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Exercising with the Apple Watch: The Software

by Adam C. Engst

In “Exercising with the Apple Watch: The Hardware [1]” (15 May 2015), I looked at all the physical aspects of the Apple Watch that play into how well it works for fitness tracking of various sorts. Now it’s time to examine the software side.

The Apple Watch’s sensors only gather data; it’s up to apps on both the Apple Watch and the iPhone to display, report on, and interpret this data. This is a tricky area to evaluate, because your opinion about the software will depend largely on what you want to get out of your exercise.

I’ll look at the apps Apple provides, but I won’t be evaluating any third-party apps, since at the moment they’re nothing more than remote controls or secondary windows for apps running on the iPhone. Apple has announced that it will be giving developers access to all the Apple Watch’s sensors; once that happens, third-party apps could become radically more interesting.

On the watch itself, Apple includes a Workout app, an Activity app, and glances for Activity and Heartbeat. And on the iPhone, Apple gives us another Activity app (which also reports on workouts from the Workout app) and the Health app.

Heartbeat (Watch) -- Most of us have little sense of heart rate. But any activity that raises your heart rate is a good thing, and the Apple Watch’s sensors can help you learn how your actions affect heart rate. To view your heart rate at any time, you use the Heartbeat glance, accessible by swiping up on the watch face.

When you first look at it, the Heartbeat glance reports its last measurement and when it was taken, but that might be 30 minutes or more in the past. Getting a current value requires waiting a few seconds until the Heartbeat glance reports that it’s measuring; the actual measurement takes an additional 10 to 15 seconds that tick by distressingly slowly. Sometimes it fails and asks you to try again.

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It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect instantaneous response, since the watch needs to sense sufficient beats to come up with a beats-per-minute number, but I wonder if Apple could have it measure heart rate more frequently to provide faster results. Or, perhaps the watch could display a heart rate immediately, but refine the number as more data comes in, so the user sees that something is happening.

Workout (Watch) -- Although the watch tracks your steps and heart rate throughout the day, if you want it to associate a specific subset of that data with a particular workout, you use the Workout app. Apple lets you choose from running, cycling, and walking, either outdoor or indoor, along with using an elliptical, rower, or stair stepper. Lastly, an Other workout type tracks time and apparently earns you the calorie equivalent of a brisk walk if sensor readings are unavailable; if they are, it tracks heart rate and distance too.

For running, walking, and cycling workouts, the Workout app encourages you to set a calorie, time, or distance goal; for gym machine workouts, only calorie and time goals are offered. For indoor activities, these goals make sense, and for people who are working up from very low levels of activity, they can be a potent motivator. Of course, Apple isn’t exactly innovating here; other fitness trackers have offered such goal-setting for years.

For those who exercise outdoors, an Open Goal screen allows starting a workout without presupposing any expectations. Runners and cyclists usually plan workouts based on route or distance, and even a time-based workout (run for an hour, say) just involves picking an appropriate route, looking at elapsed time to determine the halfway point on an out-and-back, or checking elapsed time on a track or multiple loop course. The Open Goal screen remains selected on subsequent uses, making it easy to ignore the other goal screens if they mean nothing to you.

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Having chosen a goal, you tap a start button, wait through a countdown, and get going. During the workout, you can swipe through screens that show you calories burned, heart rate, time, and, if appropriate, distance and pace. Swiping between them while running is difficult, and you’d be an idiot to do it while biking (and unless you have a death wish, wear a properly adjusted and fastened helmet too!). The leftmost screen lets you pause and stop the workout with a pair of too-small buttons (you can also force-touch the screen to display them).

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Once the workout is stopped, you can review the details and either save or discard them. Annoyingly, once saved, you can’t get back to the details on the watch (data is stored in the iPhone’s Activity app), though the Workout app does show the distance or time for the last activity.

