Apple’s One-Size-Fits-All Fitness Tracking Is Misguided

I wrote yesterday about how the Apple Watch has accuracy issues when used as a fitness tracker. A number of people – including myself – are seeing their heart rate recorded incorrectly; the calorie calculation is simply wrong; and “exercise” minutes aren’t counted correctly.

Activity rings

As Apple says, the Exercise ring in the Activity app:

“displays how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve completed towards a goal of 30 minutes. Every minute of movement that equals or exceeds a brisk walk, whether it’s working out or playing with your kids, counts toward your Exercise goal.”

Brisk walk

The problem is that these “active minutes” don’t count for everyone, nor in every type of activity.

Some users have speculated that active minutes get counted when you heart rate is in the aerobic zone; this is certainly not the case, since I’ve had active minutes count when walking in a supermarket, watering the lawn, and when walking at a normal, non-brisk pace. But on my treadmill, at 3.6 mph, some minutes count as active, others don’t. When walking outside, at roughly 4 mph, I see the same thing. In a walk last night, six minutes out of 21 counted as active, even though my pace was steady.

Apple says that heart rate is not the only metric they use:

“Heart rate is just one of many factors that Apple Watch uses to measure your activity and exercise. Depending on your workout, it selects the most appropriate inputs for that activity. For example, when you’re running indoors, it also uses the accelerometer. When you’re cycling outdoors, it uses the GPS in your iPhone. And even when you’re not in a dedicated workout, it tracks how much you move each day.”

The problem with active minutes is that, for many people, it’s not easy to reach Apple’s threshold of activity. A reader commented on my article yesterday, saying that he has atrial fibrillation, and takes beta blockers. As such, his heart rate stays low, and no matter what he does, it won’t count as exercise if Apple is using the heart rate as the main metric, or even uses it in conjunction with other metrics.

I don’t run; I have knee and back issues, and I simply can’t run. But I walk regularly. I walk on a treadmill in my house, and outdoors. I walk fast enough to sweat, yet the Apple Watch doesn’t see that as “exercise.” So, if there were a setting to lower the threshold, I would be able to record exercise correctly. There is hack: start a workout in the Workout app, choose Other workout, and all your time will count as exercise. But you shouldn’t have to do this.

Here is today’s Exercise graph (as of around 2:45 pm) from the Activity app on my iPhone:

Active minutes

You can see two periods when I did exercise. Around 11:30, I started a half-hour walk on my treadmill, and around 1:30, I took a brisk, ten-minute walk to the mailbox. (I set the Workout app to record these as Other workouts both times.) Yet you can see two other minutes that count as exercise, and I really don’t recall doing anything active enough to be considered as such.

“Exercise” is different for everyone. If you’re already fit – like the marathon-running model Apple has used to tout the watch – then your levels of exercise will be much higher than those of other people who are out of shape. It seems that the Apple Watch is designed for people already fit, who want to stay healthy, and cannot easily help those who need to get healthy.

The Apple Watch does let you choose a goal for calories burned (even though it clearly isn’t calculating calories correctly). It should also offer a threshold level for the Exercise ring, so anyone, not just hard-core fitness fanatics, can use it to measure their activity.

We’re only at WatchOS 1.0, and I’m sure Apple plans to tweak the way the device records and calculates activity. I think they really need to consider that their one-size-fits-all approach to counting exercise minutes is wrong, and take into account the variability among users. Not everyone works out in a gym, is of ideal weight, and is physically able to do what Apple has set as the benchmark for activity. Quite the contrary; most people who really need to exercise are far from the artificial norm that Apple has chosen.

(An aside: what about that “Stand” ring in the activity app? I wonder how disabled people in wheelchairs feel about seeing the Stand ring all the time. These people could be extremely active, even racing marathons, yet they will constantly see the Stand ring at zero. It would be nice if there were an option to disable it.)

4 thoughts on “Apple’s One-Size-Fits-All Fitness Tracking Is Misguided

  1. In my case, I’m almost a sessile creature by nature; the Activity app has been a better motivator for changing that than anything else I’ve encountered. Therefore, I have to take your “It seems that the Apple Watch is designed for people already fit, who want to stay healthy, and cannot easily help those who need to get healthy” statement with a grain of low-sodium salt. It has helped me become more physically active.

    BTW, I have a standing desk, yet get reminded every hour to stand. What I do is simply put on some up-tempo music and faux-conduct it for a few minutes. A minute of this seems to satisfy the “stand” requirement, and a few minutes of this arm-waving-while-standing-in-one-place-and rocking-from-foot-to-foot seems all to be categorized as “exercise” in the Activity app.

    So, for your walking, treadmill and otherwise, how much do you move your arms?

    • Michael, You could do that with any fitness tracker, most of which are far more flexible in setting goals. I’m comparing the Apple Watch to competing devices.

      As for moving my arms, it shouldn’t depend on that; that’s why so many fitness trackers are inaccurate.

  2. In my case, I’m almost a sessile creature by nature; the Activity app has been a better motivator for changing that than anything else I’ve encountered. Therefore, I have to take your “It seems that the Apple Watch is designed for people already fit, who want to stay healthy, and cannot easily help those who need to get healthy” statement with a grain of low-sodium salt. It has helped me become more physically active.

    BTW, I have a standing desk, yet get reminded every hour to stand. What I do is simply put on some up-tempo music and faux-conduct it for a few minutes. A minute of this seems to satisfy the “stand” requirement, and a few minutes of this arm-waving-while-standing-in-one-place-and rocking-from-foot-to-foot seems all to be categorized as “exercise” in the Activity app.

    So, for your walking, treadmill and otherwise, how much do you move your arms?

    • Michael, You could do that with any fitness tracker, most of which are far more flexible in setting goals. I’m comparing the Apple Watch to competing devices.

      As for moving my arms, it shouldn’t depend on that; that’s why so many fitness trackers are inaccurate.

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