​Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

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

Let's face it: the Apple Watch has been a little disappointing. However, for our money that's not because it's a bad device – it's actually one of the best smartwatches on the market. It's disappointing because Apple could have made so much more of the existing tech, and no aspect sums that up more than the Workout app.

Essential reading: Apple Watch super guide

We intended this guide to be a deep dive into of all the amazing things the Workout and Activity app can do for you. The fact is that it's a shell. A yawning hole where a great fitness companion should reside.

So what you have before you is half whistle-stop tour of the Workout and Activity features on the Apple Watch – and a half a crib sheet for Apple to go and fix it. Jony Ive, we know you're listening.

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. The Move goal 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 Apple Watch 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.

your of activity and hours of standing. Each is represented by a coloured wheel, which you need to fill.

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 Apple Watch app on your iPhone.

After you've filled out the questionnaire you can change any of the goals by long pressing on metric from within the phone app. Just got to the Activity app, head to the Move goal screen and long press to edit the goal. 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 the iPhone one. 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 second tab of the iPhone Activity app, there's 21 achievements to unlock. And they're no walk in the park. Hitting your Move goal 100 times is one a achievement – and while they're not the most social of goals, it's a nice aspect to fitness tracking.

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.

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

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, a specific number of calories or just host an open workout. You swipe left or right on the screen to toggle between them.

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'.

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.

What we want to see

The list of features missing from the Activity and Workout apps are longer than those it actually has.

The daily activity tracker isn't too far from the likes of Fitbit, although more emphasis on improvement would be a nice touch. There's precious little encouragement to be found at present, and doesn't quite match dedicated trackers for analysis.

However, as a sports tracker the Apple Watch hasn't even got started.

When paired with the iPhone, there's no excuse for incorrect distances and pace information, yet that's still what we're faced with three months after launch. Every GPS tracked mile we run is still registered as 0.91 on the Apple Watch's Workout app.

For running, cycling and walking there's no reason that charts for your activity beyond static averages shouldn't be easily achievable on the current device.

And the fact that supported sports other than running and cycling are nothing more than a recording of time and heart rate also needs to be overcome. The rowing mode, for example, could easily track strokes per minute from the movement in your arm – yet it doesn't.

The introduction of these basic features would simply bring the Apple Watch to parity with the most basic running apps – like RunKeeper free pictured above – and there seems a long way to go until that happens.

The introduction of watchOS2 in the Autumn should make this a moot point, once the likes of RunKeeper and Strava can access the same sensors as the Workout app does currently. Until then, the Workout app remains the Apple Watch's biggest missed opportunity.


  • 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.

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