​Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explored and explained

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

While the original Apple Watch was somewhat of a letdown, especially for fitness fans, the Apple Watch Series 2 really upped its sports tracking game.

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

Essential reading: Apple Watch super guide

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 and what's coming in watchOS 4.

The Activity app

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

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. Instead 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

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

The Apple Watch hates people who sit down, and it'll remind you of its hate 10 minutes before every hour. 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.

Wheelchair users can also get in on the fun, receiving 'Time to roll!' reminders in place of Stand reminders.

Each is represented by a coloured wheel that 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 watchOS' algorithms 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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Every week, the Apple Watch will send you an update telling you how many times you've hit your goals. If you've done them too easily, or if you really struggled, it'll recommend a new goal that's more in line with your abilities.

If you don't dig Apple's recommendations, 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

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

One aspect of the Activity app that's refreshingly good is the Achievements. Accessible on the third tab of the iPhone Activity app, there are 19 achievements to unlock and they're no walk in the park. Hitting your daily Move goal 1,000 times is one a achievement. Apple also introduces limited-time-only achievements on special days, like if you hit your exercise goal on Mother's Day or Christmas.

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.

The Workout app

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

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 GPS now on board, it's able to at least track outdoor sports accurately – if you're using a Series 2, of course.

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'.

Essential reading: Workout app changes in watchOS 4

That 'other' category can also be changed into other activities not officially supported by the Apple Watch (yet), like wrestling and yoga. There are also 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.

See your stats

If you start a run, cycle or walk you can choose from the Apple 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, once again, you can always change the label to something much less generic later on.

Choose your metrics

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

If you're not quite happy with the metrics the Apple Watch gives you, you can always customise them yourself. All you have to do is head to the companion app on iPhone. There, you can click 'Workout View' to customise the metrics and statistics you'll see.

There are two big options: multiple metric and single metric. Single metric will show you a single statistic at a time, and spinning the Digital Crown will let you see others. Multiple metric will let you see more than one, and you can even dive further.

You can customise which metrics you see for which workouts. For example, for an outdoor walk your default metrics are duration, active calories, heart rate and distance. But you can also add current pace, average pace and total calories. For outdoor cycle, it's a little different. Duration, current speed, heart rate and distance are the default metrics; you can add average speed, active calories and total calories if you are inclined.

Turn on Running Auto Pause

If you're big on running, whether indoor or outdoor, you know how important it is for your fitness tracker to automatically pause tracking when you stop. You could be at a stop sign or a red light waiting to cross the street, and your fitness tracker will be docking your workout. That just will not do.

Make sure your Apple Watch has Running Auto Pause turned on and ready to go. Just head to the companion app on iPhone, head to the Workout app and click 'Running Auto Pause' to on. You'll be good to go and much less annoyed.

Prepare yourself for HIIT and VO2 Max

Coming when watchOS 4 drops later this year, Apple will be bringing dedicated HIIT tracking to the fore. Of course, the Apple Watch's heart rate tracking is generally pretty strong, and outlasts many wrist-based rivals in interval performance, but it does happen to fall down when you're trying to negotiate a target HR in short intervals.

While details are still limited, the upcoming feature suggests that new motion and heart rate algorithms are in store for better accuracy.

After playing with the developers betas for both watchOS 4 and iOS 11, we also spotted that Apple has added a measurement for VO2 Max in the Health app. Currently, it seems that any device rocking the upcoming OS will be privy to these smarts, but the Apple Watch Series 3 could offer enhanced sensors to help make this a richer experience.

And a fresh design

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explored and explained

Also coming in watchOS 4 is a new look to the Workout app, meaning you won't have to shield your eyes from the yellow bars every time you open up the app.

This won't affect the stats screen during your exercise, but you can now swipe right for access to your music settings. Also in store is the ability to easily jump to a different workout by swiping left, tapping the 'New' icon then choosing another activity - a handy one for triathletes or those who like to mix things up in the gym.

Create a fitness-based watch face

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explained

There are a ton of great watch face combinations you can use to make your life easier. Don't just stick to one watch face that tries to be a jack of all trades, because it is a master of none.

What you should do is create a specific fitness-based watch face you can turn to when it's time to get sweaty and challenge yourself. Consider using one of Apple's Activity watch faces - whichever you think looks best - and combine that with the Workout and Weather complications. Not only will you be able to see how your activity rings are doing throughout the day, you'll get to quickly launch into a workout, weather permitting.

Review your data

When you're done, you can review your data in the Activity app on your iPhone. The workout is stored under that day's activity, which is easy to review, but as workouts aren't listed together, it's nowhere near as good as a dedicated sports app for comparing sessions or progress over time.

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 or a map of where you've been.





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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