The Apple Watch is incredibly popular as a fitness tracker, but Josh Centers had trouble adopting it until recently, when he ventured into the burgeoning fitness app world beyond Apple’s Activity rings and Health app. If Apple’s health-focused software has left you wanting more, read on, and while you’re at it, install watchOS 8.4.1, which fixes unspecified bugs. Apple’s insistence on charging premium prices for the Apple TV has also turned many people off, including Glenn Fleishman. He picked up a Roku Express 4K+ streaming media player for $30 and found it an excellent alternative. Finally, Adam Engst turns his attention to cloud storage services, sharing news and tips that will help keep Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, and OneDrive from raining on your parade. Notable Mac app releases this week include Default Folder X 5.6.4 and DEVONthink 3.8.1.
Hot on the heels of the watchOS 8.4 update (see “Apple Releases iOS 15.3, iPadOS 15.3, macOS Monterey 12.2, watchOS 8.4, tvOS 15.3, and HomePod Software Version 15.3,” 26 January 2022), Apple has released watchOS 8.4.1 with unspecified bug fixes for the Apple Watch Series 4 and later.
It’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t see fit even to hint at what sort of bugs watchOS 8.4.1 fixes, but given the speed at which Apple released it after watchOS 8.4, you should probably update sooner than later. We would guess that watchOS 8.4 introduced some new problem that Apple felt was sufficiently important to warrant an immediate update, if not important enough to describe.
You can install the 63.8 MB update (for an Apple Watch Series 4) in the Watch app in Settings > General > Software Update. The Apple Watch must be on a charger and have at least a 50% charge to install the update.
What if you want an attractively designed streaming media player for your HDTV that supports AirPlay 2 and all the services you use—and don’t want to spend $179 or $199 for an Apple TV 4K? A Roku streaming player may fit both the bill and your budget.
Roku has spent more than a decade designing media players that stream video to TVs through third-party apps, including Apple TV+ and Netflix. It also licenses its software to smart TV makers. Roku has licensed movies and TV shows that it offers for free and produces some original programming, like the just-announced Weird Al documentary.
Roku lets you sidestep the Apple TV’s steep price without having to buy into Amazon’s or Google’s ecosystem. You can also avoid the ugly interfaces and privacy nightmares of other smart TVs from companies like LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio. Roku lets you opt out of certain tracking but defers some privacy choices to streaming service providers with whom you have a direct relationship.
I recently purchased and tested a Roku Express 4K+, currently on sale for $29.99—six times cheaper than the least-expensive Apple TV 4K model. It uses Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) for connectivity and includes a “voice remote” that allows limited voice recognition. The box is tiny, not much larger than a multi-slot camera card reader, and comes with a non-permanent sticky strip so you can adhere it to a TV set. The device draws power over USB, and Roku provides the USB cable and USB AC adapter required, as well as an HDMI cable to connect to your TV. Roku even included two Duracell-brand AAA batteries for the remote—not the cheap, generic batteries usually bundled with even expensive electronics.
The Roku Express 4K+ is one of a lineup of ten models that share most features in common. During the current sale, you can pay the same for a 1080p model (Roku Express, $29.99), $5 more for a 4K version with a simpler remote (Roku Express 4K, $34.95 at Walmart), and higher prices to add Ethernet, Dolby Vision or a soundbar speaker. You can also get a Roku player as an all-in-one HDMI stick, which is useful if you have a wall-mounted TV set.
Setup was a breeze—as easy or easier than getting an Apple TV up and running. After connecting the Roku Express 4K+ to my TV and powering both up, the player automatically detected the resolution, had me confirm it was correct, and then handed me off to a Web page to complete the configuration. You could also enter a URL or scan a QR code to open that page. Web-based configuration is preferable to entering text with remote control, which is always awkward. This would prove to be a theme with Roku. (The remote control has an interesting option to let you orally “type” in account information, too, by speaking letters, numbers, and punctuation.)
I hadn’t yet set up a Roku account, so I did so and quickly chose among the many third-party and Roku-affiliated streaming apps to install, which it calls “channels.” It took just a few minutes to go through all the options. After that, an available software update took less than a minute to download and install.
