The best fitness features to make sure you achieve your health goals
Apple Watches have, in recent years, become a staple holiday gift. But with their focus on fitness, the time they really come into their own is a few days later, as people head into the new year with new goals to become more healthy or better trained.
The Watch can be a powerful tool to track your fitness and keep you motivated as you head into January with fresh resolutions and new goals. But like any powerful tool, you have to use it right: it is packed with a variety of exercise and health tracking features, but the sheer number and depth of them can sometimes be confusing.
Getting to grips with both a new workout regime and a new smartwatch can be as taxing as the exercise itself. But thankfully there are plenty of ways to make it easier – and focus on putting that effort into your new fitness.
The Independent spoke with Apple fitness and health boss Jay Blahnik to explain how to make the Watch work for you, and how to ensure that your new Watch works for your new goals.
Fill the rings
The central part of the Apple Watch‘s fitness tracking is its system of rings. As you’ll find as soon as you set it up, it watches you each day to see whether you can fill up the circles that count up to a certain number. Everything else flows from there.
If you’ve already set up your Apple Watch, you’ll be familiar with this, because it’s the first fitness thing it asks you to do. But that’s also an indication of how important it is, and how key it is to make sure you get it right.
Two of the rings are non-negotiable. The Watch wants you to do 30 minutes of heart rate-raising activity per day. It also wants you to get 12 “stand hours”, though it’s important to note that this means you need to stand up and move around a little bit each hour, rather than standing up for an hour.
The third ring is more flexible, and arguably the most important. That’s the calorie goal, and it measures just how much exercise you have done over the day.
Blahnik notes these are not about “the most you can do every day, but the least you should do every day”. The amount of calories you choose to fill the calorie ring should be a question of the minimum you’ll be happy with, and it’s important to make sure that’s the case because regularly missing it can very quickly be demotivating. In the optimism of the new year, it can be enticing to think that you should shoot for the best possible performance – but you might just end up being deflated when you miss.
It’s also worth noting that the calories burned don’t have to be from a thrilling, painful, high intensity exercise class; walking the dog is still being active, and the rings fill just the same. In both setting the goals and working towards them, the key thing to remember is that it is “not about performance or getting high goals, but actually something that can help you sustain a really good, healthy active lifestyle every day”,” says Blahnik.
You can always fill up the circles multiple times on a busy day, and the Watch will reward you for that. But the real way that it recognises your more high-flying achievement is with its badges – which are easy to forget.
Badges are “traditionally more about celebration” says Blahnik, and are aimed at giving yourself bigger goals to aim at. The primary one is the monthly goal that the Watch sets for you, giving you a performance on one of your rings that will be rewarded with a new badge in the app for each month you succeed.
This can sometimes seem daunting: it will often ask you to average more calories burned than you thought possible, or give you what seems like an unimaginable number of exercise minutes. But Blahnik says that those are “intelligently built around you, so it either tries together you to match or beat something you’ve already done”. They are often difficult, of course, but Blahnik claims they should never actually be impossible.
Unlike the rings, the badges live primarily in the Activity app. It is worth checking that app regularly, because it gives you the kind of long-term information that couldn’t show on the Watch. It also allows you to see the ones you haven’t yet got – and see how you can do so.
Another longer-term way of understanding how you’re doing is the trends feature that was added in the Watch with the latest major update and can also be found inside the Activity app. That allows you to see how your last 90 days compare with the last year of activity, and see if various metrics – not just your calories burned but others like your average running speed – are going up or down. Because the Apple Watch is largely focused on short-term targets, it can be easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re improving when you’re not, but the trends feature is intended to give an easy way to check that.
“For people that have been using the Apple Watch for while, they might be closing their rings every day,” says Blahnik. So they’re playing the game, right.
“But what they haven’t realised is that actually they’re exercising less, even though they’re still getting the 30 minutes” needed to fill the exercise ring.
“And so it’s a little bit deceiving: they see that the rings are closing, they feel good, but they don’t realise that on average, they may be dropped a little bit.” If you notice that happening, you can just concentrate on one of your trends and commit to “flip this one arrow”, Blahnik says.
“And what’s nice about activity trends is that even if you’re down, it doesn’t take that long to flip an arrow around. It’s more than a day. Sometimes it’s more than a few weeks. But it’s not an impossible task.” Soon enough the 90 days that were trending down become part of the year that you’re comparing yourself with, and the problem arrow will flip on its head.
Another of the more recent and more intense features added to the Apple Watch’s fitness features is the competitions tool. That makes it possible to go up against other people you know with a Watch, but it’s focused on levelling the playing field so that you won’t be beaten by them unfairly.
The Apple Watch has long had a feature to allow you to share your activity, and Blahnik says that is key too. Using it, you can see what people are doing each day – and by following people who are both more and less active than you, you can gain inspiration and enthusiasm. You can also interact with those people, giving them encouragement or a friendly ribbing when they’re active.
But competitions are a little more intense than just sharing: they actively put you up against each other. But they do so by rewarding the people who close most of their rings, rather than those who do the most activity. That means that if you enter a competition with someone then it should be adjusted to account for how fit you both are, and the winner will be the person who outperforms their usual exercise history rather than always being the enthusiastically fit friend.
It can be a useful dash of actual competition in a Watch that is largely both personal and encouraging. If you are struggling to keep to your resolutions as January drags on and the excitement fades, then it could be worth joining up to a competition with a friend to give yourself something to aim for.
If your aim with your Apple Watch is not simply to get active but also to get faster, fitter, or better, then just filling up the rings is not likely to be enough. When it comes to training rather than just working
The Apple Watch doesn’t have quite as in-depth training features as some other more devoted fitness wearables. (Watches made by companies like Garmin for example give you more precise readouts about the training load you are undergoing and how it is affecting things like your running speed or cycling fitness.) But it does have plenty of ways to both measure and improve your performance, if that’s what you are looking to do.
