Apple’s big bet on fitness has been shaking for several years, centered on the Apple Watch – “the future of wrist health,” as the ad copy says. Now all your cards are finally on the table. Starting today, the company’s Fitness+subscription service is live and every week offers a few dozen new studio workouts led by experienced trainers that can be streamed at any time on any device, with your heart rate and other data from the watch live on the screen.
Has Apple really changed the Fitness game? To find out, I tested a preview version of Fitness+, as well as the many training and health features of the 6 Watch Series, which debuted in September. In his new Podcast Interview with Outside, Apple CEO Tim Cook predicted that at some point we will return to the company’s health and wellness innovations as “the biggest contribution”.”It seems like a track, but the clock definitely changed my behavior. Whether for better or for worse-Well, it’s complicated.
The quantified neurotic
I completed a series for the first time in October 6 hours shortly after its release. This was a pretty significant change: until then I had basically the same model of Timex Ironman, without GPS or heart rate monitor or other bells and whistles, since the early 1990s getragen.In that night, I dreamed of waking up, but I couldn’t move because I didn’t want the watch’s sleep tracking feature to know I was awake, compromising my chances of reaching the eight-hour sleep goal I had programmed. When I finally woke up, I completely calmed down until my wife stirred.
I’m telling this story because you need to understand where I’m from. I’m not an early adopter when it comes to wearables. I am what physiologist Michael Joyner calls “Tech Nudie” -not because I don’t like to collect and analyze data about myself, but because I love it too much. In the 1990s, every morning I manually measured my back and standing heart rate, and then showed the trends and differences between the two in Lotus 123, looking for clues that I could over-train. Data was scarce at the time; Now we are drowning in it.
The hard part is knowing what to look for and how to implement it. This is where Apple, with its deep Expertise in user experience, thinks it has an advantage. The watch’s now-famous Fitness app-close three rings every day-looks simple, but offers an impressive blend of the latest movement physiology and behavioral psychology under the hood. One ring is for the number of minutes you exercise; another tracks the number of calories you burn through physical activity; and the third is the number of hours during which you are active for at least a Minute.
The goal of the Standard exercise is 30 minutes. Since I walk most of the time and even my children’s brisk walking to school counts as an exercise, this ring is not a problem. I don’t even think about it.
The second ring is a little more interesting. As I claimed to be “very active”, the clock suggested an initial daily goal of 850 calories. It’s easy to achieve on long days of running or training, but on days when I was just jogging for half an hour and my wife took the kids to school, I was too short. One evening last week, after dinner, my wife and I went 15 minutes up and down our very short driveway while our little kids played inside. We went until I reached my calorie goal, which had already reduced the clock for me to 700.
Unexpectedly, the third ring is the most difficult of all: to close it, you need to move for at least 12 hours of standby for a whole Minute. At ten minutes before each hour, the clock buzzes when you haven’t moved yet, and I found myself popping up much more often than I expected in response to these clues. But every time I did it, I also felt slipping a little further down the Maslow Pyramid, commercial autonomy and self-realization for some kind of robot prescribed healthy exercise.
I respond to these indications of inactivity because I sincerely believe that long periods of uninterrupted sitting are bad for my health. The same goes for the calorie ring that stimulates me to be active beyond my daily training. But I can’t help but feel diminished by the process, which makes me wonder how sustainable the resulting behavioral change is.
The sexiest bells and whistles on the Watch are pseudo-medical devices. In 2018, the 4 series introduced an FDA-approved electric heart rate sensor, capable of recording electrocardiograms and detecting hidden and potentially dangerous arrhythmias. The 6 Series, in an accidental pandemic stroke prescience, contains an oxygen sensor in the blood. Many are anecdotes of people who discovered their atrial fibrillation only through the watch-including the father of longtime editor Nick Heil, 84, who went to the emergency room when his watch showed an irregular pulse. “Maybe he saved her life,” Heil wrote on Twitter.
But as clever as these tricks are, not everyone agrees that they will make us healthier overall. “It’s a potential disaster,” says John Mandrola, a heart rhythm specialist and former national cyclist from Kentucky, ” because for every 75-year-old man you send a new A-fib to the doctor, which could be a good thing, you will send a hundred healthy people. It worries me a lot.”
In fact, a Mayo Clinic study published this summer found that only 11.4 percent of people who went to the hospital after detecting an irregular pulse by their Apple Watch made a “clinically feasible”medical diagnosis. Even those who turn out to be A-fib, who were otherwise asymptomatic, can do worse if they take anticoagulants, which reduces the risk of stroke, but increases the possibility of severe bleeding—a big problem for anyone who moves outside.
Similar trade-offs apply to the new blood oxygen sensor and, in fact, to the entire philosophical underpinnings of Apple’s approach to penetrating non-Stop self-monitoring. If you are looking hard enough, you will always find something wrong. And if you try to make healthy people healthier, says Mandrola, you inevitably risk making them worse. The problem is not the sensors themselves, but the way we use them. “Here’s a strategy, “suggests Gilbert Welch, a medical researcher at Brigham and women’s Hospital in Boston and author of several books on overdiagnosis in medicine:” no alarms, no real-time data. But the data is there when queried.”This kind of symptom-based approach would still help people like Nick Heil’s father while triggering fewer false alarms.
Personally, I had fun playing with the sensors. The ECG app would have no opinion as to whether I have atrial fibrillation, because my resting pulse is less than 50 beats per Minute, the minimum threshold for which it was validated in the Test. Despite this, I sent the resulting ECG trace to my wife, who is a doctor, and she confirmed that my heart was beating. After a few weeks, the novelty wore out and I stopped checking the various sensors—but there may come a time when I am happy to have them.
