The Apple Watch For Fitness: Your iPhone is Enough (review)

I tracked my heart rate using the Apple Watch (L) and the Polar monitor (R) (Greg Ferenstein)

This is a story from Ferenstein Wire, a syndicated news service.

Over the past three years, there have been extraordinary advances in wearables for fitness: Precise heart rate monitoring, form tracking and energy output.

The Apple Watch has none of these features.

Presently, it's one of the most expensive pedometers on planet earth. Beyond a lackluster heart rate monitor, all the important fitness features of the Apple Watch are already on the iPhone: Run-tracking, personal health coaching and activity-logging.

In fact, the Apple Watch is not designed to measure one of the most important habits of an athlete: Sleep quality. Other less expensive trackers, such as the Basis Watch or Fitbit, are a better option for that.

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I was ridiculously excited about the Apple Watch. I spilled a lot of virtual ink fantasizing about the impending fitness revolution. After trying out the Apple Watch at my local gym, I can say, unequivocally, I am still excited for the Apple Watch to be a worthwhile fitness companion someday. But for now, if you're looking to track your fitness, there is no real advantage to using it over the iPhone.

For Runners: Watch vs. iPhone

Taken together, walking and running are the most popular workouts in America, comprising the main activity for more than one-third of exercisers.

The iPhone is a delightful companion for the staple of American health. The new iOS for iPhone automatically tracks walking and running, assuming you carry your phone with you most of the day.

The Apple Watch fitness apps, like Endomondo, use the iPhone for the bulk of its health-tracking, including distance, pace, and elevation (although, you may need to use an armband).

Below is my run up San Francisco’s beautiful Bernal Heights, without an Apple Watch.

A workout summary using a free app called Endomondo
A workout summary using a free app called Endomondo (Greg Ferenstein)

The one additional item that quantified-self enthusiasts pair for a run is a heart rate monitor, which was the big promise of the Apple Watch. Unfortunately, the monitor’s sluggish heart rate performance isn’t up to snuff.

During my test run at the gym, my Polar chest strap confirmed that I was well into my target heart rate zone, while the Apple Watch was still crunching the numbers. During an exhausting run, staring at your watch is the last thing you want to do.

If I ran long enough, the Apple Watch did eventually catch up to my actual heart rate during hill sprints -- approximating 180 beats per minute -- but as soon as I started slowing down, it couldn’t tell me that I was going too easy. In fact, to take a screenshot, I had completely stopped running —  but Apple’s heart rate monitor didn’t know that.

The Apple Watch came close to accurate heart rate tracking -- for a second
The Apple Watch came close to accurate heart rate tracking -- for a second (Greg Ferenstein)
But it couldn’t detect changes in intensity
But it couldn’t detect changes in intensity (Greg Ferenstein)

Heart rate training is a very sensitive strategy; a discrepancy of greater than 10 beats per minute can mean the difference between a sweat-drenched goal-crushing workout, and wasted lolly gagging. At high heart rates, every second counts —  but, the Apple Watch doesn’t.

Devices For Fitness

The Apple Watch still could be revolutionary for its ability to pull data from more fitness-specific devices. The next evolution of fitness involves form-tracking. For instance, wearables that can tell if your movements are sloppy or executed with Olympic-class perfection.

Here are a few that I've tested out:

  • The Sensoria Smart Sock has helped me learn how to run on the ball of my foot, so I don’t wake up the next day hobbling on a damaged heel. It has an automated audio coach that whispers instructions in your ear as you run.
  • The Amiigo wristband pairs with a shoelace clip to automatically monitor repetitions during weight training.
  • The Athos smart shorts uses electrical signals to sense if you are tensing the right muscles. During a trial run, the shorts told me that my Spin bike form was great, but my Olympic squat was dangerously over-reliant on one leg. Symmetry between limbs is a key to preventing injury.

Eventually, Apple could combine all this data to give me an overall picture of my health. For instance, Apple might find a pattern between a well-executed weight-lifting session and fat loss. Or, Apple might notice that poor running form is decreasing the number of days I exercise each month and recommend that I rest my feet for a week.

But, these are all just theoretical ideas for the Apple Watch -- for now.

The Apple iOS is Good for General Wellness

A snapshot of my activities from the Apple Health app
A snapshot of my activities from the Apple Health app (Greg Ferenstein)

For general wellness, the iPhone already tracks important measures. If you carry your phone in your pocket, the newest Apple iOS software automatically logs steps, stairs and running. There are even apps that can calculate basic sleep statistics by analyzing how your phone jostles on your bed at night.

But if you think a new gadget is what you or your parents need to kick their health into gear, the Apple Watch still might be a great idea. For folks who need reminders to be a little healthier, stand up more, and go for a walk at night, the device is a fine choice.

For instance, the app that Apple chose as one of the best new health apps, Lark, uses proven psychological coaching techniques to remind users to be more active and eat healthier.

[Click here for more on health apps for the Apple Watch.]

I told Lark I ate a granola bar; it was not pleased (for the record: I did not actually eat a granola bar).
I told Lark I ate a granola bar; it was not pleased (for the record: I did not actually eat a granola bar). (Greg Ferenstein)

Speak into the watch to log meals and Lark will automatically send top-tier coaching advice back in real time. I was impressed that it had incorporated the latest health guidelines on granola bars, which are now well-known trojan horses of sugar.

Combined with the watch’s step-counting abilities, Apple (and apps like Lark) could potentially be a real boon for those who just need a little extra coaching.

But for folks training for a triathlon, weight lifters, runners, bicyclists or Cross- fitters, the Apple Watch doesn’t add much.

In short, the Apple Watch is in its first generation. I’m optimistic that Apple will improve the sensor-tracking capabilities and the device will be a worthwhile fitness companion in the future.

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