​Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

We explore the Apple Watch's fitness offerings in depth
Apple Watch fitness guide

If the original Apple Watch was somewhat of a letdown, the Series 2 began to show what the company could really bring to the smartwatch game.

Instead of a relatively hollow chamber occupying our wrist-space, Apple's second generation brought GPS tracking and waterproofing to the table to help the Activity and Workout apps become a staple of your daily exercise.

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That's not to say it's all perfect — issues still remain in software regardless of which Apple Watch model you're rocking — but below is a guide to help you get to grips with what's available right now.

The Activity app

The Activity app is the fitness tracking element of the Apple Watch, and keeps tabs on whether you're getting enough exercise per day.

It differs from most activity trackers by dispensing with step goals, the Apple Watch has three targets: Move, Exercise and Stand. Each target has a ring, which fills to denote your goal process.

The Move ring

The Move goal is effectively your step goal, but measured in active calories. Fill the ring by moving around and elevating your heart rate. This is a sneaky beast, because the Apple Watch will set the target based on your daily averages, so active people will find it tougher to fill the ring than more sedentary types. Our goal on day one with the device was 740 calories per day. Now it's 900.

The Exercise ring

Government guidelines say we should get 30 minutes of exercise per day, and this is the ring to keep you on target. Fear not, anything above a brisk walk is classed as exercise, so take more short walks to hit your goal.

The Stand ring

The Apple Watch hates people who sit down, so you hit this goal by standing up. The good news is that you only need to stand for one minute in an hour to make the Apple Watch happy. Do that for 12 hours in a day, and you've hit the goal. The best thing? The Apple Watch will even bug you to make it happen.

And as of watchOS3, wheelchair users can now also receive 'Time to roll!' reminders in place of Stand reminders.

Each is represented by a coloured wheel, which you need to fill, and the app is accessible from the Apple Watch itself and the iPhone.

Getting set up

When you load the app for the first time you'll be asked to input your vital statistics, which hones the algorithm to your body. If you skipped this step for any reason, you can adjust the settings in the Apple Health section of the Watch app on your iPhone.

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After you've filled out the questionnaire, you can change your Move target by long pressing the metric in the Activity app. If you're hitting your goal too easily, or never even close to achieving it, then adapt it to test yourself, but not be unattainable.

Adjust your goals

You can get a progress update at any time by heading to either the Watch app or its iPhone variant. However, you can only see your history within the iPhone app. From there you can see a calendar view of every day, and whether you hit your goal on any given day.

Achieve something

One aspect of the Activity app which is refreshingly good is the Achievements. Accessible on the third tab of the iPhone Activity app, there's 19 achievements to unlock. And they're no walk in the park. Hitting your daily Move goal 1,000 times is one a achievement.

With the introduction of watchOS 3, you can also share your progress with other Apple Watch friends. Working via both the iPhone and Apple Watch, you'll receive progress alerts and the ability to send encouragement (or taunts, if that's your style) throughout the day. This adds a nice social element to help spur you on, which is something that was previously lacking.

The Workout app

While the Activity app attempts to replace your Fitbit (with some degree of success), the Workout app takes aim at your Garmin sports watch – with no degree of success.

While there's no shortage of third party fitness apps – such as Runkeeper – these all require your iPhone to be present and use the Apple Watch as a glorified second screen display. At present, the Workout app is the only fitness app for the Apple Watch that works independently of your iPhone and makes use of the built-in heart rate monitor - one that is much improved in Series 2.

The Workout app is accessible from your Watch's home screen, and offers a host of tracked activity. Running, cycling, walking and swimming are all present, as is rowing, indoor cycling, elliptical workouts, stair stepper, and the immensely popular workout sweeping the globe: 'other'.

And if you're updated to watchOS3, the Workout app now features two wheelchair-specific activities.

This was the point where we expected to deliver a host of useful advice about your workouts – but there's precious little to tell.

Get the right stats

If you start a run, cycle or walk you can choose from the Watch whether you want to hit a specific time, number of calories, kilometres, or even just host an open workout. You swipe left or right on the screen to toggle between them.