I started launching services on the Roku home screen to log in with accounts. Every service presented a URL, and most displayed a QR code to provide a simple login through a browser or an iPhone app, a common feature across apps for streaming players. Within just a few minutes, I had logged into Apple TV (the app), Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, and others—we may have too many streaming services—and started streaming videos.
The Roku interface is pleasant, streamlined, and responsive. It’s not larded up with offers and different sized selection targets like many smart TV interfaces. I also found it less frustrating than how Apple mimics an iPhone-style home screen on the Apple TV without supporting touch input. The Roku interface understands you have a remote control. It presents a short text menu at the left to navigate between categories like channels, live television, and settings.
The Roku voice remote strikes a lovely balance between the minimalism of the Siri Remote (old and new versions) and the typical crowded array of buttons on TV and set-top box remotes. You can also pair Roku’s iPhone app with the player and perform most operations from your iPhone thanks to a simulated remote control.
Using the Roku operating system was largely intuitive—I didn’t feel I had to learn a new way of thinking about selection or navigation. Only an asterisk button threw me briefly: it functions as a right-click, providing contextual commands, such as for moving channel icons around.
However, the experience wasn’t flawless, even after I installed the latest software update. It’s a little clumsy to remove channels and move them around, though the process isn’t much worse than an Apple TV. The Roku remote control also has four buttons dedicated to Apple TV+, Disney, Hulu, and Netflix solely because they paid for placement. That’s fine if you use those services, but if not, they loom there eternally as a constant reminder of megacorp pay-for-play.
The Apple TV app wouldn’t load Apple TV channels offered within it (as opposed to the channels at the Roku’s top level), perhaps nesting too deeply to work, at least at present. Instead, I ended up at a brownish empty screen for any channel I tried. The back button worked, so I wasn’t stuck. Because Apple provides this app, the fault may lie with it rather than Roku.
Roku supports AirPlay 2 on all its current models. When powered up, it appears just like any other AirPlay video destination and worked as expected.
Roku is perhaps the quiet genius in the back of the room in the classroom of hand-raising, attention-seeking streaming players, the makers of which use all means at their disposal to promote their own options. Competitors like Google, Amazon, and Apple devote a fraction of their efforts to streaming; it’s all Roku does. Roku’s streaming players are inexpensive and simple to set up while featuring an interface that’s among the best in class, the least invasive, and the least wasteful of your time and attention. In the end, Roku offers a worthy alternative to an Apple TV, calling out just how overpriced the Apple TV models are in comparison.
Long ago, cloud storage meant Dropbox. With the rise of Apple’s iCloud Drive, Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, the enterprise-focused Box, and a host of competitors, it has become near-impossible to keep track of everything that affects regular users of cloud storage services. Here’s an attempt to bring those who don’t pay close attention to the field up to date.
My Cloud Storage Setup
It might seem as though you could pick one cloud storage provider and stick with it, but I haven’t found it to be that easy. Cloud storage has become yet another weapon in the ecosystem wars. If you rely entirely on Apple products, you may be able to get away with iCloud Drive, and the same goes for Google with Google Drive and Microsoft with OneDrive. However, as soon as you venture outside a walled garden, whether that means Gmail or Microsoft Office, it’s hard to stick to just one provider, as I found. Further complicating the situation is the need to collaborate with others in whatever ecosystem they use, whether that’s Dropbox, Google Drive, or Box.
After Dropbox limited free accounts to three devices (see “Dropbox Limits Free Accounts to Three Devices,” 14 March 2019, and note that the company doesn’t advertise this limitation on its pricing comparison page), I stopped using it as much for sharing files between my devices—at minimum, I have an iMac, MacBook Air, iPhone, and iPad, and there are often several older devices in play as well. I didn’t need more storage than was available with my free account, so I was uninterested in paying Dropbox $9.99 per month for the full 2 TB in Dropbox Plus. But I still use Dropbox for sharing files with people on the Internet; perhaps it’s just that I’ve done it for so long, but Dropbox feels like the easiest and most reliable way of sharing with others.
