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Is the Apple Watch the Fitness Tracker You Need?

Testing the Apple Watch Sport on runs, Insanity Workouts and lots and lots of power walking.

I’m no Shaun T, but I’ll be honest — I wouldn’t mind if I was. For the past two years, I’ve committed to the fabled Insanity workout, which is a rotation of high-intensity interval training sessions. Between Insanity, a couple of brisk walks, and a few minutes at the pull-up bar, I try to get around 60 minutes of exercise in at least six days per week. As a self-proclaimed nerd and proud data geek, I’ve also long aspired to having a better, more seamless way of tracking my progress, but I’ve yet to find a fitness band capable.

You see, the litany of bands and trackers available today are geared to suit two types: runners and cyclists. With those activities, it’s fairly easy for a band to track. The movements are routine and predictable, and movement doesn’t radically change from minute to minute. Anything outside of basic cardio, however, is essentially untrackable. Sure, bands can take weight, height and heart rate into account, but they don’t do a great job of accounting for weight and resistance that are introduced from workout to workout.

It’s for those reasons that I’ve yet to invest in a dedicated fitness tracker, and it’s with that in mind that I evaluate the Apple Watch. I’ve spilled my thoughts on the product as a whole already, but I wanted to devote some snappy, bullet-pointed attention to the Watch’s capabilities as it pertains to health and fitness.

How the Watch Shapes Up

It’s comfortable. This one’s hard to overstate, but I found the Apple Watch Sport to be light and almost unnoticeable during intense training sessions and runs alike. To boot, the rubberized fluoroelastomer band won’t retain odors, shakes off sweat and won’t loosen with activity.

It’s easy to get going. Before a walk, run, stair climbing session, or any other workout (unfortunately labeled “Other” in Apple’s first-party Workout app), you’re able to start collecting data with just two taps on the unit’s face. For users to actually use the Workout app to track the time, distance, and calories burned for any workout they do, it has to be simple to get the watch to start collecting that data. And thankfully, it is.

It’s really accurate at keeping track of your steps. Granted, my outdoor runs were accompanied by my iPhone, but still, runners who care about keeping track of total distance travelled will be thrilled. Apple recommends that you run with your iPhone in tow, as its GPS module allows the distance tracked to be much more accurate. That said, the internal accelerometer does a great job in its own right tracking steps and movement throughout the day, all of which is neatly summed up in the Activity app.

It’s beautiful and motivating. After nearly two years in a routine, I’ve grown to lean on a mixture of habit, willpower and self-determination to keep myself going. But I remember those first 30 days. I hated every minute of exercising, and if not for my wife agreeing to join the journey with me, I would’ve surely given up. Apple Watch isn’t as good as having a friend keep you accountable, but it’s surprisingly close. The user interface of the Activity and Workout apps is delightful, colorful and welcoming. It’s not heavy handed, and glancing at it doesn’t remind you of what you aren’t — it reminds you of what you want to be. This sounds subtle, but it proved huge in my testing. I still wake up each day looking to meet or beat my previous goals, and the apps do a great job of making sure I’m proud of my accomplishments. Call it mental trickery, but if it keeps me moving, I’ll take it.

It’s wonderful for cardio. Apple Watch shows real-time stats like elapsed time, distance, calories, pace and speed for popular activities, including running, using the elliptical and cycling (both indoors and out). If you’re someone who routinely does one of those activities, you’ll be elated with how much data you’re shown, and how easy the Watch makes capturing it. Part of the beauty of a single device is that your watch is your fitness tracker, and your fitness tracker is your watch. Always having both on your wrist is a real benefit; it’s always there whenever a workout makes sense.


How the Watch Cools Down

It’s difficult to get an accurate heart rate. For the heart rate sensor to be most accurate, you need to keep the Watch tighter than Apple would have you believe. Its user guide says that the watch “should be snug but comfortable”, but really, it should be one notch tighter during a workout than you wear it when you aren’t exercising. The underside relies on green LED lights paired with light-sensitive photodiodes to detect the amount of blood flowing through your wrist, and any gap between those and your skin will cause the heart rate to register lower than it truly is.

This means that most of the time, it’s not as accurate as a chest-worn sensor. Apple’s caveats page on the Watch’s ability to monitor heart rate is about as long as the list of unwanted side effects from Lunesta. The top of one’s wrist simply isn’t the best place to determine an accurate heart rate, and while it’ll be good enough for laypeople, those seeking trustworthy, accurate data will need to use more cumbersome tools. (As a silver lining, Apple Watch will sync with a Bluetooth-based chest sensor and use that data in place of collecting its own.)

