you’re looking to beat insomnia by being more active (see our review of the Emfit QS on page 87).
I got up early the next day for a run to test the Watch’s Workout app. I secured my iPhone 5 in an armband, selected Outdoor Run on the Watch, chose the open ‘No Goal’ option and took to the streets. Every so often I raised my wrist to see the display showing time elapsed and actual time; swiping left offered live pace, distance, calories and (after a delay) heart-rate data. The Watch display is a thing of beauty, but I found it difficult to read in direct sunlight. I also found swiping awkward when running, especially after working up a sweat. Automatic progress updates every mile were therefore welcome, and allowed me to keep tabs on my session at regular intervals. I returned home at the fifth mile, but neither the Watch nor my iPhone offered any detailed postrun analysis such as splits or route covered – stats the Fitbit apps do well – though I did notice that my workout session had counted toward the Exercise circle in Activity, confirming the tight integration between the two apps. Later that day I
changed the graph-based workout metrics to numerical stats via the iPhone app, which made for easier viewing at a glance, and customised the watch display by adding an Activity button directly to the clock face.
Meanwhile I kept up my stand-every-hour routine, even if that meant moving about for only a minute or two an hour. I actually received a notification after standing still for too long while cooking. Surprisingly, these prompts didn’t get annoying; I welcomed them, especially once my ‘achievements’ started to mount.
The next day I got a message advising me to up my calories burned goal because I’d overshot my current one for three days straight. It was moments like these that made the Watch feel alive to my movements and went some way to compensating for its nightly power demands.
Still, I was disappointed by how the Watch only recorded my heart-rate in the background every 10 minutes, especially when running. The Fitbit Surge tracks heart-rate at one-second intervals during exercise, although when it comes to tracking physical intensity during workouts that involve irregular movements, all of these wrist-based wearables prove pretty much useless. A case in point: the next day I fired up the Workout app on my Apple Watch, defined the exercise as ‘Other’ and performed a 20-minute CrossFit routine that left me breathless and dripping with sweat, yet my calorie burn count read like I’d gone on nothing more than a brisk walk.
I was happy to discover that at least for the Watch’s native apps, running without my iPhone was almost no different than running with it. Granted, the Watch relies on an iPhone for GPS, but the Workout app doesn’t map your run anyway, and GPS only helps to record distance a bit more accurately. The Watch alone actually got better over time at calibrating my stride, so the mileage remained rather accurate anyway. All of which will come as good news to owners of the sizeable iPhone 6 Plus (I advise a waistband if you simply have to take it with you).
That said, the third-party Watch apps I tested offered very little over Apple’s own when shorn of GPS; none of them made any use of the Watch’s heart-rate sensors as Apple has yet to give developers access to the necessary API. The Strava app failed to feed back my cycling sessions to the Activity or Workout apps, which was a tad deflating. Worse still, its workout timer stopped and started randomly during exercises, and was inconsistent with concurrent readings on the Strava iOS app.
Runtastic on the other hand was at least consistent, and provided a nice breakdown of my activity for the month at a swipe, while its postrun analysis provided more granular stats (again, as long as I took my iPhone out with me).
All in all, I was unimpressed with the early versions of the third-party running/cycling apps I tested, so I stuck with the native app, which also offers elliptical/rower/stair stepper tracking. I particularly liked how the Workout app shows your most recent exercise at the top of its session list and entices you to improve on it. I soon filled the 250-music track limit on the Watch and paired it with a pair of Bluetooth Jaybird Bluebuds X earphones, leaving me free to enjoy my music and leave my iPhone at home.
After two weeks with the Watch I had completed four five-mile outdoor runs, two eight-mile cycling sessions and looked on as the Watch intelligently raised the bar on my activity goal, from 1,000 up to 1,400 active calories, a number I was now regularly hitting. I was also sedentary far fewer hours of the day, lost five pounds in weight and reflected on my screen of milestone achievements proudly.
Ultimately, if you’re a serious athlete, Apple’s Watch might not be what you’re looking for. Like other wearables, its focus on quantity rather than quality of movement means it struggles to track complex workout routines. This isn’t a failing of the Apple Watch per se; rather, activity trackers in general have a long way to go if they are to record metabolic activity with real consistency. Still, the Watch should please anyone who’s happy to limit their tracking to rhythmic cardiovascular activities like running or cycling.
That said, if you’re looking to lose weight, you’re also going to need to track what you eat. On its own the Watch can’t help you with that, but twinned with a decent third-party caloriecounting iPhone app such as MyFitnessPal, or by using a digital weighing scale, the Apple Watch will surely help you meet your fitness goals.
The Workout app shows your most recent exercise at the top and entices you to improve on it
There’s actually three default ways to track exercise: The Activity app (green circle), the Workout app and through Activity in Glances.
The Workout app is simply laid out and provides data for your most recent activity: run, walk, cycle and others.
Whatever your workout, set a calorie goal and see if you can beat it. Tap the Start button and off you go!
If you would rather set a goal of distance instead of calorie burn, Workout will let you do that too.