The Apple Watch doesn’t have a calorie problem”

Caroline Mimbs Nyce - writing in The Atlantic says:

When I got the Apple Watch for Christmas, I input my personal stats (height, weight, and age) and assumed that its suggested goals for a moderate” level of physical activity would be achievable, because I consider myself fairly active. Or at least I did. It took three weeks before I finally filled a single day with enough activity to close that red ring.

None of my regular exercise habits would please the thing. I went on three-mile walks. I did a 20-minute pilates session and a high-intensity-interval-training class on the same day. I spent 40 minutes indoor rock climbing. Only when I subjected myself to a 45-minute turbo-cardio-kickboxing class on YouTube (half annoyed, half bemused) did I finally satisfy the machine. I watched with muted delight as the Watch’s little animation seared my finally completed red ring into fitness history.

Most of this story talks about the inaccuracies of active calories” as measured by devices, etc. but it seems pretty clear to me Nyce wasn’t using the thing properly when she first put it on. She doesn’t describe what else she’s doing with the Watch, but the Move ring definitely relies on closing the Exercise ring if you’re using the Apple-suggested goal.

That it took three weeks isn’t surprising given that the Watch calibrates to your fitness level over use. Pilates isn’t a lot of movement. Neither is indoor rock climbing. Turbo-cardio-kickboxing most definitely is a lot of movement so it’s not surprising she finally hit the goal. Was she running any of the built-in exercises while she was doing the activities? She doesn’t say.

For people just starting out it’s probably best to lower the Move goal initially and either bump it up or let the Watch bump it up for you if you’re consistently passing the Move goal. More on this in a bit as Nyce calls it out later in the article.

Nyce, this time on the Exercise ring:

Apple’s green ring, which tracks overall exercise minutes, seems very useful for a person hoping to meet those WHO and AHA fitness goals.

But these goals can also be pretty random: The 10,000-steps goal that Fitbit so famously uses doesn’t originate from clinical science. Instead, the idea of encouraging people to do 10,000 steps a day comes from a 1965 marketing campaign by a Japanese company that was selling pedometers. Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Fitbit said, in part, that Fitbit starts everyone off with a 10,000-step goal, as it’s very easy to remember, and for most people it’s a target that is achievable and gets people to move more.” They added that research has shown that getting more than 10,000 steps a day can improve one’s health.

Apple’s Exercise ring default is 30 minutes, which is the recommended number. It isn’t random and the Apple Watch doesn’t have a 10,000 step goal, likely because, as Nyce points out, the 10,000 step goal was never based in research. That Fitbit chose it isn’t surprising though: 10,000 steps is a lot of walking. A 10,000 step goal is guaranteed to get you up and moving around and the more you move the better off you are.

The one point Nyce makes that I really agree with is on the gamification aspect of the Apple Watch:

Rather than being poked to move by a computer on their wrist, a person should find a way to get in exercise that they enjoy, because then they’ll be more likely to keep it up in the future.

I think tracking is important as even if someone finds an exercise they enjoy it’s useful to know you’re getting enough of it. For some people the gamification aspect via awards will be a perfect way to compel them to get up and get moving.

The biggest problem I have with the ring concept of the Apple Watch, and the gamification via the award system, is there is no way to indicate a period of illness or injury. Adjusting the move goal is fine but if you’re incapable of exercising because of illness you lose out, which ends up making people feel worse. Personally I love earning the awards, but I shouldn’t be penalized over illness.

Back to idea of changing the Move goal one more time. Nyce says:

Apple does allow you to customize your goals, and people I spoke with did suggest lowering my red-ring goal—which felt like an uncomfortable concession that I wasn’t in shape, even if I knew better.

That is on her, not the Watch. To make the most effective use of a tool is to know the proper use of that tool. That she’s put some weird limitation on it says more about her use of the tool than anything else.

February 5, 2024