The virtual gym
When Fitness + was first announced, I thought I was missing something. The big news that shook the market was that Apple would offer fitness classes on Streaming video?! Six months after the pandemic, it was the least new thing I had ever heard. Even the integration of the Watch, which allows you to display your heart rate and calorie consumption when you sweat on your iPhone, iPad or TV, did not seem drunk.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it. If there is one thing we have learned from half a century of Fitness equipment, it is that the new technology does not solve the fundamental problem of behavior change in promoting health. People will not suddenly start training, because an amazing new sensor calculates the real-time speed of their Burpees. If something moves the needle, it will be the more subtle levers of user experience and design—precisely the strength of Apple.
Apple’s promotional push focuses on the simplicity and speed of finding the right workout, filtering by Modality (HIIT, strength, Core, Yoga, rowing, cycling, treadmill, dance), Duration (10 to 45 minutes), music genre and trainer. They also point out how accessible the workouts are to beginners—which is good, as I have no experience in any of the proposed modalities. (OK, I’ve been on a treadmill a few times, but I don’t own one.)
Again, I went to her with an open mind. I’ve installed the old dust-collecting exercise bike in a corner of my living room since my parents passed it on nearly ten years ago, and I’ve been sweating through my first spin class. I hit HIIT and crunched core. And, in the fullest possible expression of my willingness to open up to new experiences, I called on my children to join me for 20 minutes of shimmer and trembling to the hip hop/R&B sound of LaShawn Jones ‘ dance class.
I woke up that night with a throbbing wrist, the abductor tendon of my thumb seemingly unprepared for the unknown stress of jazz’s hands. But the kids loved it—and I appreciated that it moved me over 100 calories to my movement goal-so we did it again the next night.
In most respects, I am far from the target audience for Fitness+. I enjoy running, cycling and cross-country skiing outdoors, playing basketball and tennis, and I enjoy hiking and boating. I have no problem finding ways to be active every day, and no desire to spend more time indoors than I already do. But I also feel perpetually guilty for not being more assiduous in strength training, and the watch itself didn’t really help with that.
In fact, the focus of the watch on closing the calorie ring probably hurt. My 15-minute circuit of pull-ups, dips, squats, box jumps and other body weight exercises at an outdoor fitness park burned a paltry 61 calories, many of them during my home’s three-minute warm-up jog. From the point of view of a wrist-mounted accelerometer and heart rate monitor, a pull-up just doesn’t seem like a big deal. Meanwhile, a 17-minute tempo run that seemed subjectively easier than my strength circuit incinerated 289 calories.
To that end, I can see that having a menu of simple, high production value classes available on demand could make bonding to a strength routine easier and more fun. A ten-minute session with Amir Ekbatani and a pair of medium dumbbells passed remarkably quickly, worked the muscles that needed to work and freed me from the obsession with whether I could do more pull-ups than last week. That it’s worth 1 10 a month, not to mention the price of a watch (without which you can not get Fitness+), is a harder call. But judging by the standards of his competition-from Peloton to my children’s hero Jaime from Cosmic Kids Yoga-it’s a compelling package.
Taking It Outside
If Fitness + feels aimed primarily at other people, the latest Watch itself seems almost micro-targeted for outdoor readers. The two-minute hype reel includes, among other tropes familiar to readers of these pages, a mountain yoga class, A surfer checking his heart rate mid-wave, a runner stopping to take an ECG, a trio of spandex-clad cyclists who track their altitude as they pedal through the Alpine shoelaces, and a hiker who walks in the mountains.
These things really happen: a submerged kitesurfer calling the coast guard his watch; a hiker whose watch automatically dialed 911 after he fell off a cliff and fractured his back. But I also get a kick out of the more mundane things, like checking the weather radar with a glance at my wrist to see how long a passing shower will last, without even getting off my bike. The watch’s motion sensors continue to improve with each generation, as well as the algorithms perfected by more than 100,000 hours of testing in the fitness lab on Apple’s campus. Among the recent additions: swimming in open water, which is a major technical challenge because GPS does not work underwater, and yoga, which is to recognize that periods of immobility are part of training.
Of course, there is still a lot to do. Paddle Logger, the third-party app I downloaded for kayaking, does not track the race rate yet. I bought my kayak a few years ago, after reading Florence Williams ‘ book The Nature Fix, with the dual purpose of spending more peaceful moments on the water and accumulating the much-needed upper body exercises to complete my run. The first goal went well, the second not so much: I do a lot of lily-dipping. Having speed and distance on my wrist, I found, was just enough of a spur to push the balance back toward exercise.
For Outside readers, the big question lurking in the background is whether this compromise—a little more quantification, a little less serenity-is worth it. Do we really need another screen on our adventures? Everyone will have different answers, and they will depend on the context. I love the kayak app, but I chose not to use the powerful third-party running apps like Strava or Runkeeper. I’m already pretty Type A on my run, and I don’t need to be pushed further in that direction. Instead, I used Apple’s native Outdoor Run feature, which is incredibly raw and unable to handle even basic execution-specific tasks like interval workouts.
The crappiness of the running app seemed like a strange oversight for a company with Apple’s resources and user experience chops. On reflection, though, I’m starting to think it’s a feature rather than a bug—a show of restraint that echoes some of the decisions that made the iPod, iPhone, and iPad successful. Gilbert Welch, the skeptic of overdiagnosis, suggested minimizing the flow of real-time data. If I want to see how the gradient affects my cadence at different rhythms, I can use a specialized app to dive into that rabbit hole. Otherwise, a simple interface that keeps track of how far I’ve gone and how fast my heart beats is more than enough, and protects me from my own obsessive impulses. For fitness technology, as for the exercise itself, sometimes less is really more.