Has Apple really changed the fitness game?
Has Apple really changed the fitness game? (Courtesy Apple)
Sweat Science

First Look: Apple’s New Fitness+ Streaming Workouts

The company's library of studio exercise classes, integrated with on-screen fitness data from your Apple Watch, launches today. Our Sweat Science columnist takes it for a spin.

Has Apple really changed the fitness game?
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Apple’s big bet on fitness has been ratcheting up for several years now, centered on the Apple Watch—“the future of health on your wrist,” as the ad copy puts it. Now all their cards are finally on the table. As of today, the company’s long-rumored Fitness+ subscription service is live, offering a few dozen new studio workouts every week led by expert trainers, streamable anytime on any device, with your heart rate and other data from the Watch displayed live onscreen. 

Has Apple really changed the fitness game? To find out, I’ve been testing out a preview build of Fitness+, along with the numerous workout and health functions of the Series 6 Watch, which debuted in September. In his new podcast interview with Outside, Apple CEO Tim Cook predicted that we’ll eventually look back on the company’s health and wellness innovations as its “greatest contribution.” That seems like a stretch, but the Watch definitely succeeded in altering my behavior. Whether it was for better or worse—well, it’s complicated.

The Quantified Neurotic

I first strapped on a Series 6 watch back in October, shortly after it was released. This was a fairly big change: until then, I’d been wearing basically the same model of Timex Ironman, sans GPS or heart rate monitor or any other frills, since the early 1990s. That night, I dreamt that I had woken up, but couldn’t move because I didn’t want the Watch’s sleep tracking function to know that I was awake, thus jeopardizing my chances of meeting the eight-hour sleep goal I’d programmed into it. When I finally did wake up, I lay perfectly still until my wife stirred.

I tell this story because you need to understand where I’m coming from. I’m not an early adopter when it comes to wearables. I’m what physiologist Michael Joyner calls a “tech nudie”—not because I don’t love collecting and analyzing data about myself, but because I love it too much. Back in the 1990s, I used to manually measure my supine and standing heart rates every morning, then plot the trends and differences between the two in Lotus 123, in search of clues that I might be overtraining. Data was scarce back then; now we’re drowning in it.

The hard part is figuring out what to pay attention to, and how to translate it into action. That’s where Apple, with its deep expertise in user experience, thinks it has an edge. The Watch’s now-familiar fitness ask—close three rings each day—sounds simple but packs an impressive mix of the latest exercise physiology and behavioral psychology under the hood. One ring is for the number of minutes you exercise; another tracks how many calories you burn through physical activity; and the third tallies the number of hours during which you’re active for at least one minute.

The default exercise goal is 30 minutes. Given that I run most days, and that even walking my kids briskly to school counts as exercise, that ring is no problem. I don’t even think about it.

The second ring is a little more interesting. Since I claimed to be “highly active,” the Watch suggested an initial daily target of 850 calories. That’s easily achievable on long run or workout days, but on days when I was just jogging for half an hour and my wife walked the kids to school, I was falling far short. One evening last week, my wife and I went for a 15-minute after-dinner walk up and down our very short driveway while our young kids played inside. We walked until I hit my calorie goal, which the Watch had already downsized to 700 for me.

Unexpectedly, the third ring is the trickiest of all: to close it, you have to move for one whole minute during at least 12 of your waking hours. At ten minutes before every hour, the Watch buzzes if you haven’t yet moved, and I found myself popping up in response to these cues way more frequently than I expected. But each time I did, I also felt myself sliding a little farther down Maslow’s pyramid, trading autonomy and self-actualization for a pellet of robot-prescribed healthy movement.

I respond to these inactivity cues because I sincerely believe that prolonged periods of uninterrupted sitting are bad for my health. Same with the calorie ring, which spurs me to be active beyond my daily workouts. But I can’t help feeling diminished by the process, and that makes me wonder how sustainable the resulting behavior change is.