For sharing files between my devices, I decided to switch to iCloud Drive, figuring that I should know more about Apple’s solution. I had to upgrade to 2 TB of iCloud Drive storage because I needed more than 200 GB for iCloud Photos and our Family Sharing group, so I was already paying Apple $9.99 per month for cloud storage—that was another strike against paying for Dropbox.
That’s not all. My Gmail archive finally exceeded the space available (Google provides 15 GB for free, and I had a grandfathered plan that gave me 20 GB more for $5 per year), forcing me to upgrade Google One to 100 GB for $19.99 per year. Kudos to Google for not making me jump all the way to the 2 TB tier, which is priced in line with Apple and Dropbox at $9.99 per month. I use Google Drive heavily now, largely because it’s the best way of accessing Google Docs and Google Sheets, which don’t even count against my storage. For that, I interact with Google Drive primarily through its Web interface; the Finder integration comes into play only when I’m working with native Mac files.
Lastly, Tonya and I pay the Microsoft 365 subscription fee of $99 per year to have Word and Excel available when we need them. Although we don’t use anything else in the subscription, it includes 1 TB of OneDrive space, making Dropbox even less necessary should I suddenly discover the need to store a terabyte in the cloud. However, I’ve never needed OneDrive—or used it beyond a quick test.
In an ideal world, cloud storage would just work, providing a sufficiently large pool of online storage that you could access quickly and fluidly, syncing as desired among your devices. In recent times, however, things have been more unsettled.
Storage Kernel Extensions Removed in macOS 12.3
In the release notes for the beta of macOS 12.3 Monterey, Apple said the kernel extensions used by Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive were no longer available. These extensions enable Dropbox and OneDrive to display files in the Finder as though they were stored locally and then download them on the fly when requested, a feature called on-demand downloads. Instead, cloud storage providers will have to use Apple’s new File Provider extension, which aims to provide a more coherent approach to supporting cloud storage. (For more details, see Apple’s WWDC 2021 presentation.)
Apple said that both Dropbox and Microsoft have replacements underway. Dropbox announced a beta release that would fully support macOS 12.3 in March 2022. Microsoft has been talking about changes to its Files On-Demand feature since last year, and it released a new version of OneDrive last month that moves further in that direction.
It’s hard to tell exactly what the situation is now, but it won’t matter until macOS 12.3 ships. At that point, if you rely on the Finder integration of Dropbox or OneDrive, you’ll want to delay upgrading unless Dropbox and Microsoft have shipped their updates.
Dropbox Finder Extension Can Get Disabled
Speaking of Dropbox’s Finder integration, its badges and contextual menu options (like the essential Copy Dropbox Link) haven’t been appearing on my iMac running Monterey, though I think the problem predated my upgrade from macOS 11 Big Sur. Since I wasn’t using Dropbox that much, I was putting up with the inconvenience of using the menu bar app when I needed to copy a Dropbox link.
If you’re in a similar situation, the solution turns out to be simple: go to System Preferences > Extensions > Finder Extensions and enable Dropbox. As to how this setting got turned off, I have no idea. Bits get flipped sometimes.
New Google Drive for Desktop App
Back in August 2021, Google replaced its Backup and Sync Mac app with Drive for desktop, which appears in your Applications folder as Google Drive. This was a long-planned merger of the consumer-focused Backup and Sync app and the business-only Drive File Stream. The new app appears in your Applications folder as Google Drive.
I don’t know if Google takes advantage of the new File Provider extension or not. It puts an ejectable Google Drive item in the Favorites section of Finder window sidebars and offers a choice between streaming and mirroring files, with the mirrored option’s local folder appearing in your home folder. (Access Google Drive’s preferences from the menu bar app’s gear menu.) On both of my Macs, I ended up with two Google Drive sidebar items, the ejectable one and another that pointed directly at the folder. In contrast, Dropbox and OneDrive put their items in the Locations section of the sidebar, where you can control their visibility from Finder > Preferences > Sidebar.
