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How Does Apple Watch Stack Up as a Health-and-Fitness Tracker?

Apple Watch is a solid activity tracker on its own, but the real test will be how third-party apps work on it.

One of the proposed benefits of wearable technology is the notion of having a health-and-fitness tracker attached to your body 24/7 — or at least for a good portion of the day. This is the case with activity-tracking wristbands, like Fitbit and Jawbone Up, and also the appeal of some smartwatches, such as Apple Watch.

To test these features of Apple Watch, which starts shipping this Friday, I have gone on a workout spree over the past few weeks. I’ve gone running indoors and outdoors, finished a 5K road race, sweated through a few spin classes, practiced yoga, lifted weights and hiked a particularly hilly area in my neighborhood. I had my iPhone nearby most of the time, but I intentionally left it behind on a few occasions.

As I wrote in my earlier review, I’ve found Apple Watch to be a capable health-and-fitness tracker — especially for a smartwatch. I think it will appeal to people who either want to get up and move around more during the day and need reminders to do so, or who work out regularly and want a way to record these activities.

But it’s important to keep in mind that many other health trackers work with different smartphones and operating systems. Apple Watch, on the other hand, requires users to have an iPhone 5 or newer. And while its health-and-fitness features could be a big enough draw to convince people to buy the watch — maybe even more so than the promise of notifications — the watch is not yet at its full health-and-fitness potential.

The hardware

For people who plan to use Apple Watch primarily as a health-and-fitness device, the $349 Apple Watch Sport is the one to go with.

That’s the category I fit into, but I’ve been using the stainless-steel model, because that’s what was loaned to me by Apple for review purposes. It’s pricier and a little bit heavier than the Sport model, but the guts are the same.

The watch has an accelerometer, a gyroscope and optical heart-rate sensors, which measure your heart rate from your wrist. This combination of sensors is becoming pretty standard fare for activity trackers; products from Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, Fitbit, Basis, Mio and other vendors also have optical heart-rate sensors.

Apple Watch does not have built-in GPS. If you want to use GPS while going for a run or a bike ride, you’ll have to bring your iPhone with you. But, as I explain in the running section of this column, Apple Watch calibrates so that even if you do run without iPhone, recorded distances should be fairly accurate.

Apple Watch’s display isn’t highly visible in certain outdoor lighting.
Apple Watch’s display isn’t highly visible in certain outdoor lighting.


Apple Watch is also not waterproof, which many people have asked me about. To be fair, most smartwatches aren’t fully waterproof, with the exception of Pebble and Sony SmartWatch 3. If you’re seriously into swimming or other water sports, a triathlete sport watch or a waterproof activity-tracking wristband is a better choice.

And while I suspect that the combination of sensors could technically track movement during sleeping hours and allow for interpretation of your sleep patterns, Apple Watch currently isn’t a sleep tracker.

Another not-insignificant note for outdoor enthusiasts about Apple Watch’s display: While it is pretty to look at indoors, it can be difficult to read in direct sunlight, even with the brightness dialed up to the max.

The software

There are two Apple-developed apps you’ll find yourself using for health and fitness on the watch, another app you’ll use on iPhone, and a fourth app that acts as a back-end data repository. That’s a lot of apps, and I generally dislike having to use so many to manage fitness, but these start to make sense after a little while.

The Activity app on Apple Watch colorfully displays key data points — calories burned, length of exercise sessions, and how many times you’ve hit your “Stand up!” goal throughout the day — in a series of rings. Each time you go above and beyond one of those preset goals, the ring for that goal will start to loop around again. Swiping up from the main “ring” display will show more data, like your total steps and total distance traveled for the day.

There’s a more comprehensive version of this Activity app on iPhone, where you can get an in-depth view of your Move, Exercise and Stand progress, as well as a monthly view of your activity rings. But one of my biggest gripes with this app is that it doesn’t allow you to edit or add to the information that is already in there. I tend to use fitness apps like diaries — noting that this is the day I went stand-up paddling, or that I was feeling slow during a particular run — and you can’t do that here.