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I find the Workout app frustrating in nearly every way. Even beyond the need to find it in the cloud of app icons (why no Last Workout glance, Apple?), it’s fussy to start and stop, requires clumsy interaction to move between screens, and is worthless for reviewing workout details, even though it could get that data back from the iPhone. A better design would also allow customization of the data screens to show the metrics the user desires, and would offer touch-based controls that didn’t require looking at the screen — perhaps a force touch to start and stop, and a double tap to pause and resume. (Asking for interaction via a physical button feels futile — Apple wants the Digital Crown and the side button to work in the same way no matter what app is in use.)

I anticipate that third-party apps will quickly supplant the Workout app for many people in the future.

Activity (Watch) -- While the Workout app requires intentional activation, the Activity app constantly works in the background to track how many calories you burn while moving, how many minutes of exercise you do, and how often you stand up, encouraging you to move more by showing you how close to pre-defined goals you’ve come.

The first time you open the Activity app, you set the Move goal in calories, along with some data about your gender, age, weight, and height for calculating your resting metabolic rate, or RMR, an estimated number of calories your body burns while at rest.

The Activity app has four screens that you swipe through left to right. The first summarizes your progress on the Move, Exercise, and Stand goals with a series of color-coded concentric rings — complete a ring and you’ve met your goal (exceed your goal, and the ring will start a second lap around). Each additional screen shows more detail about one of the three goals as a single ring, and swiping up on each shows a graph of your activity throughout the day. As with the Workout app, you can see only a single day in the Activity app; for history, you must turn to the iPhone’s Activity app.

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Apple offers a glance for the Activity app, mimicking the summary screen that shows all three goals as concentric rings so you can see how you’re doing for the day. Tapping the glance launches the full app, as does tapping the activity complication on watch faces that include it — I find that the complication provides the fastest access.

Let’s talk about the rings, since Apple relies on them heavily in Activity on both the watch and the iPhone. The red Move ring shows how many active calories you’ve burned, though Apple doesn’t say how it calculates that number. Hopefully it incorporates heart rate information, which significantly improves accuracy. (My understanding is that the leader in this field is the Finnish firm Firstbeat Technologies [7], whose adaptive algorithms start with basic physical measurements and then learn based on heart rate [8] information — Garmin and other sports watch companies rely on Firstbeat.) I’ll have to test after obscuring the heart rate sensors some time.

The green Exercise ring shows how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve done. Nowhere is “brisk activity” defined, but it must rely on a certain heart rate, since the Apple Watch properly captured as exercise the minutes I spent riding my ElliptiGO in to a group run, the run, and then the ride home (none of which was accompanied by the iPhone). Well, almost properly — the rides and the run took 84 minutes, but the Exercise app recorded only 76 minutes for the day. It’s possible that my heart rate didn’t rise sufficiently at the start of the first ride for it to kick in right away — using the Workout app would have forced the watch to recognize all the time as exercise. Others have found the Exercise ring to be completely random, perhaps because of failing to get heart rate data for some reason.

Lastly, the blue Stand ring shows how many of 12 hours during the day you stood for at least 1 minute, backed by periodic reminders to stand up if you haven’t moved sufficiently in the first 50 minutes of an hour. It appears to be based on the Apple Watch’s accelerometer detecting movement. It’s also a little dumb — if you work at a standing desk, you may still receive reminders to stand up. But for the vast majority of people who sit at desks, or for standing desk users who interpret the reminders as a suggestion to walk around briefly, the reminders are a good thing. You can disable the reminders (in the Apple Watch app on the iPhone) if they’re too inaccurate or annoying; it’s bothersome to be told in the middle of a car trip or movie that you should stand up.

Evaluating Activity -- Before I move on to the iPhone apps, what does all this data mean? Keeping in mind that I’m a competitive runner who pays attention to individual mile splits during workouts, weekly mileage and workout time, and sometimes even stats like stride cadence and vertical oscillation (as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner 620 when paired with its heart rate monitor strap), I find the Activity app’s reports largely inscrutable.

