Fitness Technology

Apple’s ‘Time To Walk’ Is Democratizing What It Means To Be Fit—And Making Exercise Fun in the Process

Ali Finney

Photo: Apple / Getty Images / George Pachantouris / W+G Creative
On her way out the door to meet one of her closest friends and confidants, my mom quipped: “Did you know one of the best things you can do for brain health is to meet with a friend and talk about your problems?” Before I could answer back, the door had closed behind her and she was off. At a time when gyms are closed and connection largely comes via screens, walking outdoors toes the line between exercise and entertainment, cardio and catharsis—and it’s something the folks at Apple are paying attention to. With “Time to Walk,” the first new feature since the December launch of Fitness+, Apple aims to create a movement wherein fitness is decidedly fun and for everyone. 

Time to Walk, or Time to Push for wheelchair users, reimagines the question of which celebrity you’d want to have dinner with, swapping steak frites for strides and a story. The experience feels akin to an interactive Podcast: At launch, Dolly Parton, Draymond Green, Shawn Mendes, and Uzo Aduba stroll with us on walks through places that are memorable to them. Much like a friend would, they tell us about struggles and triumphs; they make us laugh and think about the world in a new way. As we get deeper into the walk and into their stories, a haptic introduces images from their lives that can be viewed on the face of your Apple Watch ($269). “We really want to democratize this important health aspect of moving more. If doctors could write one prescription of health for the world, it would be: Be more active,” says Apple chief operating officer Jeff Williams. “We think there’s a lot to offer in the experience—way more than the physical aspect, there’s the whole mind and soul aspect as well.”  

“We really want to democratize this important health aspect of moving more. If doctors could write one prescription of health for the world, it would be: Be more active.”

I’m struck by this link as I test it out for myself this morning. If there were one person in the world who I could go on a walk with, it would be my grandmother, who died of a sudden heart attack in 2007. When I was little, she’d tell me stories of her life growing up on a farm in Texas as one of eight children. She and her sisters, Delilah and Jean, would hide out while their mom mixed together bread dough. While it was rising on the windowsill, they’d run over and stick their fingers in it to deflate the loaves so that she had to start again. Though I’m not able to walk with her, I’m reminded of the belly laughs that I’d have when my Essie would tell me this story, as Parton talks about life as one of 12 kids on a Tennessee farm. She and her brothers and sisters stole jam from their mother’s cellar to raise money to buy their mother a wedding ring, because her dad wasn’t able to afford one when they were first married.

In another episode, Green tells stories of coming from a small town in Michigan and having to overcome odds set in front of him to prove he deserved to play in the NBA. As he’s talking of being drafted in the second round, and knowing that means he’ll only have one shot at proving himself, I’m so lost in his story and in his experience that I don’t at all feel like I’m exercising. I’m connecting to someone’s experience and finding ways that it can inspire and instruct my own.

Apple’s Time to Walk represents a pivot from the “drop and give me 20” days of fitness to fitness that feels good and it is desperately needed in 2021. “‘Crushing it’ at the gym becomes less cathartic when all you want is for everything to feel less crushing,” a writer put it for Well+Good’s 2021 Wellness Trends that predicted restorative modalities would be on the rise this year.

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“[Particularly now,] I think one of our biggest problems is isolation and people yearn for connection and it’s really interesting the way Time To Walk works. Within a couple of minutes of an episode, you genuinely feel like you’re on a walk with someone and you’re hearing their story,” says Williams. “It’s a very intimate connection and it’s good for the brain, it’s good for the soul, and if you happen to have a few endorphins flowing from the walk as well, it’s really powerful.” 

Suffice it to say that for America to reframe its relationship with exercise, it will take companies with power—companies like Apple—to lead the charge. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the United States is operating at a movement deficit. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans get 30 minutes of exercise each day and only a third meet the weekly exercise requirements. But nowhere in the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is there a recommended number of push-ups or time for how quickly you should be able to run a mile. A brisk, 30-minute walk—no matter the distance—is all it takes. And a brisk 30-minute walk that feels as engaging as a TV episode or a solid playlist could really be the ticket to turning around America’s understanding of what exercise entails, and how it should feel for the body. 

Walking is by far the most popular form of exercise, both in the United States and within Apple’s Fitness app, and so it was fitting that it was the first update to the service. By pairing tracking technology with engaging content, Apple is hoping that it can motivate people to stay moving longer than they otherwise would. “We’re finding that measurement can really be motivation. Even on Time to Walk when you’re listening to the stories, there’s something really gratifying about the end seeing that you’ve walked a mile or you’ve walked further than you ever have,” says Jay Blahnik, senior director of fitness for health technologies at Apple. 

“You genuinely feel like you’re on a walk with someone and you’re hearing their story.” —Jeff Williams, Apple COO

The entire Time to Walk experience takes place on the Watch, a first for Apple, which is meant to push the experience of walking into the foreground and have the technology there to simply enhance the experience. “When I think of exercise, I think sometimes of equipment and a big screen and somebody teaching me. One of the most magical things about Time to Walk is that there’s a lot of technology going on: You’ve got something recording your walk, you have music being streamed to your AirPods, you have photos popping up at just the right time, but all of that should go in the background for the user,” says Williams.

Each episode wraps with the storyteller playing you three songs and telling you why they’re important to them, so though you might be ready to wrap your walk after 15 minutes or so, the music pushes you to keep going as a motivator all on its own. Apple will continue to unveil new Time to Walk guests from now until April. “That’s sort of the spirit of what Fitness+ is all about: Make it easy, make it simple, make it integrated,” says Blahnik. Though I’d raise him, that for fitness to truly stick in our lives, we need to make it mean something. Time to Walk is doing just that—if we’ll listen.

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