A glance at the Activity app on Apple Watch shows you how much you’ve moved around, how many minutes you’ve exercised and how many times you’ve stood up throughout the day, through a pattern of colored rings.
A glance at the Activity app on Apple Watch shows you how much you’ve moved around, how many minutes you’ve exercised and how many times you’ve stood up throughout the day, through a pattern of colored rings.
Recode

One of my favorite features of the separate, dedicated Workout app on Apple Watch is that it shows you stats from your most recent exercise session right at the top of the list of workout options. So if you’re looking to build upon your previous workout, you know how many minutes longer, or how many miles more, you have to push through. Within Workout, you can record indoor and outdoor runs, walks, cycling, elliptical machine workouts, stair-stepping and rowing. There’s also an “Other” category, for everything else.

“Other” can be used whether you’re taking a zen yoga class or are in the middle of an intense weight-lifting session, and the watch uses the accelerometer and heart rate to try to estimate your calorie burn. But if it can’t get a good reading on this, it just logs your workout as the equivalent of a brisk walk. I hope at some point that Apple can offer more specific insights around different “Other” activities. Most likely, you’ll have to use a third-party yoga app, or a separate app for weight lifters.

Finally, there’s the Health app, which also runs on iPhone. It acts as push-and-pull software for all of your health-and-activity data that Apple is gathering. For instance, if you’re an iPhone user who has opted to share your health data for medical research purposes through Apple’s ResearchKit, some of this data may be pulled from Health. The Health app is an uninspiring-looking collection of graphs, but it’s really meant to be back-end software.

Here’s another example: If I use an app like Strava to record my outdoor run, and I’m using MyFitnessPal to log my calorie intake that day, and I have them both connected to Apple’s Health app, the calories burned during my workout in Strava will automatically be deducted from my calorie count in MyFitnessPal.

Recorded workouts on Apple Watch should theoretically work the same way, but I did run into a bug: The “Other” workouts I recorded on Apple Watch were not shared to MyFitnessPal as they should have been. Apple says this should eventually be fixed, once more third-party developers finalize their Apple Watch apps.

Not-yet-at-the-party apps

There aren’t a ton of third-party health-and-fitness apps running on Apple Watch yet, so I couldn’t really test this category. Apple says that dozens of health-and-fitness apps are either rolling out now or should be available by the end of the month, including Strava, MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, RunKeeper, FitStar Yoga, Jawbone Up, Nike+ Running and more.

But I did try a couple of apps that are already available for Apple Watch, and it was easy to see their potential. I tested Runtastic Six Pack, which guides you through ab exercises, and Lose It!, a food-logging app.

Runtastic’s Six Pack app for Apple Watch takes you through guided ab workouts.
Runtastic’s Six Pack app for Apple Watch takes you through guided ab workouts.

With Six Pack, it was convenient to have a guided workout right on my wrist (admittedly, I did not get through many crunches). Lose It! was useful for quick glances of calorie and nutrient intake on the wrist, but most of the data-inputting still has to be done on the iPhone. In fact, with all of these apps, the load of the processing is happening on the iPhone.

Since Apple’s own apps don’t give many insights — for example, Apple does not plan to offer any kind of observations or recommendations based on trends in your heart-rate readings — it will be up to third-party app makers to turn this data into something more valuable. Once they are available, it may be worth a follow-up column, because I think more apps will change the Apple Watch experience a lot.

The “get up off your a%&” feature

At this point in the column, you should probably take a break. Get up. Seriously, get up. Read the rest on a treadmill. Take a hike — literally.

This is what it’s like wearing an Apple Watch all day. It nags you more than an Italian mother. Many medical experts say that being sedentary is bad for your health. For this reason, Apple Watch buzzes regularly — up to a dozen times a day — to remind you to get up and move around for a minute. Each time you do this, it gets logged in your Activity app.