Apple Watch also doesn’t report out your minimum and maximum heart rate. After a session in the Workout app, you’ll see your average, but not your maximum. For those in training, this is vital information that’s missing. Additionally, I feel that the sensor doesn’t poll quickly enough. I understand that it’s a major battery drain, but I’d prefer an option that forced the Watch to continually track my heart rate through a 30-minute session regardless. Sure, I could use a chest sensor to do that, but I hate the feeling of a chest sensor around my body, and I’d prefer the data be gathered from my wrist.

It’s not great at parsing out workouts. Apple’s first-party Workout app is an ideal one to use, as it seamlessly dumps data into Apple’s Activity app, which becomes a go-to archive of exactly what you did from day to day. In Activity, you’re able to see when you exercised, how often you stood throughout the day, how many active and passive calories were burned, and what “achievements” you’ve acquired. The problem is that there’s no way to alter what types of workouts are listed. So, for example, if you tackle the “Plyometric Cardio Circuit” video in Insanity on a Thursday, you’re forced to label it as “Other”. A month from now, will you remember that you did that specific routine on that specific day? No. Most folks won’t care about tracking things that granularly, but athletes and those training for a specific event most certainly will.

It’s not tremendously useful for intervals. For those who exercise in intervals, or who otherwise inject resistance into their routines, the Watch will let you down. Here’s an example: even with Apple Watch tight against my wrist capturing accurate heart rate readings, it continually estimated that I burned between 290 and 320 calories during an Insanity session. Which is off, badly. The average male of my height and weight burns nearly twice that in reality, and can burn more if they really crank through the intervals. I’d actually be willing to live with that if Apple’s Workout or Activity app allowed me to go in and edit the data afterwards, but as of now, you can’t. Think about it: if you could create your own list of canned routines and add it to the list available to you on Watch, you’d be able to more accurately tally up the total calories burned in a day. If these were available as a global, searchable database, it’d be even better.

It’s not set up as an open API. Apple’s first-party Workout and Activity apps should be open APIs. It’d be pure magic if data from Workout and Strava and any of Nike’s apps were able to flow seamlessly between one another, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to make happen. This could, in theory, allow your calorie intake that’s tracked in one app to be fed into the Apple Workout app, which could then be used to report a calorie deficit (as an example). More granularly, these apps would work together to notice that on days where you spend an hour under the weight bar, you may need to consume more of one thing and less of another to make the most of your workout. As it stands, nothing talks to anything, which significantly limits how powerful the data can be. Or, the Weather app could notice that it’s likely to start raining at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, which is when you’ve accomplished your last 14 runs — the night before, a little notification saying as much could persuade you to get up earlier than usual and get it in before the rain.

Coming Full Circle on the Watch

After a week of exercising with Apple Watch, one thing became clear: this isn’t a fitness tracker built for fitness fanatics. The shame of it, really, is that it could be. The technology is largely here, but the software is designed for the masses, and there aren’t any hidden “advanced” options to tap into. To Apple’s credit, it has done a commendable job creating its very first fitness device. Given that fitness isn’t a necessary part of any watch, it’s worth praising the fact that Apple included any of this at all in a first-generation wearable. But, as we critics do, we always long for more.

Part of the allure here is owning a single device that tells time, alerts you of notifications and triples as a fitness tracker. Fewer bands equals more bliss. If you consider that most fitness bands worth their salt are priced at around $200, the $349 base price on the Apple Watch Sport is actually quite competitive. For casual exercisers that lean most heavily on cardio routines, the Watch is perfect. It’s easy, it’s non-threatening, and it’s motivating.

For those more serious about tracking their progress, however, I suspect that you’ll share some of my frustrations. You’ll look down after a workout and scream: “I know you’ve been tracking my heart rate! How high did it get?!” My hope is that Apple takes some of these complaints to heart and creates an infrastructure where health data from a variety of apps can be converted into a universal language. Judging by its work with universities and hospitals, it clearly recognizes the potential. But that kind of work changes the world — I’m just trying to change the way my own workouts are tracked.

In time, it’s possible that Apple will open its first-party apps up a bit and allow users to glean more from the information that’s captured during the day. If and when that happens, the value proposition for fitness-minded folk will skyrocket. As of now, it’s a fitness tracker that’s on par with every other flagship band on the market today, but it has the benefit of also being a pretty great iPhone companion. From that perspective alone, those dedicated trackers should be quaking in their boots — or, perhaps, pushed to produce something that blows everything else to date out of the water.

Buy Now: $349+

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