That’s because I use the exercise data I collect after the fact, in aggregate, to guide future workouts in broad strokes — a look at my Strava training log can show me if I should make a point of getting another run in for the week to hit a particular weekly mileage, or if I should take it easy on a weekend run based on having run hard too many other days that week (see “FunBITS: Strava Makes Exercise Social and Virtually Competitive [9],” 27 July 2014). For me (and for most serious runners), exercise is measured by the week because physiological adaptions take place over months, not days. Strava is also a good place to track how many miles I have on a particular pair of running shoes, so I know when to think about replacing them. And to be honest, although I collect and review this data, I don’t let it rule my life, instead combining particular types of training for certain goal races or moving miles to the ElliptiGO (or taking rest days), based more on how my body feels.

The Apple Watch’s Activity app is instead aimed at those who want constant feedback throughout the day, complete with progress report notifications and little goal completion pushes. It’s an odd mix because it relies on precise data in the service of an imprecise goal: move more. As a digital fairy hovering over your shoulder and encouraging you to break free of the gravitational attraction of your desk chair, the Activity app is a success. In an ideal world, it will help you internalize the good habit of moving more.

What’s key is that the Activity app’s tracking is embedded in the Apple Watch. Just as smartphone cameras hurt the market for digital point-and-shoots, so too will smartwatches take over from simple one-trick-pony fitness trackers. The best fitness tracker is the one you’re already wearing, and the Apple Watch’s other features will encourage that.

What you shouldn’t do is read too much into the specific numbers the Activity app reports. It’s very precise, telling me that I burned 824 calories while exercising for 76 minutes today, but precision does not imply accuracy, nor does it support concrete actions. World-class athletes care deeply about both precision and accuracy because they strive to achieve specific physiological adaptions — run faster, throw further, jump higher, all without getting injured — based on careful control of their activities and diet. For the rest of us, all that can be said of calories burned and minutes of exercise is that more is better (within reason, and increasing gradually, of course). The Activity app is a blunt instrument, at best.

This is because the topic of energy expenditure and intake — and, let’s not mince words, its effect on weight — when measured outside of laboratory conditions, is fuzzy [10] at best. For instance, active calories account for only 10 (for sedentary people) to 50 (for laborers and serious athletes) percent of total calories burned. That’s the only part of energy expenditure you can control much (increasing muscle mass will increase your RMR, but not significantly). On the intake side, different macronutrients require different amounts of energy to process, so 20–35 percent of the calories in protein, for instance, are used in digestion, absorption, and disposal. Then there’s the role your gut microbes play [11], which is both important and poorly understood — never underestimate your bacterial overlords!

The takeaway? If the Activity app’s constant digital presence is helpful to you, by all means pay attention to its rings and notifications. But don’t get caught up in the details — all it’s really telling you is that you should move more. And bear in mind that moving more, by itself, may not result in much weight loss without attention to what you eat. For that, author Michael Pollan has what I believe to be the best advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And by “food” he means real food that your great-grandmother would have recognized, not a processed amalgam created by our modern food-industrial complex. If you need more detail, his slim book “Food Rules” is worthwhile.

Activity (iPhone) -- Back at the apps, the Workout app on the Apple Watch shows only a brief summary of your last workout, and the watch’s Activity app shows only the current day’s data. For historical details, turn to the Activity app on the iPhone, which appears only if your iPhone is paired to an Apple Watch.

It offers a scrolling calendar view that shows small icons summarizing the ring-based results from each day. Tapping one switches to a per-day view, with a larger version of the ring display and the same graphs as are available in the watch version of the app.

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There are only a few additional bits of data available in the iPhone version of Activity. When viewing the graph associated with the Move, Exercise, or Stand data, you can swipe left to see more numerical data. For Move, it adds active calories and resting calories to come up with total calories; for Exercise, it shows how many minutes your activity counted as exercise and your total “active time” (which isn’t explained); and for Stand, it tells you how many hours in which you’ve stood for at least a minute, and how many you were “idle.”

