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A Few Words (And an Incredibly Short Run) With Apple's Fitness Guru Jay Blahnik (Q&A)

The all-day activity app -- that bullseye with red, green and blue rings that measure exercise, movement and standing -- subtly prods Apple Watch wearers.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Jay Blahnik is easy to spot in a crowd.

His zero-percent body fat leanness speaks to a career devoted to fitness — as an instructor, trainer, workout-video star and a consultant for Nike, Nautilus, Bowflex, Schwinn and Equinox Fitness Clubs.

These days, he’s Apple’s front man for the health, wellness and fitness features of the Apple Watch. We met on a sweltering summer afternoon at Apple’s Palo Alto store to discuss the early lessons the company gleaned from its first wearable device. Many of the refinements we discussed before our run became available this fall, with the WatchOS 2 software update.

Re/code: What have you learned about the Apple Watch’s fitness applications in the first few months?

Jay Blahnik: The thing that we are most excited about is the response we’ve received from a broad section of people on the all-day activity app (a bullseye with concentric red, green and blue rings that measure exercise, movement and standing throughout the day). We found that there has been a consistent message back from consumers, saying, “I’m really motivated to close my rings every night.” Whether they’re beginners or elite athletes, we’re hearing the same stories all over, which is: “It’s 9 pm, my ring’s not quite closed, I’ll take my dog out for one more walk around the block.”

It’s exactly what you would hope would happen with an all-day activity app. Because it’s measuring three things, even if you close one ring earlier in the day it sort of stays with you throughout the day and gives you those persistent reminders, a little nudge, so you don’t check out.

I have to say, it’s an incredibly addictive feature — especially for someone like me, who has a sedentary job.

Writers can get really into a project and lose track of time. It’s not until two hours into it when you realize, “Gosh, I’ve been sitting for a really long time.” We’re also hearing really interesting things from consumers that when they get a reminder to stand, it’s not about the minute, although they get up. It’s also a moment when they can think about refiling their water, or taking a little walk. I think those [are] nice coaching reminders throughout the day, right from your wrist, where you can actually see the message.

The single greatest way we’re going to get people more active is by changing the little things they do throughout the day and having that add up to something really compelling over many weeks, or over a lifetime.

How much are the Apple Watch’s fitness features drawn from your own experience?

What’s been exciting about the process [of developing the Apple Watch] is we knew, as a team, that we wanted to measure more than what a simple step-tracker would measure. I really wanted to give people deeper insight into their day, to have an understanding of everything that matters. Not just how much you’re moving, but how much counts toward healthy-level exercise. How sedentary are you?

As you describe that out loud, it sounds like that could get complicated for people to keep track of. But in a way that only Apple could do, the three rings end up being beautiful, and they’re simple. There’s a very interesting science story behind those three things, which are sit less, move more, get some exercise. One is about being less sedentary. One is about adding a little vigor to your step, making sure that you don’t just move around, but move around with some pace. And the other is knowing how much you move.

When you see your three rings, every time you raise your watch face, it doesn’t feel complicated. It’s a really simple way of seeing how you’re doing against your day.

What about the difficulties of measuring activities other than running, cycling or using gym equipment? A bunch of my friends do Crossfit, and I do boot camp, use free-weights. The “other” category with the Apple Watch’s workout app really doesn’t capture the variety of activity. Is this something Apple is going to address?

We certainly think there will be many ways to capture more activities over time, not only in the workout app but also through third-party experiences, which are going to do a really great job of obsessing about a category of activity that we haven’t been able to. Because [developers] now have access to the sensors and can build native code on the watch, we think what’s really great is the future will allow for lots of third parties to focus on categories that perhaps our workout app doesn’t — or maybe even things we haven’t thought were important, but there are lots of people doing it.

One of the things we’re really excited about is when there is a third-party app that you’re using, when the workout is saved on the watch, HealthKit will go in and grab that data and reconcile your activity rings around that third-party workout … You might run in the morning with Nike and bike in the evening with Strava and maybe use another app we haven’t thought about that measures this wide variety of activities that people like. We think it’s really important that that shows up in your day and that you feel like it’s giving you credit.

Will only the apps and fitness trackers that are compatible with HealthKit — a central repository for health and fitness apps within Apple’s mobile operating system — have access to the fitness data?

We believe there will be many third-party apps that do really delightful and great things with the data from the watch that perhaps we haven’t done. … We’ve already seen, in China, a story that watch data is now going into WeChat profiles, so friends can actually see how active you are. And that’s a use-case of health kit and the health app, where the user is wearing the watch, but their activity is showing up in another space. Obviously, the user gets to decide.

Over the course of your career, you advised other companies — including Nike — before coming to Apple. What did you learn from that earlier experience that you applied here?

What I have learned throughout my career is … change only comes through small things. If you’re an elite athlete and you want to get faster, it’s usually a really small amount of extra fast that you want to get, like knocking an extra second off your time or whatever it is. A lot of people believe, when you’re a beginner, it’s massive changes. But in actual fact, where we’re all successful is about making small changes and being persistent with them.

What’s great about the Apple Watch design is it’s built on the notion of the right thing at the right time in the right dose.

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