Apple Watch reminded me to move even when it was in airplane mode during a flight.
Apple Watch reminded me to move even when it was in airplane mode during a flight.

Apple Watch is hardly the first wearable to track inactivity. Jawbone, Garmin, Fitbit, Polar and Nike have all offered variations of the you’ve-been-sitting-too-long feature.

With Apple Watch, these gentle reminders happen whether or not you’ve worked out that day — underscoring that even if you exercised that morning, you still shouldn’t sit at your desk for eight hours straight. They also happen regardless of whether your iPhone is in range or paired with the watch. For example, I was reminded to stand up during long flights, even when my iPhone and Watch were in Airplane Mode.

Taking heart with Apple Watch

I’ve tried many wrist-wearables with optical heart-rate sensors, and some of the readings I’ve seen have been pretty erratic when compared with a simultaneous reading from a chest-based heart-rate monitor. That is not the case with Apple Watch.

I should note that none of these tests were done in labs; I conducted them during regular workout sessions, which is how most people will experience the watch. Every few minutes, I would check the reading I was getting from Apple Watch and the reading I was getting from my chest strap. During indoor cycling classes, the heart-rate readings from both wrist and chest often matched, or were off by just a few beats per minute.

I also tested this while running, since the watch tends to move around more when you’re pumping your arms, and can make accurate readings challenging. I was again pleasantly surprised by how close the readings were.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that heart-rate readings from the optical sensors on Apple Watch were often consistent with the readings from a heart rate strap.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that heart-rate readings from the optical sensors on Apple Watch were often consistent with the readings from a heart rate strap.

The one issue I had with these readings was how long it took to show heart rate while I was running (sometimes several seconds). Fortunately, Apple Watch can pair with a Bluetooth LE heart-rate strap, and will default to that instead of the wrist sensors. When I paired the watch with a Wahoo TickR heart rate strap, heart-rate readings showed up instantaneously.

When you’re not working out, Apple Watch captures your heart rate in two different ways. It will bring it up “on demand” when you raise your wrist and swipe to the heart-rate screen in the Watch’s “glances” of quick information. It’s also capturing your heart rate intermittently, every 10 minutes, in the background.

Runs with Apple Watch

Apple Watch doesn’t have GPS, so you have to carry your iPhone with you if you want to track your run with GPS. Even if you do run with your iPhone, neither the Workout app nor the Activity app show you maps of courses you have run.

Also, the Workout app doesn’t show runners things like splits or cadence, although it’s possible that a third-party app could utilize the watch’s sensors and display this. And the Workout app doesn’t give audio alerts at key points throughout your run, which many running apps do.

That said, the Apple Watch automatically calibrates to your stride during your first few runs, so that even if you later run without your iPhone, you’ll get a close-to-accurate reading on distance. I found this to be true when I ran a couple of my regular neighborhood routes, and when I ran a 5K road race on an unfamiliar route, without my iPhone. Apple Watch recorded my 5K race as 3.05 miles, just .05 shy of the actual distance.

My smartphone usually records this route as a 3.7 mile run. As you can see here, Apple Watch (without iPhone) came close to calculating the same distance.
My smartphone usually records this route as a 3.7 mile run. As you can see here, Apple Watch (without iPhone) came close to calculating the same distance.

Privacy Concerns

Because of privacy concerns, some Apple Watch wearers may not want the watch to track their health-and-fitness data at all, or may not want to share their data with Apple’s Health app. All of this is optional. To opt out of heart rate and fitness tracking, go into the main Apple Watch app on your iPhone, then to Privacy and Motion & Fitness.

Conclusion (for now)

If you already planned on getting an Apple Watch, you’ll likely be satisfied with its built-in health-and-fitness features — unless you’re a hardcore runner, a water-sport enthusiast or you’re really sold on the idea of sleep tracking.

If you’re basing your purchase decision on how your favorite third-party health-and-fitness apps work on the watch, unfortunately, it’s too soon to tell. But we’ll be sure to follow up with more app experiences once we’ve tried them.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.