Further down in the details for a day, the Activity app then shows a summary of any workouts you tracked with the watch’s Workout app; tapping one shows more details. At the very bottom, there’s a step count and distance, presumably calculated from accelerometer data.

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Another view shows you “achievements,” little badges the Activity app awards you for various accomplishments — tap one to see a description of what you have to do. If this sort of thing motivates you to exercise more, great. They look like Junior Galactic Explorer uniform logos to me.

There are two notable holes in the iPhone’s Activity app.

My suspicion is that Apple sees both of these as third-party opportunities that developers will fill, particularly once they have access to the Apple Watch’s sensors. If sharing your workouts on Strava is important to you, for instance, you’ll ignore the Workout app in favor of the Strava app.

Health (iPhone) -- I’ve saved the worst for last. The Health app shipped with iOS 8, and from the perspective of reporting your health data it has been a disaster from the first day. (Health also stores your Medical ID, which can be made accessible to emergency responders from the lock screen of your iPhone; if you have medical conditions, have reactions to certain drugs, or are on medications, that information could be helpful to anyone treating you in the event of an accident.)

To configure Health, tap the Health Data button at the bottom of the screen, find a desired metric that has some data in its graph, and turn on the Show on Dashboard switch. That puts the graph in the Dashboard screen, which is what comes up by default when you launch Health. All that seems reasonable — it’s showing graphs of data.

The problem is that the graphs are nearly useless, apart from allowing you to switch among day, week, month, and year views. A few quick criticisms:

Tapping a graph focuses on just that graph, but it’s no larger or easier to read. This detail screen also lets you Show All Data, Add a Data Point, Share Data, and set units, if appropriate.

I can’t imagine entering much data manually. Instead, you’ll get data from sources like the Apple Watch and specific iPhone apps that advertise themselves as being Health sources. I’m not sure which apps can receive data shared from the Health app — none appear on my iPhone.

The most interesting option here is Show All Data, but only in that it doesn’t work and crashes the app (too much data to show?) or the data is largely useless. For instance, I can see all the heart rate data recorded by the Apple Watch, but it turns out that the watch records data in either wildly separated bursts (separated by 10 to 60 minutes or more) or up to four times per minute. And my Cycling Distance data is truly inexplicable, with Strava duplicating data points and the Apple Watch seemingly recording each individual foot (seriously, that’s what 0.0002 miles is) separately.

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Perhaps the Health app is more useful for tracking serious medical data, such as blood glucose or oxygen saturation; if you’re using it in such a fashion, let me know what you think.

Postgame Show -- When it comes to fitness, it’s important to think carefully about what your goals are, and where you find motivation. The Apple Watch will shine if your goals are simple and broad: move more. That’s particularly true if you’ve never looked to an iPhone app (like Move [16]) or a Fitbit-like fitness tracker, or if, like many people, you stopped wearing a Fitbit after a while. The Apple Watch doesn’t innovate in this space, but its big advantage is that people will buy and wear it for other reasons.

For those who are interested in more flexibility or more analysis of their exercise data, Apple’s apps are currently disappointing. That shouldn’t be too surprising; Apple puts a lot of effort into marquee apps like Mail and Safari, but ancillary iOS apps like Reminders, Notes, Stocks, Weather, and Podcasts are basic offerings that many users replace with more-capable independent apps. I anticipate that happening in a big way with fitness-related apps over the next year.

Finally, as I noted in the previous installment, for those who consider themselves athletes, I don’t see the Apple Watch competing with purpose-built sport watches from the likes of Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. Even with third-party apps, the Apple Watch’s hardware simply isn’t suited to fluid interaction during exercise, location tracking without a paired iPhone, water-based activities, or lengthy endurance sports. There’s no shame in that, and the same thing happened with photography — the iPhone and other smartphones may have destroyed the market for low-end compact cameras, but sales of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras continue to rise. Apple may be able to attract the casual players, but die-hards will always want more.

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