The Apple Watch for Fitness, Quantitatively Reviewed: Your iPhone Already Has the Important Features

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Apple Watch vs. Polar for exercise

Over the past 3 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.

It is, at present, maybe just the most expensive pedometer 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, automated coaching, and activity logging.

In fact, the Apple Watch is not designed to measure arguably the most important habit of an athlete: good sleep. So, less expensive trackers, such as the Basis Watch or Fitbit, might be even better.

To be sure, 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 some day in the future. But, for now, there is virtually no difference between the iPhone and the Apple Watch for fitness.

For Runners: Watch vs. iPhone

Taken together, walking and running are the most popular workouts in America, comprising the main activity for more than a 1/3rd 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).

If you have pockets or an arm-band, the Apple Watch fitness apps (like Endomondo) use the iPhone for the bulk of the statistics anyways, including distance, pace, and elevation (below is my run up San Francisco’s beautiful Bernal Heights, without an Apple Watch).

For runners, this is what Apple tracks without an iPhone.

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, as can be seen from the comparison picture at the top of this post, my Polar chest strap knew 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 (for both safety and sanity reasons).

In additional testing at the gym, if I ran long enough, the Apple Watch did eventually catch up to my actual heart rate during hill sprints (approximating my heart rate at near 180 beats/minute), but as soon as I started drifting, the iPhone couldn’t tell me that I was going too easy. In fact, to take the picture, I had completely stopped running — but Apple’s HR monitor didn’t know that.

Apple Watch was close, for a second

But, it couldn’t detect changes in intensity

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

Devices for Fitness

The Apple Watch still could be a revolutionary device, but mostly for its ability to take data from more fitness-specific devices. The next evolution of fitness is form tracking: wearables that can tell if you’re movements are sloppy or are executed with olympic-class perfection. A few examples:

  • The Sensoria Smart Sock, for instance, has helped teach me 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 wrist band pairs with a shoelace clip to automatically monitor repetitions during weight training.
  • The Athos smart shorts uses electrical signals to sense if users 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 power and 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 the next day. 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, for now, these are all just things the Apple Watch could do in theory.

The Apple iOS Is Good for General Wellness

For general wellness, the Apple Watch 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 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 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 Apple iOS 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.

Users can speak into the watch to log meals and Lark will automatically send top-tier coaching advice back to the user 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.

I told Lark I ate a granola bar—it was not happy (note: I did not actually eat a granola bar).

Combined with the watch’s step-counting, Apple (and Lark-like software) could potentially be a real boon for those at the left tail of the fitness distribution, who just need a little extra coaching.

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

In fairness, this is just the first generation, so I’m optimistic the Apple Watch will be a worthwhile fitness companion in the future.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.