Apple Watch and fitness: A couch potato's perspective

Can wearable technology help exercise haters get off the couch?

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As Macworld’s resident couch potato, I must confess that I’m a little nonplussed by the fact that so much of the coverage that surrounds the Apple Watch’s fitness features seems to be the work of people who appear to have a… disconcerting familiarity with fitness itself.

Of course, I understand that the need for expert opinion, but it seems to me that those who already love to run, bike, and swim would do well at their sports of choice even if all the technology they had at their disposal consisted of a pencil and some paper.

What about the rest of us—the common folks whose hatred for exercise is matched only by their love for a comfortable couch and a bowl of chips? Can Apple’s latest gadget help us get a better handle on our health?

From couch to coach

Back in February, I wrote a little piece about how a few HealthKit-compatible devices helped me better track metrics like my weight and blood pressure. At the time, I predicted that the advent of the Apple Watch would bring even more improvements to my lifestyle—and, actually, I wasn’t disappointed.

But first things first. I’m happy to report that I continue to be very happy with my HealthKit adventure. The first thing I do in the morning is still to step on my trusted Withings Body Analyzer, and, at least once a week, I use a wireless cuff to take my blood pressure.

To these measurements, I now add information on my heart rate, which the Apple Watch collects almost continuously throughout the day. This data has proven to be surprisingly useful: On a daily basis, it helps me keep track of times when I exercise, and, in the longer term, it allows me to measure my ability to sustain more strenuous activities without, so to speak, breaking a sweat.

Will the real Mr. Tabini stand up?

I’m not a huge fan of the achievements and gamification trend that is often used to reward a person’s activity—I simply find the artificial, Richard Simmons-level cheerfulness that seems to pervade most fitness apps off-putting in the extreme.

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The Watch’s three-ring fitness display has earned a permanent spot on my clock face.

However, I must say that Apple has done a fantastic job with the Watch’s fitness indicators. The device’s three-ringed display gives me an at-a-glance look at three important daily metrics—active calories consumed, exercise, and stand time, and the achievements that can be unlocked through the Fitness app are thoughtful without being cheesy.

Interestingly, I find that the stand indicator has had the biggest impact on my daily routine. Like many people these days, I spend most of my time at a desk, and, when I become absorbed in a task, I tend to sit still for hours on end, oblivious to most of what happens around me. With the Watch, however, a gentle tap on my wrist reminds me to get up every now and then, take a quick break, and walk around a bit. It may seem gimmicky, but it really makes you feel fresher at the end of a long workday.

Burn, baby, burn

I’ve also started tracking my energy intake and expenditure. After all, the Fitness app makes keeping tabs on the latter trivial—all I have to do is wear the watch—and it seems only fitting that, once you figure out how many calories you’re burning, you also want to know how many you’re eating.

The Watch has no way to help with that, of course, but being part of the world’s largest mobile software ecosystem means that there are plenty of complementary apps that can be used for this purpose. For my part, I ended up using MyFitnessPal, which, in addition to being free, comes with a database that includes just about any kind of food you can think of.

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A day in calories, as tracked by MyFitnessPal, with a little help from my Apple Watch.

I have no way of telling how accurate the whole system is, but, at least at my level of fitness, precision isn’t really the point. Instead, with the order-of-magnitude idea that the Watch and MyFitnessPal give me, I can get a good idea of whether I should skip that extra piece of bread that I didn’t really earn, on any given day.

My enemy is a circle

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the circle that gives me the most trouble is the one that tracks exercise. Despite a few attempts at calibrating the Workout app, I cannot seem to get the Watch to properly account for the number of minutes I think I spend exercising.

Thus, on some days, I will get to the end of the afternoon with a nearly full circle despite having done nothing special, while on others I will go on what feel like long, brisk walks for an hour or more without even managing to nudge the indicator forward, regardless of whether I explicitly start the Workout app or simply let the Watch track my activity on its own.

Despite a fair amount of fiddling, I haven’t quite managed to figure out what I’m doing wrong—more importantly, I don’t feel that Apple’s software is really helping me get a good handle on the situation, and I hope that things will get better as new versions of watchOS see the light of day.

You are here

As you have probably surmised by now, the biggest impact that the Watch has had on my daily life has been to give me a sense of context through which I can keep an eye on my health and fitness. With hard data at my disposal, I can make better decisions and work on improving the things that matter almost without thinking.

If you’re a fitness buff, I doubt that any of this will sound particularly revolutionary—indeed, all of the features I’ve described here can be performed just as well by using a dedicated fitness device, which is also likely to cost less than an Apple Watch.

But here’s the trick: I didn’t buy the Watch because I wanted a fitness tracker. From my point of view, all this functionality is a happy accident that I gladly take advantage of, but that, on its own, would never lead me to invest in the time and money required to use a dedicated device.

Much like the iPhone has placed a camera in the hands of millions of people who would not otherwise be taking pictures with dedicated devices, then, the Watch’s biggest innovation is that it has the potential of turning a large crowd of couch potatoes on to a more active lifestyle even if fitness is the last thing on their mind. And, if it worked for me, I’m sure it can work for anyone.


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