It’s all a bit confusing, but remember that you can move anything in the Finder window sidebar around, even pulling Dropbox out of Locations and iCloud Drive out of iCloud, if you’d prefer to have them in the Favorites section. Or just delete them by dragging them off the sidebar.
Beware Disconnected Local Folders During Migration
In the move from Google Drive’s Backup and Sync to Drive for Desktop, updating to the latest version of OneDrive, and installing the current version of Dropbox in Monterey, there’s room in the migration process for your previous local folder to get disconnected from the new version.
As I mentioned, Google Drive maintains a folder called Google Drive in your user folder (which is where it would have been before, too, in all likelihood), whereas the folders for Dropbox and OneDrive now live in
Check your setup to make sure you don’t have two folders—we ran into some confusion on Tonya’s iMac because she had a manually created Google Drive folder in her Finder window sidebar that pointed to a different folder than Google Drive was using. Since she hadn’t realized this, she had stored some files in the disconnected local folder that wasn’t syncing to Google Drive.
Similarly, when I just installed Dropbox on my M1-based MacBook Air, it ignored the Dropbox folder in my home folder that had migrated there from my old 2012 MacBook Air. So I ended up with two Dropbox folders and had to delete the one in my home folder. You, like us, may need to do some manual merging to make sure everything is syncing.
Another aspect of these folder location changes is that any automation you have that looks for files in specific locations may break.
OneDrive Makes Files On-Demand Mandatory
I don’t use OneDrive, but users are up in arms after its most recent update made the Files On-Demand approach mandatory, removing the option to keep all files local with a single switch. Microsoft explained this move, but users remain unhappy for a variety of reasons.
The workaround seems to be to “pin” files or folders, which keeps them local. If you want everything local, you have to pin all your top-level folders. Unfortunately, and this is causing consternation for users who have vast amounts of data stored in OneDrive, that means you have to redownload everything from the cloud.
iCloud Drive Needs Resetting Regularly
I’d like to say that iCloud Drive has worked fine for me, but the reality is that I’ve experienced several instances where syncing gets stuck, either for a single file or everything. An indication that this has happened is a cloud icon next to a file that never goes away, though you may be more likely to notice when a file you’ve created on one device never appears on another.
The first thing to try in such a situation is a restart. That may be all that’s necessary to kick the necessary background processes into starting up syncing again. If nothing is syncing at all, a restart might fix it.
If you have only a small number of files that refuse to sync, a restart may not work. In that case, move those files out to the Desktop, go to System Preferences > Apple ID, and turn off iCloud Drive. After you work through the dire warnings, you can turn it back on to download everything fresh and reset syncing. To clarify, you don’t generally want to keep all files on your Mac—just those that haven’t been uploaded—and if iCloud Drive could update, you wouldn’t be turning it off. In my experience, since iCloud is unable to update, you’ll often get the promised iCloud Drive (Archive) folder in your home folder, where it could consume a lot of space.
When I did this just now to collect screenshots, iCloud Drive turned off and back on, but then promptly got stuck again; when I clicked the progress indicator in the Finder window sidebar next to iCloud Drive, I got a dialog telling me that it had downloaded 5.2 MB of 1.63 GB. When that failed to change, and I couldn’t open anything else in iCloud Drive, I restarted, which cleared iCloud Drive to download everything as it should.
Apple, we shouldn’t be left pining for an iCloud Drive refresh button.
I’ve worn an Apple Watch on and off since it debuted in 2015, but only recently have I embraced it for health tracking for three reasons:
- I started getting serious about fitness because my health has steadily declined for a few years.
- I recently came down with COVID-19 and wanted to monitor my heart, sleep, and overall condition, both to stay on top of any side effects and to gauge when it would be safe to go back to the gym.
- I realized that the Apple Watch itself is a decent fitness tracker, but Apple’s fitness-tracking software is weak. However, the advantage of the Apple Watch over competing fitness trackers is you can use whatever apps you want to interpret the watch’s sensor data.
I’ll share what has been working for me, and I hope it will give you some ideas about how to take better advantage of your Apple Watch’s fitness-tracking capabilities.
