Apple Watch vs. Fitbit: What I Learned Using Both

Both devices have strengths and weaknesses

Running across a bridge

When I purchased an Apple Watch, I was more interested in seeing notifications from my phone than I was the Watch’s Activity feature. Sure, I’d probably try out a few of the fitness features, but as a long-time Fitbit user, I didn’t see the Apple Watch as something that could provide me with a much different experience as far as tracking runs and walks, my primary workout choices.

After a few months, the Activity and Workout apps on the Watch were two of my favorite Apple Watch features. I still wear my Fitbit every day, but I tend to focus more on the readings I get from the Watch than from the​ Fitbit. Here are a few things I’ve learned from using the two side by side for a few months.

Exercise Is Different From Being Active

One of the biggest revelations for Fitbit wearers is that all those “Active Minutes” they are so proud of aren’t actually all that active. The Fitbit may show 80 active minutes, which is roughly the length of the two long dog walks, while the Apple Watch records the steps but thinks that only five minutes of the movement qualifies as “Exercise.” That’s a big difference and something worth noting when it comes to achieving long-term fitness goals.

If you walk at a fairly slow pace (about an 18- or 19-minute mile), the Apple Watch doesn't categorize those leisurely walks as strenuous exercise. Both devices register the movement, but in dramatically different ways. The difference probably comes from the heart rate monitor in the Apple Watch. It knows that those miles didn't take a ton of effort, while the Fitbit can't see how much work went into those walking workouts.

The Apple Watch Is a Coach

With the Apple Watch, you can set a calorie goal each day—a number you intend to reach through movement. As the day progresses, the pink circle in the Activity app gradually closes.

When I first set up the Watch, I picked 700 calories as my goal. As a relatively active person, I thought that sounded like a reasonable goal. As it turns out, burning 700 calories takes a lot more effort than I thought, and I missed the goal more than I hit it that first week. I burn well over 2,000 calories with my Fitbit, so surely I can hit 700, right? It turns out that Fitbit is adding the calories you burn naturally (which is a lot) into the mix. That's a bit of a skewed number when you're looking at it later in the context of how much you've burned through effort rather than just breathing.

What was interesting was the Apple Watch’s reaction to my calorie-burning failure. The following Monday, it suggested a much lower calorie goal as something for me to try. I hit it every day that week, and then the following Monday, the Watch suggested a slightly higher goal. Now a few months later, my daily goal has topped 800, and I’m hitting it every single day. The Apple Watch gradually scaled things up from week to week, turning what was once an unachievable goal into a real possibility.

That’s a huge contrast from the Fitbit. With it, you can set step goals and see how far you are from achieving your goal, but it’s up to you to determine what’s realistic regarding goals. If you start out setting unrealistic goals, you'll appreciate having the Apple Watch gently push you along and make helpful suggestions on what you can conceivably accomplish. 

Time to Stand Up

Anyone who spends the majority of the day glued to a computer screen can enjoy the gentle reminder from the Watch to stand up during the day. At first, the notification comes every hour like clockwork if you haven't stood in the previous 50 minutes. Soon, you train yourself to get up and move around during the day. Just this small amount of movement can make you feel healthier and more productive during the workday.

Lack of Competition

One thing you may miss with the Apple Watch is competition with others. With Fitbit, you can challenge co-workers and friends to competitions in which you try to outstep each other during the weekend or on a specific day. There’s currently no social challenge element to Apple’s Activity app, so there’s no way compete with your friends in your workouts. If you are accustomed to wearing Fitbit, you know there’s nothing like a friendly competition to motivate you to get out there and move.