This is Part IV of my “Owning the Apple Watch” series, and this article focuses primarily on the health and fitness elements of the watch. By far, this is my favorite element of the Apple Watch experience, and I think the most well thought-out. It has really helped me to take my own health and exercise more seriously. There are a plethora of fitness applications available for the Watch, but I’m just going to focus on Apple’s included Workout and Activity applications.
Below are the other entries in my Owning the Apple Watch series:
Part V: The Future
Fitness is one element of the Apple Watch experience that Apple has been pushing pretty hard, and for good reason. With the recent rise in fitness trackers and an increasing focus on measuring health in a variety of ways, it makes sense for Apple to cater to this crowd. The aluminum Apple Watch isn’t called the “sport” model for nothing. Over the past month I’ve been using the Watch daily to track my workouts, runs, and daily steps, and it’s been a fantastic experience. Apple’s Director of fitness for health technologies Jay Blahnik has a great interview at Outside Online that gives some of their goals when working on the fitness capabilities of the watch.
The Workout application is where you start an exercise with Apple Watch, and it tracks and logs information about a workout for you. Starting an exercise is a piece of cake: As soon as the app is opened, it presents you with a number of options: Outdoor Run, Indoor Run, Outdoor Walk, Indoor Walk, Outdoor Cycle, Indoor Cycle, Rower, Elliptical, Stair Stepper, and Other. For land-based cardio, this is all pretty great. I can’t speak to any functions outside of the running modes (I’ve only used the rower app twice, and haven’t used any of the rest). Once you tap a workout, you have options to guide your workout via a set of parameters: time, distance, calories burned or open. Once you hit a goal (e.g. an outside run for 10 minutes), the watch will rapidly tap you on the wrist to tell you you’ve hit your goal. I almost exclusively run in the Open mode, and it pings every time I run a mile, which is very nice. During running, the application displays elapsed time, the time of day, pace, and heart rate, as well as an option to pause or end the workout.
There are some things I don’t like about the application however. One of them is one you can’t get around: saving the workout. At the conclusion of the workout, it gives you a nice summary of average heart rate, and pace, and distance, and everything like that, which is great. But you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to hit the save button, and when you do, the animation makes it look like the application crashes, as the application just fades to the home screen. There’s no “Saved!” checkmark or anything that pops up. Worse, the button is right next to the “Discard” button, so initially you think that you deleted all of the hard work you just tracked. When you’re tired and sweaty and not sure if you hit the small button, it’s easy to get frustrated. Thankfully, the discard button has an additional dialog box that pops up asking “Are you sure you want to discard this data?”, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior of the Save button. Preferably, the save button would be at the top.
My other issues have to deal with swiping between pages to see various information and needing to swipe to the leftmost page to pause the workout mid-run. It turns out that capacitive touchscreens don’t like water, and they don’t like sweaty fingers either. It can be hard swiping mid-run to see the various live stats, and if you need to pause immediately, then you have to hastily swipe right a few pages to get to the Pause and End buttons. Worse, the tap may not always register due to the aforementioned hand sausages. If you have to stop before you have a chance to do this, then naturally it slightly skews some data, and that’s not fun. If only we could use the side button to pause or end workouts (a recurring theme, I know).
UPDATE: With watchOS 2 (released 21 September) perceived visual issues with saving workouts has been fixed and made much clearer with a new “Workout Saved” animation.
Workout + Stopwatch
Another gripe I discovered is trying to use the Stopwatch and the Workout App simultaneously. One would think that the running mode of the workout app would make it easy, but it didn’t. First off, you can’t start both at the same time, so for accurate lap times (for example in a Navy Fitness Test), you’d have to start the workout app, start your workout, then switch over to the Stopwatch. This means that there will be at least a 10 second difference on the front and back end as you switch between the apps, and that’s not great for stats tracking. On top of that, the workout app takes over the Activate on Wrist Raise feature during a workout (which makes sense), but that also means that you have to double-tap the digital crown to switch back to the Stopwatch and then tap the lap button at the appropriate time. That’s a lot to think about when you’re not sure if it’s lap 6 or 7 and you’re really tired, but trying to make time.
The Lap Timer itself isn’t that bad, and does its job well. It has four different views: Analog, Digital, Graph, and Hybrid. As much as I’d like to like the Analog and Graph ones, they’re not really feasible for running, or at least not for trying to get accurate splits.
