Apple Watch is a Health Device, Full Stop

Stop thinking of Apple Watch as a smartwatch with cool health features

Apple Watch on a wrist
Behold one of the best health gadgets you can buy.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’ve resisted thinking of the Apple Watch as a health or fitness device. I blame horology, or rather the study of time and traditional timepieces.

Before the Apple Watch, I collected old wrist watches (and pocket watches) and wore a rotating selection of analog timepieces, some decades old and all with essentially the same two features: time and date.

When Apple introduced its first wearable in 2015, I was skeptical and though I couldn’t deny its beauty, I wondered what I’d do with access to all those tiny screen apps and, especially, the myriad health and fitness features.

Apple Watch Activity screens
You will work to close those rings.

Take Care of Yourself!

Apple Watch has always been a bit of a health scold. Even the original Watch demanded at regular intervals that it was “Time to Stand!” If you didn’t see the notification, you felt the tap on your wrist. I once theorized that Apple Watches all over the world are synchronized (they are for time), because when I was in a room full of tech journalists all wearing the Apple Watch we all got the Stand notification at the exact same time. Imagine a hundred heads all glancing at their wrists at once and you get the idea.

It was the same story with the Breathe app. Apple introduced this app in Apple Watch Series 2 and watchOS 3 and, like Stand, it pops up at odd moments reminding you to do what I think most of us do unconsciously. Telling me to breathe just makes me more hyper-aware of the involuntary act and then I start panicking about not breathing.

Apple Watch Breathe app screens
Go ahead, breathe.

Health at its Heart

In truth, Apple Watch has never been just about timekeeping, schedules, or access to notifications. Health and Fitness is rooted deep in the core of the entire wearable experience.

Workout may have started tracking just a handful of exercise styles, but now it has 15, including indoor and outdoor swimming.

I used to think Apple Watch's Activity Rings were an oversimplification of all the ways we move and do or don’t stay healthy, and I never liked that we had rings for both Move and Exercise, since I see them as a continuum. However, now I realize just how much seeing a closed ring means to me. The other day I closed all three rings, which means I met self-imposed goals for Standing, Exercise, and Movement. I didn’t know this until my watch vibrated vigorously and, when I glanced at the tiny screen, it rewarded me with a trio of brilliant, firework-like rings. I smiled in spite of myself and waited, in vain, for someone to high-five me.

Apple Watch Workout Options
So many workout options, but where's the weight-lifting?. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

Through Her Eyes

Recently, I gave my wife an Apple Watch Series 3. She’s a longtime Fitbit wearer and loves getting those 10,000 step notifications. I thought she might appreciate the Apple Watch’s more elegant design, larger screen, richer notifications (she’s a realtor, so her phone is her office), and much deeper, app-based functionality. I was also certain it would meet or exceed her health and exercise needs.

When I ask her how she like the watch, she shrugs and tells me she’s adjusting to it. But I’ve noticed that she’s already paying attention to her rings and realizes that she’s missing out on covering Move goals if she doesn’t wear the watch while doing household chores. I try not to make the same mistake.

Apple Watch's integrated ECG app
Check that heart, for real.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Watching When You’re Not

I know she wears it when she’s doing her interval training, but I’m pretty sure she hasn’t discovered one of the more sublime Apple Watch exercise features, which is its ability to recognize when you've started exercising and then give you credit for not just the moment when you acknowledge the activity on the watch, but for when it first noticed you might be exercising. It also detects when you've stopped.

It takes about 15 minutes for me to walk to work and, depending on my pace (too slow and I only get a movement credit), the Watch recognizes that I might be doing an outdoor walk (it also has built in GPS to know I’m not in my house) and asks me if I want to record it. A few minutes after I sit down at my desk, the Watch asks me if it should end the workout. As far as I’m concerned, this may be Apple Watch’s smartest feature.

My wife has checked her heart rate and I have used the Apple Watch Series 4’s built-in electro-cardiogram (ECG) capabilities. Though, after getting “Sinus Rhythm” every single time, I stopped using the feature.

Apple's Health App
All your health data is combined in one app...on your phone.

Into the Drink

I have gone swimming with my virtually waterproof Apple Watch, but when I told my wife to take her Apple Watch to the beach, she looked at me like I had told her to bring a Fabergé egg to a monster truck rally.

“No. Why would I do that?” I tried to explain that the watch is water-friendly. She just has to remember to set it for water by sweeping up from the bottom of the screen and selecting the water drop and then — the best part — spinning the digital crown to “spit out” any water (it actually uses sound to vibrate any remaining drops out of the speaker grill). I added that she could also get her notifications on her Watch without having to retrieve her phone out of an overstuffed beach bag. She still refuses, but I suspect it her Apple Watch will eventually get a beach day.

Apple’s health ambitions, by the way, go far beyond what it can do with wrist-bound hardware and software. The Health App includes a Medical ID section were you can add fairly detailed medical conditions and history, and, earlier this year, Apple and Aetna announced Attain, an app and rewards-based program that can reward users with, yes, an Apple Watch for achieving personalized health goals.

Apple Watch Heart Rate Tracker
The Heart Rate app is measuring more than you know.

Time Limits

While the Apple Watch Activity Ring and Workout app represent a continuum of movement, the only way to get a full picture of your activity, exercise, and health is in the Health App on the iPhone. Here I see a representation of my Activity Rings, calories burned through activity, steps, distance traveled, standing, exercise in minutes, workouts (oddly also in minutes), flights climbed, heart stats, and vitals. Like any good health device, Apple Watch is monitoring even when you’re not active or exercising. It can keep an eye out for an irregular heart rate (or tachycardia) and knows, for instance, that my resting heart rate is around 61 beats per minute. I never told it to check that, it just does.

I would love to see the Health App duplicated on my Apple Watch. It would also make sense for Apple to add some kind of nutrition tracking with its workout and activity monitoring. I mean, eating right is half the health and fitness battle, isn’t it?

It’s also frustrating that after all this time, Apple still doesn’t have a Weightlifting workout. I’m not saying I lift a lot of weights — look at me — but curls are part of my routine. So are push-ups and pull-ups. They’re not there, either. I can always use “Other,” but I just don’t feel like my version of exercise is valued.

Just Breathe

My wife helped me realize I may be wrong about one Apple Watch health feature. As I mentioned above, I don’t really get the Breathe App. However, the other day my wife told me how she used it and three consecutive breathing sessions to calm herself before a blood pressure test. Her numbers came out perfect.

Guess it's time for me to stop holding my breath, exhale, and embrace the Apple Watch as a powerful and effective health device — and also a really nice smartwatch.