Get Fit with Apple Watch: Using the Apple Watch for Health and Fitness (2015)
Part II. The Apple Watch in Health & Fitness
Chapter 5. Keeping Active with the Activity App
Allen G. Taylor1
People have a variety of reasons for obtaining and using an Apple Watch, but the predominant reason for many is the idea that it will help them to be healthier. Scientific studies have shown that inactivity leads to ill health, while becoming more active enhances health. A device that a person wears, such as a watch, can be a powerful tool to motivate that person to be more active than they otherwise would.
What Weightlessness Does to Astronauts in Orbit
I imagine that you have heard that when astronauts come back to Earth after several months in space, they are considerably weakened. Figure 5-1 shows three astronauts who have just spent several months in orbit. They have lost bone mass and muscle and must be helped out of their space capsule and carried to the aircraft that will take them back to the space port. What causes this?
International Space Station crew 41 has landed after several months in orbit (photo courtesy of NASA)
You probably don’t realize it, but for every minute of every day your body is fighting the powerful force of Earth’s gravity. Ever since you were born, you have been building and maintaining strength to enable you to function in Earth’s gravity field.
Astronauts in orbit do not experience that gravity field. For all intents and purposes, they are weightless. They float around within the International Space Station. They no longer have to fight the force of gravity. Their bodies adapt to the new environment by shedding bone and muscle mass that is not needed in a zero-gravity environment. This is no problem as long as they stay in space. The problem arises when they return to Earth. They must undergo months of rehabilitation before they can get back to the strength that they had before venturing into space. Although the astronauts no doubt have fun flying around the space station like Superman, they pay a price for that privilege when they return to Earth.
How Too Much Sitting Is Like Weightlessness in Space
Lying in bed or sitting in a chair is much like being weightless in space. You are not fighting gravity, at least not to the extent you would be if you were standing up, so your body adapts to the lesser load by surrendering bone mass and muscle.
Studies have shown that people with a sedentary life style in which they do not move around much are more prone to a number of degenerative diseases and tend to die at younger ages than their more active peers. The mere act of standing up and spending time in a standing position exposes you to the full force of gravity. If you spend enough time standing, your body will adapt to the need for strength by building up your bones and packing on the muscle you need to function in a one-g world.
The takeaway message here is that the more time you spend fighting the full force of gravity, the more adapted you will be to living and functioning on Earth. It’s easy to fall into a habit of spending a large part of the day shielded from gravity by sitting. We sit at our desks to work. We sit on the couch to watch TV. We sit at the table to eat our meals. We sit in the stands to watch sports contests where other people are being active instead of us. To break that deadly habit, it would help to be reminded to get up and move. That’s exactly what the Activity app on the Apple Watch does for us.
The Activity App: More Fun Than a Three-Ring Circus
If health and fitness were reasons for you to obtain an Apple Watch, the Activity app is the one you will be referring to most often. Not only does a quick glance tell you how far along you are toward reaching your daily activity goals, but the app also taps into everyone’s natural inclination to try to excel at competitive games. The app makes a game out of choosing healthy behaviors. The display shows three concentric rings: the Move ring, the Exercise ring, and the Stand ring. Each ring tracks your performance on a different activity. Figure 5-2shows the display after an early morning run.
The Activity app display
The Move Ring
The outermost, Move ring shows your progress toward your daily movement goal; a brightly colored dot grows into an arc that extends around the perimeter of a circle as you move. When the ring forms a complete circle, you have reached your goal. The distance traveled on the Move ring translates directly into the number of calories the watch has estimated that you have burned. The app uses the history of how you have been doing to set new weekly goals for you. If you want, you can set your own goals rather than going by what the watch thinks is best for you.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that if the number of calories you consume as food and drink exceeds the number of calories you burn, you are going to gain weight. These days, the number of calories in every kind of food you can buy in the store is listed on the label or in a handy app on your phone. You can add up your daily calorie consumption to see how much you have to burn off with activity in order to maintain your current weight. Any activity beyond that should put you on the road to losing weight.
You also burn a certain number of calories just by being alive. You burn more when you move or engage in other strenuous activities. If your calorie income from food and drink exceeds your calorie outgo from basic metabolism and activity, over time you will pack on the pounds.