And for Series 2 users, once you've entered the length of the pool, you can also do the same for your swim.

When you get started, you can still swipe between screens to change the information you see on your run. You can keep tabs on your pace, which is generally always wrong; your distance, which is mostly always wrong; and the total time, which thankfully is always right.

For non-outdoor workouts, it's about the time, your calories and your current heart rate. The confusing part is that it doesn't matter whether you're rowing, stepping or engaging in a sweaty session of 'other', the metrics are the same. To Apple, all your sports are 'other' - although at least with watchOS3 you can now label this broad tier of activity.

Review your data

When you're done, you can review your data in the Activity app on your iPhone, and bursts of tracked Workout activity appear below.

However, a run or cycle have less data than any basic free running app. You can't see where you went, or get any graphs of your pace or heart rate. Everything is a static average, and it's very difficult to use the data constructively.

You can review calories (active and resting), time, distance, average pace and average heart rate. You can't see a graph of your pace across the session, just an average. It's not completely useless, as improving on scores is a good way to improve, but the Activity app doesn't highlight your personal bests in anyway. You can't even see the days you ran marked separately within the app.


Shop for recommended running watches on Amazon

Garmin Forerunner 235
Garmin Forerunner 235
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TomTom Spark 3
TomTom Spark 3
$169.99
Polar M600
Polar M600
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Fitbit Surge
Fitbit Surge
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8 Comments

  • rmj says:

    Thanks for your article.  You were able to outline all of my frustrations and my disappointments with the apple watch as it relates to the activity tracker.  After using a fitbit for the past 2 years, I was hugely disappointed at the (lack-off) tracking options.  I've gone back to my fitbit as well as using the apple watch-My workouts begin like this:

    Launch Endomondo for GPS cycling/running

    Launch iwatch basic workout timer

    Verify fitbit is securely fastened 

    Press play for music...

    Also, the iWatch heart rate monitor is another big fail.  My resting heart rate consistently shows around 80 bpm when resting or working out. I ran really hard for 3 minutes and the iWatch showed 80 bpm.  I wake up in the morning and the iWatch shows 77 bpm....Apple has published an excuse as to why this happens...

    Can't wait for the fitbit blaze...

  • Trish says:

    my frustration is that I'll start a workout with "other" and timer. Occasionally I have forgotten to stop at the end of it but when I scroll down to save or discard and select discard it still saves the workout time

  • Foo says:

    I just got the apple watch and I do a lot of beachbody programs that are cardio combined with weights. I did a sweaty, tough one yesterday that was about 30 minutes in length and it said I only burned 118 calories. I am completely disappointed. If I select rowing or elliptical, it sounds like my results will not be tracked well either.  Sugestions?  So frustrating!

    • Kdougherty7594 says:

      I had a Fitbit and did beachbody workouts as well.. pretty much the same outcome... 

      • serdukov says:

        I noticed the same with beachbody programs, but then I realized that it matters a lot how you fix the apple watch on your hand. I move a bit higher on the arm, so it does not sit on a bone, fasten it a bit tighter (next hole on the rubber band), and make sure it does not move. Then it starts measuring the pulse correctly going to 160-170 and calories burnt really go up to 400-500 range for a 45 minute workout.

  • redmondChris says:

    All so true. If Apple won't create a better experience for making use of the data, what is the best third-party app that takes advantage of the Apple Watch hardware?

  • kukulka says:

    Well, I still don't know if Apple Watch can or will track my indoor cycling exercise (it seems it doesn't) like a fitbit (which does).  From the app description it works more like a timer: you tell them when you start and finish and the watch do the rest!  Wow, why don't I just use a stop watch.  Talking about disappointment.

  • TSM says:

    1. My workout shows an 1 hour and 3 minute work out.
    2. My activity tracker shows 23 minutes.
    • I did a strenuous walk up a mountain two days in a row. Yesterday's counted and today's didn't. I'm so confused! 

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