One of the key ways you can do so is through the pace goals that the Watch can give you when you run. If you open up a workout through the devoted app, you can click on the three dots in the corner rather than launching straight into the exercise – and from that screen you can choose a pace goal, which might be a dream speed for you to catch or a minimum one for you to stay above, both of which are valuable training tools.
This can also be a big motivator to even getting through the exercise. The Apple Watch lets you either launch an open workout – letting you just get on with it – or to pick a goal in terms of calories, time or distance. Blahnik notes that it’s easy to talk yourself into doing 20 minutes on the stairstepper but then talk yourself back out of it 10 minutes in, but setting yourself that precise goal will mean you are less likely to back out when you get bored or tired.
If performance is your aim, it’s also worth clicking through some of the more detailed metrics that the Watch tracks. As well as things like calories burned and stand goals, the Watch can estimate your VO2 Max – an estimate of how efficient your body is becoming – as well as things like your resting heart rate, both of which will give you a nice way of tracking how well you are improving – or noticing when you are not.
And it is helpful to remember that the Apple Watch’s built-in apps are only half the story: the App Store is built in, meaning that you can add new ones. There are a variety of different ones, allowing you to do everything from yoga to guided strength training, and your activity in those will be transferred over to your rings, too.
Working out, even with a smart watch on your wrist, can very quickly get boring. And becoming bored can be the enemy of keeping to resolutions or new workout plans.
One way around that is to use the Watch not just to track your runs but to soundtrack them too. You can use Apple’s built-in apps to listen to music or podcasts, or get third party ones that offer listening too, like audiobooks on Audible or podcasts on Overcast. You can do that on the phone too, of course, but that can also be a distraction of ever-pinging notifications and added weight on your side.
“They can’t just immerse themselves in the experience,” says Blahnik, who says that it might work to promise yourself an episode of a podcast or a chapter of an audiobook each time you head out on a run, for instance. That will help to keep you in the moment but not too far into it, and help create a ritual that will stop you turning off exercising.
Let me be your motivation
The Apple Watch has a focus on goals and streaks: fill your rings, and keep filling them, and you’ll be rewarded not just for your performance on each day but over the weeks and months that you manage to string active days together.
However, the motivation that provides can quickly turn off. If you have one day you miss – and as a consequence your long streak of days comes to an end, or you fail to get the badge the Watch gives you for having a perfect week – then it’s easy to give up entirely and blame yourself as a failure.
When that happens, “there’s no way to rewrite that one – you know, it’s a bummer”, says Blahnik.
“But what I also say is that the definition of a streak is that it’s not forever. If it was supposed to be forever, it would be the daily goal. So try to find joy in starting over.”
But it is also a useful reminder not to be overly optimistic in the goals you set. ” I would prefer that people take their rings and set it to something they know they can do every day,” he says. “That would be the daily goal – something that I really, truly believe that even on the worst day, I can do it.”
There is a virtuous optimism in picking a stretch goal and going for something really difficult, which can be especially alluring in the excited days of January fitness resolutions. But keep that sort of thing for your stretch goals – give yourself the challenge of doubling your daily goal as often as you can, for instance, rather than setting your goal twice as high – and you’ll be able to ensure you have the motivation to aspire to big things but not beat yourself up if you miss them.
“That’s what I always say to people: there’s the rings, set them realistically, because that is about daily success. Then pick a badge or an achievement, or another goal. That actually is the motivational one that you would only do in January.” You could choose to start a competition with friends, for instance – something on which you should “be prepared to not necessarily be successful” but which will push you to try, which is the really important thing.
Recharge and recover
More and more fitness experts urge people to pay as much attention to recovery as their workouts; the times you’re not doing something can be at least as important to your wellbeing and performance as the times you are. It’s in those moments that your body actually gets fitter, as it builds itself back up in response to the new work you’ve made it do.
The Apple Watch doesn’t have an obvious way of accounting for recovery: there’s no option for a rest day, and so it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that being more active is always better. If you do take a day off, it will try and motivate you into getting active again – and there is no button to tell the watch that you’re being responsible, not lazy
But Blahnik says that is where the focus on earning the rings in a variety of ways comes in. That way, you can still schedule in activity – but treat it as active recovery, rather than another blast of stress for your body.
At the beginning of the week he might go to Barry’s Bootcamp for a very intense training session on a Monday, he says. The day after he might be sore, but it is still good to ensure there’s some activity. So on a day like that your rings might be filled up by an especially long walk with your dog, for instance, rather than obliterating yourself all over again.
Blahnik claims it is better not to “live in those extremes” of giving yourself a very intense workout and then nothing. “The recovery can still be active,” he says. But if you’re goal does turn out to be too high, you can always turn it down, and you’ll still get the same credit for doing it.
Running into the future
One of the Apple Watch’s big appeals is that it exists on largely the same cycle as the iPhone: big new features arrive at least once a year, coming either through the regular software updates or the annual hardware revisions. The latest Apple Watch brought an always-on display, for instance, while the newest software update added health features like hearing health and cycle tracking.
Future updates could therefore bring other updates to the Watch, and it is worth watching out for them. Apple is famously secretive about what might be coming in the future, and doesn’t give away anything about those updates when asked what they might contain, but gives an indication of the philosophy that will guide them.
“We are constantly looking at ways to include more people and motivate more people in ways that are meaningful to them,” he says. That could mean more customisation, for instance, though he notes also that must always be balanced with simplicity.
“We’re really optimistic that our system of features is going to continue to broadly bring more people in and motivate people.”