​Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explored and explained

We explore the Apple Watch's current fitness offerings and what's coming soon
Apple Watch fitness guide
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The Apple Watch is now a powerhouse when it comes to fitness and health tracking – and whether you have a Series 5 or an older watch running the latest watchOS 6 operating system – the Workout and Activity apps are where the magic happens.

The Activity app is for tracking daily steps, active minutes and time spent standing and is designed to ensure you're not too sedentary.

Essential reading: Apple Watch user guide

The Workout app, on the other hand, is for running, swimming, cycling, gym classes and all the other stuff that gets your heart racing. It's through this app you can see how many calories you're burning and your performance.

Read on to learn how to get the most out of your Apple Watch as a fitness and sports tracker.

Update: This article was updated in Dec 2019 to include new features on the Series 5 and watchOS 6.

The Apple Watch Activity app explained

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 of 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

Most guidelines say we should get 30 minutes of exercise per day, and this is the ring to keep you on target. Fear not, because 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 that10 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 action, 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. From here, you can see your earned achievements, which days you worked out (indicated with a yellow dot) and also delve into the likes of heart rate and heart rate recovery.

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.

Jog on: The best Apple Watch running apps

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 achievement, for instance. 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.

Activity Trends

The Apple Watch will now analyse nine key health and fitness metrics including walking pace, flights of stairs climbed, VO2 Max and cardio fitness level.
Check into the Activity app on the iPhone to compare progress over 90 days compared to last 365 days to offer insights on whether you’re on the up or you’re slacking, and offer coaching to keep you on top of your goals.

Future encouragement

Apple added some intelligence to its Activity app to help you close those rings. In the morning you have the option of getting a personalized notification encouraging you to do something.

For instance, if you're close to gaining an achievement it'll let you know, and it'll even tell you how you can earn it, or what you can do to match yesterday's activity level. If you're getting toward the end of the day and you're not close to closing those rings, it'll recommend something you can do to finish that sucker off.

That isn't the only type of personalization the Activity app will deliver, either. Every month, you'll also get challenges created specifically for you. So if you're feeling low on motivation and encouragement and need something to keep pushing yourself, the Apple Watch will do that for you.

The Workout app

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explored and 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.

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'.

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.

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, your distance and the total time, while a swipe left will see you met with music control.

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.

HIIT it up

The Apple Watch's heart rate tracking is generally pretty strong, and outlasts many wrist-based rivals in interval performance, but it does fall down when you're trying to negotiate a target HR in short intervals.

We're still testing out just how effective the Apple Watch Series 3 is at dealing with higher heart rate, but it isn't something which appears to have improved over generations too heavily.

Prepare for VO2 Max

Apple added a measurement for VO2 Max in the Health app. Currently, it seems that any device rocking the new OS will be privy to these smarts, but for now it appears to be stuck in the pipeline, and we're not even sure whether watchOS 5 will bring anything new here.

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'll no doubt be 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 also see a graph of your pace across the session or a map of where you've been.

Automatic exercise detection

Apple Watch: Activity and Workout app explored and explained

The Apple Watch can now also automatically detect when you're working out workout detection. It will pick up on the kind of workout you're doing and instead just give you a prompt to remind you to kickstart the tracking.

The Watch will send you a notification telling you that it thinks you're working out, and once you do, it'll give you retroactive credit for the amount of workout you've already done. Similarly, if you forget to end a workout, you'll get a nudge to do so.

More workouts

After adding a host of new workout options last year, two new ones are coming to Workout this fall - yoga and hiking. The former is tracked using your heart rate, while hiking will also take into account your pace and elevation.

That's not all, either, with improvements also coming to outdoor running. The mode will soon have support for rolling mile paces, allowing you to see your progress from your previous running pace, and also receive pace alerts so you know when you're above or below your target. Cadence is coming, too, with the Watch showing your steps per minute, though this will also be available for indoor runs, and both outdoor and indoor walks.

Activity gets competitive

Fresh features aren't just appearing within Workout, as Activity is also set for a couple of new bits to play around with. And since sharing your stats is one of the key aspects of the app, Apple is improving this with competitions.

Once watchOS 5 has been released, you'll be able to challenge any of your Apple Watch friends to a week-long competition. Points will be awarded for every time a ring is closed, and users can check progress between themselves and a friend every day. The winner gets an award at the end of the seven days, as well as bragging rights until the next competition.