Self (Over) Diagnosis

The sexiest bells and whistles on the Watch are the pseudo-medical devices. Back in 2018, the Series 4 introduced an FDA-approved electrical heart rate sensor capable of taking electrocardiograms and detecting hidden and potentially dangerous arrhythmias. The Series 6, in a stroke of unintended pandemic prescience, includes a blood oxygen sensor. Many are the anecdotes of people who discovered their atrial fibrillation only thanks to the watch—including the 84-year-old father of longtime Outside contributing editor Nick Heil, who took himself to the ER when his watch flagged an irregular pulse. “May well have saved his life,” Heil noted on Twitter.

But as nifty as these tricks are, not everyone agrees they will make us healthier overall. “It’s a potential disaster,” says John Mandrola, a heart rhythm specialist and former national-class cyclist in Kentucky, “because for every 75-year-old you send to the doc with new a-fib, which might be a good thing, you will send a hundred healthy people. That worries me a lot.”

Indeed, a Mayo Clinic study published over the summer found that only 11.4 percent of people who went to the hospital after their Apple Watch detected an irregular pulse ended up with a “clinically actionable” medical diagnosis. Even those who do turn out to have a-fib that was otherwise asymptomatic may end up being worse off if they’re put on blood thinners, which reduce stroke risk but raise the possibility of serious bleeding—a major concern for anyone who engages in outdoor pursuits.

Similar trade-offs apply to the new blood oxygen sensor, and in fact to the entire philosophical underpinnings of Apple’s approach to pervasive non-stop self-surveillance. If you look hard enough, you’ll always find something wrong. And when you try to make healthy people healthier, Mandrola says, you inevitably risk making them worse. The problem isn’t with the sensors themselves, but with how we’re using them. “Here’s a strategy,” suggests Gilbert Welch, a medical researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the author of several books on overdiagnosis in medicine: “No alarms, no real-time data. But the data are there if queried.” That sort of symptom-driven approach would still help people like Nick Heil’s dad, while triggering fewer false positives.

Personally, I had fun playing with the sensors. The ECG app wouldn’t venture an opinion on whether I have atrial fibrillation, since my resting pulse is below 50 beats per minute, the minimum threshold for which it was validated in testing. Still, I sent the resulting ECG trace to my wife, who’s a doctor, and she confirmed that my heart was beating. After a few weeks, the novelty wore off and I stopped checking the various sensors—but there may come a time when I’m glad to have them.

The Virtual Fitness Studio

When Fitness+ was first announced, I thought I must be missing something. The big, market-moving news was that Apple was going to offer fitness classes via streaming video?! Six months into the pandemic, that felt like the least novel thing I’d ever heard. Even the Watch integration, which allows your heart rate and calories burned to be displayed on your iPhone, iPad, or TV as you sweat, seemed underwhelming.

But that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from a half-century of fitness gadgetry, it’s that new technology doesn’t solve the basic behavior-change problem in health promotion. People aren’t going to suddenly start exercising because some amazing new sensor calculates the real-time velocity of their burpees. If anything moves the needle, it will be the more subtle levers of user experience and design—precisely Apple’s forte.

The promotional push from Apple focuses on how simple and quick it is to find the right workout, filtering by modality (HIIT, Strength, Core, Yoga, Rowing, Cycling, Treadmill, Dance), duration (10 to 45 minutes), music genre, and trainer. They also emphasize how accessible the workouts are for beginners—which is good, because I have zero experience in any of the modalities offered. (OK, I’ve been on a treadmill a few times, but I don’t own one.)

Still, I went into it with an open mind. I set up the ancient exercise bike that’s been gathering dust in a corner of my living room ever since my parents passed it on almost a decade ago, and sweated through my first spin class. I hit some HIIT and crunched some Core. And, in the fullest possible expression of my willingness to open myself up to new experiences, I called my kids in to join me for 20 minutes of shimmying and shaking to the hip hop/R&B vibes of LaShawn Jones’s Dance class.

I lay awake that night with a throbbing wrist, my thumb’s abductor tendon apparently unprepared for the unfamiliar stress of jazz hands. But the kids loved it—and I appreciated that it moved me more than 100 calories toward my movement goal—so we did it again the following night.

