There are two things I know for certain: Apple Watches are a hot holiday gift item and everyone wants to lose weight next year. I’m writing this in 2015, but as far as I know, that sentence will be true until 2025. And if the Apple Watch fails, well, at least the second half will be true.
Like the iPod and iPad before it, the Apple Watch is the perfect holiday gift: it’s just expensive enough to prove that you love / care about the person you’re giving it to, plus there’s games on it or something, right? IBM’s Watson supercomputer (the one that plays Jeopardy on the weekends) thinks it’s the hottest gift of 2015, so there’s that piece of evidence, too.
Anyway, whether you got the Apple Watch as a gift or you got one for yourself like I did ("Happy Hanukkah" I whispered to myself as I cut open the box), you now have an awesome tool for tracking calories, exercise, and your overall health. Don’t know where to get started? Just keep reading this article you’re already reading.
Get acquainted with the Activity app
Okay, assuming you already set up the Apple Watch and now you’re just wearing it and waiting for your life to change, let’s jump into the most important app on your wrist: Activity. On the Apple Watch’s homescreen, the app icon looks like a bunch of colored circles. You can also access it through the Activity glance and through a complication on the watch face. If you’re serious about getting fit, I highly suggest adding the activity complication to your watch face.
The Activity app is primarily made of three rings: Stand, Move, and Exercise. These rings track your goals; you close the rings when you reach your goals.
Stand: Let’s start with the most complicated one (at least in my opinion.) Here’s how Apple describes it: "You close the Stand ring when you’ve stood and moved for at least one minute in 12 different hours during the day." That "move" part is what makes it complicated – I’ve seen a ton of complaints from users of standing desks who still get pings during the day that they need to stand. Keep that in mind when trying to close this ring.
Move: Most activity trackers, including Fitbits, track your main goal in terms of "steps." Apple Watch is different. The Move goal tracks how many active calories you burn throughout the day. In case you don’t know the term, active calories are the calories you burn by moving your body – walking, running, dancing, etc. This is opposed to resting calories, which are the calories your body burns just by existing.
Exercise: You don’t need to work out to close this ring. The Exercise ring tracks any activity "performed at the level of a brisk walk or above," and closes when you reach thirty minutes. Basically, you won’t get points for a stroll through the garden, but you will get points for maneuvering around folks on a Manhattan sidewalk.
By default, the Activity app will send you notifications every four hours to keep you updated on your status. Also, if you don’t stand up during an hour, it will send you a reminder to stand at the 50 minute mark. Every Monday, you’ll get a weekly summary notification. If you consistently hit your Move goal, you’ll get a prompt to increase it.
Closing these rings becomes very addicting. I’ve found myself power walking around my apartment to burn thirty or so calories to close the Move ring, and I doubt I’m alone. The larger, overarching goal of the Activity app is to get you more active during your everyday routine, and it succeeds handsomely at this, especially if you have an obsessive personality.
Earn merit badges
When you pair your Apple Watch to the iPhone for the first time, a hidden app suddenly becomes available to you. Guess what? It’s called Activity and it has the same icon as the Activity watch app!
On your iPhone, you can view your complete activity history in the form of a giant calendar full of colored rings. You can also view additional details, like your total amount of calories burned (active plus resting calories).
The iPhone version of the Activity also features your full collection of "Achievements." Think of it like a fitness version of a Boy Scout’s sash. There are achievements for little things – your first workout, the first time you reach a new Move goal – and for big things – reaching 1000 Move goals, reaching 400% of a single day’s Move goal. The achievements you’ll probably stress over the most are the "Perfect Week" and "Perfect Month" badges. I’ve been able to hit a perfect week for all three goals, but I’ve yet to reach a perfect month, and it’s slowly eating away at me.
Put on your gym shorts and yoga pants
While the Apple Watch is designed to promote everyday fitness, it also features an app for tracking your dedicated workouts. Aptly named Workout, the app can track details of just about any cardio exercise: indoor and outdoor running, walking, and cycling, as well as workouts on gym equipment like ellipticals, rowers, and stair steppers.
With each workout, you can set a specific goal. Want to run three miles today? Set that as your goal and your watch will keep you updated on your status during your run. In addition, it creates a ring for that goal similar to the Activity app. If you go above and beyond, it’ll show you completing "106%" of your workout, for example.
When you’re done, your watch will give you a summary of the workout, which you can also view in the iPhone Activity app later on.
In general, I’m a fan of the Workout app – it’s super simple, and it’s great to see your progress on your wrist as you’re working out. I also love the watch’s built-in heart rate monitor. Previously, I used a heart rate monitor strapped to my chest and connected via Bluetooth to my phone, which was strapped to my upper arm. It’s much easier to have one device on my wrist where I can easily see my progress.