Keep in mind that all fitness trackers present educated guesses based on subtle sensor data. All the sleep-tracking apps I’ve tried can show wildly different results from the same measurements, and step-counting apps may show steps taken when you haven’t even gotten out of bed. They’re primarily useful for giving you a rough idea of trends and making you more aware of how active or inactive you are.
The Problem with the Activity/Fitness App
Activity (called Fitness on the iPhone) may be the most well-known Apple Watch app. It seems as though every new Apple Watch owner wants to fill their Activity rings and share their streaks on social media. But I’ve also noticed that the enthusiasm for keeping up with the rings doesn’t always last long. While the ring concept is fun and simple to grasp, the way Apple calculates activity is both confusing and discouraging.
If you’re not familiar with the Activity rings, they are:
- Move: The red Move ring displays how many active calories you’ve burned (as opposed to passive calories that your body burns purely by existing). While I’m skeptical of the calorie calculation, this is probably the most useful Activity metric, if primarily in the “more movement is better” category. You can change the calorie goal to whatever you want, so it’s easy to ensure success or challenge yourself, whichever you prefer.
- Exercise: Apple says the green Exercise ring measures how many minutes of “brisk activity” you’ve done, but it doesn’t go into specifics. We think it’s a combination of movement and heart rate when you’re not using the Workout app.
- Stand: The blue Stand ring shows how many hours per day you stand up. Not how many hours you’re standing, but how many hours within which you stood up, even briefly. The goal is to stand up at least once in each of 12 hours every day. It’s good to get sedentary Americans to stand more, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful. Despite hitting this target nearly every day, I developed terrible hip and back pain over the past few years. It’s also annoying when it wants you to stand up during a movie, while riding in a car, or when the seatbelt sign is on during an airplane flight. Even more annoyingly, those who stand all day get reminders to stand anyway, since it only notices a change in position, not the position itself.
I’m most perturbed by the Exercise ring. It matches up well with typical cardio workouts like running and cycling, but not with activities like strength training and farm work. There have been many days when I spend the entire day working outside but the Exercise ring doesn’t budge. And I’m not just sitting on a tractor. I don’t even own a tractor! I cut almost all of my grass with a scythe, which should count as exercise. It’s frustrating when I walk inside absolutely exhausted at the end of the day and the Exercise ring has hardly moved. Then I get a notification at bedtime encouraging me to walk a mile to close my rings. Behavior like that has made me hate the Apple Watch for years.
The screenshot illustrates the absurdity of Activity’s rings. I spent 90 minutes lifting weights in the gym and walked over 10,000 steps for the day. Granted, I had just recovered from COVID, so I was moving at an easy pace, but I still put a lot of work in. Athlytic, an app I’ll describe shortly, gave me a rating of 6.4 out of 10 for daily effort, which seemed fair, yet I still hadn’t closed my Move ring, and my Exercise ring was only a little over halfway full. Absurd.
If you’ve found yourself discouraged by the Activity rings failing to reflect your actual activity, you’re not alone. I can’t think of anything more demoralizing than working yourself to the bone and then having your watch tell you you’re a lazy bum.
I hope Apple improves the Apple Watch’s built-in fitness tracking in watchOS 9. The company has dramatically improved almost every other aspect of the watch.
Heart and Health Are Pretty Good
My experience isn’t entirely bad. The constant heart monitoring and having an ECG on my wrist are incredible. I particularly appreciated them when I was sick with COVID since I could monitor my elevated heart rate and take an ECG every day to make sure nothing funky was going on. I could then see when my heart rate started to drop back to normal.
I’ve said many uncharitable things about the Health app over the years, and its interface leaves a lot to be desired. But as a technology for allowing apps to share health-related data, Apple Health (which seems to be how third-party apps refer to the back end) is amazing. It enables my activity-tracking app, calorie-counting app, and smart scale app to talk to each other, giving me a good idea of my calorie intake versus output and how that corresponds to my weight and body fat percentage (see “Track Your Weight with the Eufy BodySense, an Affordable, HealthKit-Compatible Smart Scale,” 13 July 2018). The fact that I can use apps from three different developers to gather and see that information is incredible.