In most respects, I’m way outside the target audience for Fitness+. I love running and cycling and cross-country skiing outdoors, I play some pick-up basketball and tennis, and I enjoy hiking and paddling. I have no problem finding ways to be active every day, and no desire to spend any more time indoors than I already do. But I also feel perpetually guilty that I’m not more diligent about strength training, and the Watch on its own didn’t really help with that.

In fact, the Watch’s focus on closing the calorie ring probably hurt. My 15-minute circuit of pull-ups, dips, squats, box jumps and other body-weight exercises at an outdoor fitness park burned a paltry 61 calories, many of those during the three-minute warm-up jog from my house. From the perspective of a wrist-mounted accelerometer and heart-rate monitor, a pull-up simply doesn’t seem like a big deal. Meanwhile, a 17-minute tempo run that felt subjectively easier than my strength circuit incinerated 289 calories.

For that purpose, I can see that having a menu of simple, high-production-value classes available on demand could make sticking to a strength routine easier and more fun. A ten-minute session with Amir Ekbatani and a pair of medium dumbbells passed remarkably quickly, worked the muscles that needed working, and freed me from obsessing about whether I could do more pull-ups than last week. Whether that’s worth $10 a month, let alone the price of a Watch (without which you can’t get Fitness+), is a tougher call. But judging it by the standards of its competition—everything from Peloton to my kids’ hero Jaime from Cosmic Kids Yoga—it’s a compelling package.

Taking It Outside

If Fitness+ feels aimed primarily at other people, the latest Watch itself seems almost micro-targeted to Outside readers. The two-minute hype reel features, among other tropes familiar to readers of these pages, a mountain-top yoga class, a surfer checking his heart rate mid-wave, a runner pausing to take an ECG, a trio of spandex-clad cyclists tracking their elevation as they pedal up alpine switchbacks, and a hiker whose Watch has automatically dialed 911 after a bear chases him off a cliff.

These things really do happen: a swamped kitesurfer calling in the Coast Guard from his watch; a hiker whose watch auto-dialed 911 after he fell down a cliff and fractured his back. But I also get a kick out of the more mundane stuff, like checking the weather radar with a glance at my wrist to see how long a passing shower will last, without even getting off my bike. The Watch’s motion detectors keep getting better with each generation, along with the algorithms honed by more than 100,000 hours of testing in Apple’s on-campus fitness lab. Among the recent additions: open water swimming, which is a major technical challenge because GPS doesn’t work underwater, and yoga, which involves recognizing that periods of stillness are part of the workout.

Of course, there’s still more to be done. Paddle Logger, the third-party app I downloaded for kayaking, doesn’t track stroke rate—yet. I bought my kayak a few years ago, after reading Florence Williams’s book The Nature Fix, with the dual goals of spending more peaceful moments on the water and racking up some much-needed upper-body exercise to complement my running. The first goal has gone well, the second not so much: I do a lot of lily-dipping. Having speed and distance on my wrist, I found, was just enough of a spur to push the balance back toward exercise.

For Outside readers, the big question lurking in the background is whether that trade-off—a little more quantification, a little less serenity—is worthwhile. Do we really need another screen on our adventures? Everyone will have different answers, and they’ll depend on the context. I like the kayak app, but I’ve chosen not to use any of the powerful third-party running apps like Strava or Runkeeper. I’m already pretty Type A about my running, and I don’t need to be pushed any farther in that direction. Instead, I’ve been using Apple’s native Outdoor Run function, which is endearingly crude and incapable of handling even basic running-specific tasks like interval workouts.

The crappiness of the running app seemed like a strange oversight for a company with Apple’s resources and user-experience chops. On reflection, though, I’m starting to think it’s a feature rather than a bug—a show of restraint that echoes some of the decisions that made the iPod, iPhone, and iPad so successful. Gilbert Welch, the overdiagnosis skeptic, suggested keeping the flow of real-time data to a minimum. If I want to see how gradient affects my cadence at different paces, I can use a run-specialist app to plunge down that rabbit hole. Otherwise, a simple interface that keeps track of how far I’ve gone and how fast my heart is beating is more than enough, and protects me from my own obsessive impulses. For fitness technology, as for exercise itself, sometimes less really is more.

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