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Will the Apple Watch help you live a healthier life? We tried it to find out


apple watch health features
(Photo: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good)

At one time, you couldn’t walk a block without spotting a wrist encircled by a Livestrong bracelet. These days, the same phenomenon seems to hold true for fitness trackers.

While many people still struggle with how to apply all the data they’re collecting to living a healthier life, collect it they will, via Jawbones, Fitbits, Misfits, Garmins, and, of course, the Apple Watch.

The last stands out for a couple of reasons. One, it’s made by the company that’s already running most of our lives, and two, it’s much more than a fitness tracker—it’s a tool that shows you the weather, sends text messages, and even pays for your cab ride with a quick scan of the wrist (and for that reason is much more expensive than most basic trackers, too, starting at $349).

But when it comes to tracking fitness stats, does it work well? And more importantly, at the end of each and every day, will it make living a healthy life a little bit easier for you? We strapped it on and put the health and fitness features to the test for a few weeks to find out.

Here are six things you need to know before committing to an Apple Watch for better health:

1. It’s good at helping with small health adjustments, like walking more and remembering to stand up.

The “Activity” feature on the app consists of three measurements: Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move is the number of calories you burn throughout the day, Exercise is measured by tracking your heart rate and the workouts that you input, and Stand measures how many hours you go without standing up. Within Move, you can easily check your daily steps, and the watch alerts you (via a vibration, called a “pulse,” and a sound if you prefer) when you’re about to log an hour of sitting, with a friendly reminder to get up and walk. I appreciated the reminders and liked having my steps accessible with one tap, as opposed to trackers that don’t have a watch face, where you’d have to check your stats on your phone or computer. And if reminders are particularly helpful for you, you can add more. The Streaks app, for example, will remind you to floss or walk your dog (if his sad puppy dog face doesn’t alert you initially).

apple watch health features
Photo: Apple

2. Your health data is presented in a simple, motivating way.

The three Activity measurements are presented as color-coded rings (on both your watch face and the corresponding iPhone app), which grow as you make progress throughout the day and form completed circles once you’ve hit your daily goals. I found that format to be super accessible in terms of understanding the data, as charts and numbers can be overwhelming (unless you’re training to win a marathon). Another editor said she felt a little rush of excitement when she reached each goal for the day, like a kid getting a gold star.

3. In terms of tracking workouts, it’s best for runners and gym rats.

A dedicated workout app allows you to collect data on your exercises sessions, but the workout choices are limited to the basics: walk, run, cycle, elliptical, rower, stair stepper, and “other,” which is what I found myself having to designate almost every one of my sweat sessions. For a runner, it’s really useful to track a run and be able to see your time, distance, and pace displayed on your wrist throughout—I used Runtastic and loved it—but if your workout of choice is yoga, Pilates, strength training, boot camps, etc., you’re not going to get an accurate reading; a lot of the tracking capability has to do with monitoring motion and heart rate. Speaking of…

4. You can’t totally rely on the heart rate (and therefore calorie) data.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the wrist-based heart rate tracking technology the watch uses. Many tests have shown it’s often inaccurate, and while some have shown otherwise, it seems to only work well when the wrist is super tightly secured, and I found it be pretty uncomfortable when it was that snug. For me, I liked that my crazy fast New Yorker clip meant that the watch counted my daily commute as exercise, but the technology didn’t work well for tough strength training sessions or 305 Fitness, where the dance-based arm motions meant I could not get it to stay put, no matter how tight it was.

5. It definitely stands out from other trackers when it comes to apps.

There are many, many health apps you can sync between your iPhone and the Apple Watch, with a long list of new ones recently launched. I tried 7 Minute Workout, 3 Minute Mindfulness, and Headspace, and popular ones like Runkeeper and Lark are available, too.

6. You’ll still need your phone nearby, all the time, and sometimes it’s more useful, anyway.

Here’s a downside: Most of the apps work by connecting to your phone via bluetooth, so it’s not like you can leave it at home for your 10-mile long run; you just won’t have to take it out of your pocket or arm strap. This also can make some uses of the watch feel meaningless.

I initiated a 7 Minute Workout on my watch, for example, and the most valuable aspect was the coach voice telling me which workout move was next (which came from the phone), and animations of the moves (also on the phone). Similarly, with 3 Minute Mindfulness, I tried to do a breathing exercise using the watch and since the longest you can illuminate the face is 70 seconds (default is just 15), I had to keep flipping my wrist to bring the app back onto the screen, which didn’t help in terms of mindful focus.

Overall, if you’re someone who likes applying metrics to your wellness regimen, the Apple Watch isn’t perfect but is definitely useful, and it’s especially great for those who want to give their overall lifestyle a tech upgrade, since you can tap between calendar notifications and calorie counts.

Technology is helpful, but it can drive you crazy, too. Try these tips for applying mindfulness to your tech habits.

With additional reporting by Jamie McKillop.