If you look at the Health app as a front-end to Apple Health’s database of sensor readings, the mediocre interface makes a little more sense. The problem is that Health tracks so much data that it’s overwhelming. The trick is to set the metrics that most interest you as Favorites so you can easily see them on the main Summary screen. If you have a specific health condition, your doctor may have already told you to keep an eye on certain metrics, but if not, it can be hard to know where to start.
Here are the metrics I’m currently tracking in favorites and why I’m tracking them:
- Body fat percentage: automatically measured by my smart scale. More important than mere weight, this number helps me keep track of how much fat I’m losing (or gaining) over time.
- Body mass index (BMI): also measured by my smart scale. BMI isn’t all that helpful compared with body fat percentage. For instance, if you’re muscular, your BMI might classify you as obese. However, I am not, so I’m keeping tabs on it for now since it’s trending down and that’s encouraging.
- Cardio fitness: an estimate of VO2 max and an indicator of overall cardiorespiratory health. Mine is pretty low, so it’s an incentive to get on the exercise bike.
- Heart rate variability (HRV): a subtle but important metric of overall health. I like tracking HRV to see if it’s increasing over time, though apps like Athlytic are better for putting it in context.
- Resting heart rate: a useful indicator of recovery from stress or illness. I’m hoping to see this trend down over time as I become more active, and it also helps me monitor my stress level.
- Sleep: how many hours of sleep, tracked by the Apple Watch. It’s a good thing to track if you’re tired all the time or are suffering from other problems.
- Steps: the well-known 10,000 step goal comes from marketing, not science. A workout plan I’m on suggests this number of steps per day, but I’m starting to lean against it.
- Weight: again, captured by my smart scale. Weight doesn’t say much in context, but when I’m trying to lose some pounds, it’s encouraging to see my weight trend down.
If you need to monitor health conditions that your life literally depends upon, like blood pressure or blood sugar, it’s worth investing in Bluetooth-enabled devices that sync with an Apple Health-compatible app so you can easily view your stats and trends. I can’t speak about glucose monitors, but my experience with automatic blood pressure cuffs has been spotty. My wife’s doctor helped us calibrate our cuff to record mostly accurate measurements.
Where Health falls flat is in helping me understand the data it presents. Health does explain the metrics but often leaves out important context. Just one example: Health tells me my average breathing rate while asleep has decreased over the past week. Is that good or bad? If I want to find out, I need to do a Web search (the normal rate is 12–20, so I’m guessing that lower is better, within reason). Third-party apps often do a much better job of providing context.
One last point about Health: the trends feature introduced in iOS 15 is helpful but could use some work. It’s good to know that my resting heart rate trended lower after recovering from COVID, as you can see below. But I wish there was more history and context here. Stats will drop from trending to not trending without any notice, and it would be helpful to know what’s stalling so I can try to figure out why.
If Activity/Fitness and Health don’t meet your needs, as they don’t meet mine, here are some alternatives.
Athlytic for Activity Tracking
So if your Activity rings aren’t a great measure of your activity, what’s better? I recently started a routine that specifies walking the classic 10,000 steps per day. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to glance at your step count on an Apple Watch, even though you can find it (scroll down) in the watch’s Activity app. The free Pedometer++ app handily solves this, offering a complication with your daily step count.
However, I’m starting to shift away from steps as a metric because I find the exercise bike easier and more effective. Plus, it’s in my warm, dry bedroom, so I have no excuses for not spending a few minutes a day on it.
TidBITS security editor and EMT Rich Mogull turned me onto another app, Athlytic, which emulates the tracking capabilities of the popular Whoop fitness tracker. The Whoop band is free, but the required subscription costs anywhere from $18 to $30 per month. Athlytic is free to try but costs $24 per year to unlock all capabilities. Plus, the Apple Watch is a far more capable device than the minimalist Whoop band.
