This lack of depth in behavioral research shows in the Watch’s reward design. It’s not just that the Watch doesn’t take into account the recent stuff — the old stuff Skinner produced isn’t reflected, either — but Apple hasn’t participated in the kinds of verification studies that might give someone confidence in their approach to fitness. As long as Apple isn’t making a specific health claim, it doesn’t have to verify its device is accurate with the FDA. Only a few studies exist on fitness trackers’ accuracy, Patel says, which makes it challenging for both patients and doctors to trust a smartwatch’s data. And the rewards aren’t set up in the ways we know are most effective. The Watch is ultimately a weak tool. It might be effective for some people, but there’s a lot of behavioral research out there that suggests it could be much more effective for many more people.
This is an interesting point. The Apple Watch is not in any way “scientific;” it’s based on some simple ideas that won’t confuse people, and that are easy to put into practice. And that can be easily displayed.
Look at the three activity rings. Tim Cook famously said, “Sitting is the new cancer,” which, among the verbal mistakes he has made ranks pretty high on the list. He could have said “Sitting is the new smoking,” which would have made sense; an activity has effects that can then translate into disease. But claiming that sitting was, in and of itself, a disease, is truly foolish.
So there’s the stand ring. You have to get up and move around for a minute or so each hour to make it progress. It’s not that hard. But, if you’re in a wheelchair, or otherwise disabled, you can’t remove the stand ring. You can turn off stand reminders, but that’s all.
The activity ring? It’s set to 30 minutes; no more, no less. For some, 30 minutes might be a lot; for others, it’s hardly anything. It should be adjustable, as the move ring (the one that represents calories).
Of course, you’ll notice, as did the author of this article, that the move ring will count calories even when you’re not moving, not doing any activity. I notice that, when I lie in bed reading in the evening, or watch something on TV, it increments even if I’m not moving.
And these goals aren’t even logical over time.
The constraint on the Move goal is my rest days. I don’t do yoga on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Instead, I cook, usually in big enough portions that I can use the leftovers for lunch the next day. The relevant thing here is that cooking takes time; I can’t work out and cook at the same time. Without rest days, I hardly cook at all, which means I spend more money on takeout, which is generally worse for me than the foods I prepare myself.
The Apple Watch doesn’t care about any of this. Rest days are the limiting factor on my ability to hit my Move goal — while I easily hit 700 calories by the Watch’s measure on my workout days, I move a lot less when I take time off from working out. But rest days are crucial for exercise: they let your body recover. Without recovery, you don’t get the strength you’re trying to build, and you place yourself at risk for overuse injuries.
Any athlete knows that you need rest days. And what about when you’re sick? Does that count as failure? Sure, you can change the move goal, but if you change it every time you can’t achieve it, isn’t that cheating?
The Move goal is adjustable — I can lower it at any time — but there’s no way to program the Watch to consistently honor my rest days. I just have to manually lower the goal for that day, and then raise it for the next one. Unfortunately, this requires too much of my attention.
…this is a minimum. You’re supposed to beat it. This reminder makes me feel worse, not better. I stop letting the Watch set my Move goal. It is too unkind to me.
Exactly. So what’s the point of increasing the goal at all?
Somewhere around the first month, I began to think of the Apple Watch as my failure bracelet.
This is why so many people give up on fitness trackers.
After four months with it, I’m tired of being punished. It’s no wonder people don’t wear fitness trackers for very long — Apple’s device isn’t the only one with this problem — but because I’m supposed to be wearing the fitness tracker for this article, I don’t take it off. I just figure out how to cheat. Which I do, flagrantly, for another month until I become disgusted with myself and send the Watch back to Apple.
Another way to cheat is to set an “Other” workout in the Workout app. You can sit and watch TV and the watch presents that you’re walking. As Apple says, “When you use Other, you earn the calorie or kilojoule equivalent of a brisk walk anytime sensor readings are unavailable.”
But there’s more.
Every part of calorie tracking is bad. First, the Apple Watch, like virtually every other fitness tracker, doesn’t measure calories accurately
No tracker can correctly measure calories; one study showed that trackers can deviate from real calorie expenditure by up to 43%. They calculate calories based on movement, and the fact that the tracker is worn on your wrist means that any movement of your arm will trick the algorithm. The overall accuracy of the Apple Watch is notoriously bad, and in the early months, the resting calories it counted were comically high.
There’s also the question of what a fitness tracker should use instead of the flawed calorie measure. Steps are also imperfect — particularly for bicyclists! — and minutes exercising doesn’t capture intensity. This is a key problem with attempting to quantify one’s athletic activity, actually: you need a good measure. Calories aren’t a good measure, but I’m not sure that a decent substitute exists. Apple could potentially have made up its own metric, but that might have proved meaningless to users.
Nike did this with “Nike Fuel,” which was useless, because users had no idea what it counted. The problem is that different people would benefit from different metrics. My only exercise, for physical reasons, is walking, so a step count would be a good metric for me. But for cyclists, that’s useless; perhaps something based on distance and speed, and changes in altitude, would be useful. Runners would have different needs, as would swimmers.
When I asked Apple how the Watch’s motivations had been designed, the company emphasized the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all device. Interrupt an activity for a reward, and you run the risk of annoying the athlete. In my conversations with Apple, the difficulty of making a device for everyone was emphasized repeatedly. The problem is that the Apple Watch is a device sold to everyone. But in reality, it is a device for people with a certain understanding and aspiration of athleticism. I dislike it because I am essentially a dilettante. But dilettante hiking is still hiking; dilettante yoga is still yoga; dilettante bicycling is still bicycling. I am a dilettante, but I am still off the couch.
Exactly. Apple pitches this to exercise fanatics, but it’s the dilettantes who could eventually benefit from a device like this.
The Apple Watch’s self-surveillance did prompt me to be more active, though, I’ll give the Watch that. It also made me more neurotic. I’d once joked about the people who pace frantically at the end of the day, trying to get all their steps in on their fitness trackers. Then I became one. It didn’t feel good. (Unsurprisingly, I did not lose weight over the course of my experiment with the Apple Watch.)
Indeed, most people won’t lose weight because they use a tracker. If you are more active, that’s a good thing, but the goals need to be more flexible, and more adapted to each user.