The purpose of the Activity app is to motivate you to make active rather than passive choices throughout the day. Take the stairs rather than the elevator. Ride your bike to the corner store rather than driving there in your car. At minor decision points throughout the day, make the more active choice. Your reward will be a payoff in terms of calories burned. As a bonus, you’ll likely feel better too.
The Exercise Ring
The Exercise ring shows the number of minutes of energetic activity that you have completed. This also translates to calories burned, and the more energetic the activity, the faster the calories are burned. Any activity you engage in that causes you to exert yourself as much as you would with a brisk walk is considered exercise and causes the Exercise ring to move around the circle. What you consider to be a brisk walk may not agree with what the Apple Watch considers a brisk walk to be. I have found that walking my dog does not move the Exercise ring ahead. However, jogging with him does the trick, except for those times when he stops to examine something on the ground, which happens quite often. At least I get credit for the jogging part. The Exercise ring closes with a full circle when you have exercised for 30 minutes in a day. If you continue to exercise after achieving your goal, the ring continues to move around, gradually changing its shade of green so that you can see which loop you are on.
Any kind of exercise will do. You may decide to jog for a half hour on one day and lift weights on the next. Thirty minutes of either one will close the circle of the Exercise ring. You get the most credit for aerobic exercise. Fifteen minutes of jogging will advance the Exercise ring more than lifting weights for an hour.
The Stand Ring
The innermost, Stand ring reminds you to stand at least once for a minute or more during each of 12 hours of the day. Each time you complete one of those one-minute or more standing sessions, the Stand ring extends one-twelfth of the way around the circle. The goal is to keep your body used to the idea that you are living on a one-gravity planet rather than floating around in space. Your body needs to be constantly reminded to remain strong. If you don’t remind it, the body will switch to an energy-saving mode that depletes your strength and thins your bones.
The Apple Watch can’t really tell whether you are sitting or standing. It can tell only whether you have moved a significant distance in the past hour. If you stand at your standing desk for more than an hour, as I often do, the Apple Watch will remind you to stand. I solve this problem by taking a break and doing something that requires movement for at least a minute. A brief tour of the premises will do the trick nicely. The inner blue ring will advance by an hour, and you will be one-twelfth of the way closer to the daily goal of standing for at least one minute during 12 different hours of the day.
The Winner’s Circle
The competitive aspect of the Activity app comes in when you look at your watch and see that it is getting late in the day and your Activity rings are nowhere near complete. You are motivated to get up out of your chair and go walk the dog, run an errand, or perform some other chore that will get you up and moving. When you come to the end of the day and all three of the rings on your Activity app are complete (Figure 5-3), you will experience a real sense of accomplishment. You will have won the game for today and in the process will have become just a little bit healthier.
Your Unobtrusive Coach
Partway through your day, your watch will beep a couple of times, and when you glance at the screen, it will give you a report of how many calories you have burned, minutes you have exercised, and hours during which you have stood. It then encourages you to take action to move closer to your goals. Often this reminder comes at a time when you ought to take a break and do something different anyway. At the least, it gets you thinking about your plan for the rest of the day and how you might work in the activity or exercise you need to do to close all three of your rings.
Create an Activity Program Tailored to Your Needs
When it comes to maintaining health and improving fitness, everyone is starting from a unique point on the health and fitness spectrum and aspires to end up at a better point on that spectrum. What that better point is depends on what is physically possible and on the amount of effort that a person is willing to put in to achieve it. The Apple Watch can start you off on your journey to greater health by encouraging you to spend time standing, moving, and exercising. If you find that it is either consistently too easy or consistently too hard to complete one of the Activity app’s three rings, you can adjust it to a level that challenges you to stretch a little but does not put completing a ring out of reach.
Ideally, standing for a least a minute in each of the 12 hours in a day will not be too difficult. It really is harmful to sit for too long. We are not designed to be sedentary. For the overwhelming majority of the existence of humanity, we have had to work practically all day at vigorous physical tasks. Sitting in an office for eight hours every day is a recent phenomenon, and our bodies are not optimized for spending so much time essentially motionless.
Standing on a regular basis is a first step (no pun intended) toward better health; moving raises the bar a notch higher, and exercising will return the most benefit for the least amount of time spent. If you complete your three rings consistently, day in and day out, you will be healthier, and you will feel better too. As a bonus, you will be more productive at whatever you do.