Athlytic has become the core of my fitness-tracking regime. It tracks four metrics:
- Recovery: based on your heart rate variability. The higher your HRV, the better. Based on that, Athlytic recommends how hard to train on any given day and whether you need to rest. That was especially handy after I returned to workouts after recovering from COVID.
- Exertion: an estimate of how hard you’ve worked in a given day, based on heart rate. Each day, you’re given a target exertion number that ranges from 0–10 based on your recovery. If your recovery is good, the app will recommend for the next day a target of 10, which the app makers admit is impossible to achieve, but one that lets you know you can train as hard as you want.
- Sleep: tells you the total time asleep, how many interruptions you had, your total time awake, etc. Of course, it works properly only if you wear your watch to bed, but if you don’t, it will try to guess. It also charts out your sleep per day and your consistency, as well as your heart rate and HRV during sleep.
- Energy: gives you an estimate of calories burned versus calories consumed. To get the most out of the Energy score, you’ll need to use a food tracker like Cronometer that connects to Apple Health. More on Cronometer later.
Of all the apps I’m using, if I could only go with one, it would be Athlytic. It does pretty much everything, and the subscription fee is entirely reasonable. It offers several Apple Watch complications for recovery, exertion, energy, and blood oxygen (if you have an Apple Watch Series 6 or later). I use the Exertion complication to know how much more I should exercise on any given day.
I keep the Exertion complication on my health-oriented watch face, and I find it a much nicer reminder than Apple’s finicky and judgmental Activity rings. If it’s near lunchtime and my exertion is near zero, I know I need to either go for a walk or hit the exercise bike. I try to aim for an exertion score of around 6 on my gym days and 2 on my off days. The exertion score is also a nice backup to my step counter when walking isn’t feasible, either due to work or severe weather.
Athlytic recently revealed something interesting for me. During a recent period of high anxiety, my heart rate was noticeably higher, which was reflected in higher-than-normal exertion scores and correlated to poorer sleep. That leads me to believe that my overall energy levels will improve if I can better manage my anxiety. Plus, my exertion dropped the day after an anxiety-ridden workout, so that’s more motivation to get in the gym.
AutoSleep for Sleep Tracking
I’ve long had unusual sleep patterns because I’m naturally nocturnal. Unfortunately, my kids are not. As I’ve sought to put on more muscle, sleep quality has become paramount because lifting is only half the equation. Quality sleep and diet are necessary to build muscle following that initial stimulus. And when I had COVID, I wanted to make sure I was maximizing my sleep every night so I’d recover faster.
You don’t need a separate app for basic sleep tracking. Just wear your Apple Watch to bed and put it in sleep focus by pulling up Control Center, tapping the moon, and selecting Sleep (see “Apple’s New Focus Feature May Be Overkill,” 20 January 2022). That prevents annoying notifications and keeps the screen from lighting up. You can check your metrics in Health each morning.
Various apps can offer different sleep metrics, but I’m not entirely satisfied with any of them. While testing sleep-tracking apps, I found a huge range of variability in the readings, as much as a couple of hours! The app I’ve found that’s closest to Athyltic’s approach is the $4.99 AutoSleep, which reports on metrics like respiration rate and HRV. It also offers a nightly sleep rating that I can use to gauge whether the efforts I’m employing to improve my sleep—like taking a shower before bed, getting in bed earlier, taking melatonin, etc.—are actually working. Remember, as Adam Engst points out in “Can Sleep Tracking in iOS 14/watchOS 7 Help You Sleep Better?” (16 October 2020), tracking by itself isn’t helpful; you need to make lifestyle changes if you want to sleep better.
Cronometer for Calorie Counting
I’m not a fan of calorie counting. At best, the numbers are guesses since macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein are metabolized differently by the body, and every person metabolizes them differently. In short, calorie intake doesn’t connect well with calorie expenditure. Plus, regularly tracking calories is tedious. Thankfully I’ve stumbled across a sustainable diet that has helped me lose nearly 40 pounds over the past few months without calorie counting and even during the holidays, when I usually balloon up.