There have been middling reviews of the Workout app from other sources, usually fitness buffs who are a little more hardcore than me. Personally, I think if you’re just starting a fitness routine, the Workout app is a simple and easy way to track your exercise. There’s a lot of room for Apple to add features – piggybacking off the phone’s GPS, for example, to create a map of your outdoor activities – but overall, it’s a solid base for beginners.
If you already have a favorite workout app, like Strava or Runkeeper, they can now make native Watch apps that tap into the heart rate monitor. They can also update your exercise ring, so you’ll get credit for workouts performed in other apps. One caveat to this: third-party workout apps usually rely on the phone’s GPS to create maps of your outdoor workout, something that their native watch components cannot do. If you want to see a map of your run, you’ll still need to use the phone app to track your workouts.
Check out the Health app
There’s a good chance you’ve already opened the Health app on your phone before. It came last year in iOS 8 along with Healthkit, the behind-the-scenes API that connects third-party fitness and health apps with each other. Health is essentially a file cabinet for this information, and other apps can tap into it to update your stats or just read that info and provide advice. Those third-party workout apps I mentioned earlier, Strava and Runkeeper, tap into Health, as do calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal.
Your Apple Watch will automatically feed its info into Health – how many steps you take, how many calories you burn, your workout information, plus your heart rate, which it attempts to measure every ten minutes or so.
There are a ton of other categories that apps can tap into: nutrition, reproductive health, sleep tracking, vitals like blood pressure and respiratory rate, blood glucose levels and oxygen saturation. There’s a ton you probably won’t use, especially if you’re generally pretty healthy, but it’s all there if you need it. If you’re making a concerted effort towards getting health because you had a health crisis, the Health app can be a useful place to hold test results and other important medical information.
You don’t need apps to update the information, however; you can do it all manually if you want. I do this when I weigh myself every week or so. While your weight doesn’t currently show up on the Apple Watch or in the Activity app in any way, it’s still important to track. And since it shows in up in the Health app next to your workout info, you can see how changes to your daily routine can make a difference to your waistline.
The Health app is also useful for looking at your history. Because the Activity app still relies on the rings to show your history, it can be difficult to see progress over time. Health uses line and bar graphs, which is generally a much better way to look at changes over time.
Look in your heart
For the most part, you can build a good fitness routine using just the apps that Apple provides. But there is one thing that Apple doesn’t do a good job of explaining: your heart rate.
The Apple Watch attempts to measure your heart rate every ten minutes (if you’re moving, it won’t measure it). Besides helping to measure your daily calorie burn, it also helps you figure out what your resting heart rate is. Resting heart rate is a huge part of physical health – if it’s too high, it’s a symptom of a larger, underlying health issue.
And while the Apple Watch measures your heart rate and the Health app shows you your average heart rate over time, it doesn’t really explain what those numbers mean for your health.
That’s why I am strongly suggesting that you buy the app Heartwatch. It’s only two bucks, and it goes a long way towards helping you understand what all of that health data means. Heartwatch breaks your heart rate info into zones – elevated, high resting, resting, and low. Then it tells you what percentage of your heart rate readings were in those zones. It can also show you more detailed information about your heart rate readings during workouts; typically you want your rate to get elevated during a workout, and therefore those readings require different analysis.
The Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor is a very powerful tool, one that Apple doesn’t give you the tools to use to its fullest potential. Heartwatch goes a long way towards bridging that gap.
Most importantly, just keep going
Here’s the biggest problem with every wearable fitness device: people stop wearing them. They leave the house without putting them on one day, and then the next, and then fall out of habit completely. They stop making an extra effort to get in more steps or burn more calories. They stop going to the gym.
This is normal human behavior. It’s really hard to build a habit, especially one that requires you to put in more effort over time.
Apple is convinced that people will wear the Apple Watch every day, and that they won’t fall victim to the same fate as other wearables. Because of that, they put a huge focus on the Activity rings. Activity pushes users to make small, sustainable changes to their everyday routines. It turns fitness into a game: complete the rings, earn the badges.
It’s too early to know if Apple will succeed for the majority of users, but if you want to make a serious change to your life, you need to make a commitment outside of what Apple’s notifications or gentle nudges can offer. Focus on the changes you know you can commit to: an extra walk at lunch, or going up the stairs instead of using the elevator. The feeling you get when you realize you just feel better and more energized every day will a thousand times more satisfying than any colored ring or digital badge.