- Analog: this is fine for shorter stints. I love the classic look and clear buttons at the bottom of the display. However, it doesn’t show the time for previous laps; the blue second hand just shows the seconds that have elapsed since the last time the lap button was pressed. Analog would improve tremendously if underneath the total time in white the current lap was shown in blue. I still can’t figure out what the complication dial under the 12 is showing.
- Digital: the best one and the one I’d overwhelmingly recommend; it’s very similar to the ones on iPods and iOS devices. The number size is nice and big, and it’s easy to see your most recent times. Even better is the red and green dot that indicates at a glance what your slowest and fastest laps are, respectively.
- Graph is certainly the most creative looking one. I like that, at a glance, you can see what your slowest and fastest laps are, as well as a line showing the average. However, Graph doesn’t make clear what your split time is at a quick glance— it only compares them to the other laps. The current lap is indicated by the rightmost dot, and has a lap time displayed next to it. The total time is displayed on the upper left. Graph would be much better if you were timing someone else, as it’s excellent for showing trends, but I find the information to small to make out mid-run.
- Hybrid combines the worst features of all of them, in my opinion. The graph is smaller and has less detail, and it doesn’t show the exact lap time for previous laps like the Digital does. The dials are very hard to make out, and I can’t even tell what the leftmost dial indicates. Given that it’s on a 38mm screen, making things smaller benefits no one, and I can’t see any reason to use this mode.
The nice part is that you can switch views during a session if the mood strikes you.
Activity is your main hub for anything health and fitness related on the Watch. Upon setting up the Apple Watch, it will ask you if you want to track health data. Once “Yes” is selected, a new “Activity” application is added to your phone that shows an expanded view of your fitness. It’s very simple, but effective. It shows the three activity rings, any workouts for the day, and any awards that you’ve earned. Activity.app generally rewards weekly achievements e.g. “One week of hitting move goal” or something similar. It’s nothing special, but it gets the job done.
I have a few gripes with the application, on watchOS and iOS. On is that the exercise goal can’t be changed from 30 minutes. I’d love to increase it to 45 minutes or an hour each day. (I have no issues with the stand goal being 12 hours.) Even more frustrating is that the week is oriented from Monday to Sunday on the iPhone. This drives me crazy, and nowhere else on calendar app of any sort do I have my week oriented as Monday to Sunday. I really wish I could change this behavior, and it throws me off every time I see the month view in the application, but I haven’t found an option to change it yet.
As of right now, the Activity app on the Watch doesn’t pull other third-party workouts from the Health.app and factor it into the exercise and move rings. I was quite disappointed when I first discovered this. However, with watchOS 2 coming out in the fall, other applications will have their workouts show up in the application. Right now, that means that if you have a workout app like CARROT Fit and use it at night before bed (like me), the Activity app can’t take that direct information into account. I’m glad this behavior is being updated.
The best part about the Workout application is that it syncs with the Apple Health via HealthKit, Apple’s framework for consolidating health information from various applications. Health.app makes it easy to look at aggregate data from your calorie counting application, the Apple Watch Workout app, and any other applications that can track workouts, and look at the whole picture. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what HealthKit can offer, but it looks like it can track data for just about any health metric; it just needs the data from compatible applications. So far, Lifesum (my food/calorie tracking application) has been great for me at pushing and pulling information from Health.app.
As I’ve said before, these health and fitness features have really made me think about my health more critically. One morning I slept in until 1030, and had to scramble and make sure that I stood up each hour in order to get the circle full at 12 hours. One other time, I neglected to do my morning run and wasn’t able to quite get my calorie ring full by bedtime. I ended up going for a run at 2340 that night to get it full, and I felt better and more accomplished for doing so. Since coming home in August, I’ve been running about four miles a day to keep my rings full. This is behavior that wouldn’t have happened under any conditions before getting the watch. On those lazy days, the constant desire to fill my activity rings will serve as a great way to stave off laziness and go running. I have the tools to better understand my health, and now the goal is to utilize these tools to achieve a better health outcome.
For a generation one product, the Apple Watch hits the ground running (ha) at tracking workouts and making a variety of health and biometric data available to the user in a way that is easy to understand. Combined with the many applications available for iPhones, the Watch and Phone become a nice one-two punch for personal health information. Despite my relatively minor complaints about the workout app, I’m overall very pleased with the experience. I look forward to seeing what improvements are made to the fitness apps in watchOS 2. There’s no place to go but up, and as third-party fitness apps gain access to more of the Watch’s hardware this fall with watchOS 2, things will only get better for those interested in tracking their activity.