However, calorie counting has its place, largely in the “fewer is better” approach. I lose weight more consistently when I count calories because it provides a better sense of just how calorie-dense and carb-laden some foods are. In my case, I’m more worried about protein intake—even beyond needing more protein to support my weightlifting, many older people don’t consume enough protein, given that our bodies cease to absorb it as completely as we age.
For the past few years, my food tracking app of choice has been Cronometer. It has a simple, clean interface, a good database of foods, and a lot of great features for free. Cronometer Gold, which is $7.99 per month or $44.99 per year, adds useful features like a recipe importer and suggestions of foods to eat to hit nutritional targets.
Cronometer has been revealing, especially when synced with the activity data from Apple Health. I discovered that, with my current diet, I typically eat well below my maintenance calorie threshold. In fact, I probably need to eat more to encourage muscle growth, but I just can’t because the nutrient-rich foods I’ve been eating are so filling. That’s likely fine for now, but it might be a challenge if I get down to my ideal weight and want to build more muscle.
I also discovered that my diet is consistently low in vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin E, pointing toward adjustments I need to make or supplements I need to take. It’s also low in magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc, but I had already been taking supplements for those.
Stronglifts and Strong for Weightlifting Logs
When working on a lifting plan, it’s important to record your weights and number of reps so you can track progress and know how much you should lift in subsequent sessions. Numerous iPhone apps offer this capability, and although I’ve tested some, none has met all my needs.
I started with the free and simple Stronglifts 5×5 plan, which focuses on five lifts split over three days per week. There are two workouts. Workout A is squat, bench press, and barbell row. Workout B is squat, overhead press, and deadlift. Stronglifts has its own app that’s free to use for following the plan, with short video demonstrations of all the core lifts—essential when starting out.
I really like how well Stronglifts syncs with the Apple Watch. I can start a workout on my iPhone, complete sets on my Apple Watch, and view my rest timer on the watch, along with my heart rate. Data seamlessly flows between the iPhone and Apple Watch apps. And it integrates with Apple Health, logging my workouts as weight-training sessions.
But Stronglifts focuses on squatting to the point that it makes you feel like a failure if you’re bad at squats. Despite years of stretches, my hips just don’t move that way, so I wanted to try another routine. Stronglifts supports custom routines but only if you subscribe to StrongLifts Pro for $4.99 per month or $29.99 per year. There are also family and lifetime subscriptions.
Instead, I tried another highly recommended app: Strong, which is free to use with an optional subscription at the same prices as Stronglifts. I like Strong’s extensive exercise library with step-by-step instructions and animations.
Unfortunately, Strong drops the medicine ball with its Apple Watch support. By default, its Apple Watch and iPhone apps don’t communicate beyond the watch sending your workout data over to the iPhone app when you’re finished. A Live Sync setting is supposed to facilitate two-way communication, but it doesn’t work well, and the Apple Watch app crashed when I tried to pick up a workout I had started on my iPhone.
Later on, it worked better until it was time to end the workout. The iPhone app warned me to stop the workout on the Apple Watch so I didn’t lose data. I did that, and Strong still lost the set of crunches at the end of my workout. I was able to edit my workout on the iPhone, but it was still annoying and makes me leery of using Strong across both platforms.
I have many more weightlifting apps to try, but if I’m not happier with any of them, I might spring for a Stronglifts Pro subscription because of its superior Apple Watch integration. It’s nice being able to track a workout from my wrist while my iPhone sits quietly in my gym bag. If you have any recommendations in this arena, let me know in the comments.
Draw Your Own Rings
If you own an Apple Watch but have been unsatisfied with Apple’s Activity rings, the good news is that you have numerous alternatives to try. With Apple Health, the company has built a flexible platform that lets third-party developers read and analyze Apple Watch data however they want, which may be more helpful for your fitness goals.
However, it’s important not to let a fitness tracker run your life. It’s easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over calorie counting or using a poor readiness score as an excuse not to work out. Likewise, I’m not going to stand up just because my Apple Watch tells me to. Especially if I’m driving.
As I said at the beginning, a fitness tracker can only provide educated guesses that might help inform the process of achieving your fitness goals. Don’t mistake those metrics for your actual health and progress.