Fitness tracking comes of age

    Why the latest software update for Apple Watch means I can finally give my Fitbit the flick, says Jenneth Orantia.

    I’ve been a proud member of the Fitbit fan club for nearly 10 years and I’ve faithfully upgraded during that time to take advantage of the new features. Then three years ago, Apple threw its hat into the ring with its own fitness-oriented wearable.

    While I enjoyed the Apple Watch’s sleek design, bright colour screen and dedicated apps that synced seamlessly with the iPhone, it didn’t offer the same robust fitness tracking functionality that I was used to on the Fitbit.

    I ended up wearing both the Apple Watch and a Fitbit simultaneously – the former for its powerful non-fitness functions (such as music playback and control, phone calls and notifications) and the latter to track my daily physical activity and workouts.

    But that’s changed with the release of WatchOS 5, which will be available as a free download to the public in September. I’ve been using the beta software on my Apple Watch 3 for the past few weeks and my Fitbit (the newest Versa model) has since been relegated to a desk drawer.

    Fitness features

    The feature I’m most excited about is the automatic workout detection. Previously, you had to manually initiate and end workouts on the Apple Watch in order to track physical activities. With WatchOS 5, it’s now smart enough to automatically recognise when you’re starting or finishing a workout.

    For someone like me, who often forgets to tap the relevant button before starting a run, this is a godsend. The software detects a spike in your heart rate and a change in your movement when you’re working out, and within 3 to 5 minutes, you’ll get a buzz on your wrist along with an on-screen notification saying that it’s noticed you’re exercising, with an option to start a workout. It’s even smart enough to predict what kind of workout you’re doing, and it’ll credit the activity you’ve been doing before you started tracking.

    This feature is useful beyond the gym floor. I was recently overseas, hiking up a mountain that was 1100m above sea level. I didn’t think to log it as a workout, but my Apple Watch thought differently. With my accelerated heart rate from the steep incline, it quickly prompted me to start a new workout.

    To that end, Apple has added yoga and hiking to the Workout app. The new yoga activity uses a combination of heart rate and motion data to measure the intensity and calorie burn of your poses. The hiking activity improves on the existing outdoor walking option by tracking heart rate, elevation and distance for a more accurate measurement.

    With outdoor running being my cardio activity of choice, I’m delighted that Apple has beefed this up as well. WatchOS 5 adds the ability to view pace alerts, rolling mile speed and cadence while you’re running, helping you boost your performance in real time and bringing the Apple Watch closer to a dedicated running watch. With the pace alert, you can choose a target pace for your run and a haptic buzz on your wrist will let you know when you’re behind or ahead of that target. The rolling mile speed lets you compare your current speed with your average speed, while the cadence feature shows your current steps per minute.

    Rounding out WatchOS 5’s new fitness features is a function that lets you challenge fellow Apple Watch users to a weekly activity contest. This friendly rivalry involves filling the Move, Activity and Stand rings every day, and is ranked on a points basis – if you fill 100% of your moving and exercise goals, and 12 hours standing, you’ll get 300 points.

    Apple has democratised the challenge to enable people of different fitness levels to compete equally. Two people may have different Move goals (yours may be 800 calories a day, while your mum’s is 200, for example), but if you both reach those goals in a day, you both get the same 100 points.

    The latest operating system update for the Apple Watch (left) offers improved fitness tracking features, so you can ditch your Fitbit (right).

    Other improvements

    There are a bunch of other features in WatchOS 5 that will be handy when you’re working out. If you like listening to podcasts while exercising, the new Podcasts app lets you listen to the latest episodes from your Apple Watch – either by downloading them locally (so you can leave your iPhone in the gym locker) or by wirelessly streaming it from your iPhone.

    Apple has also enhanced the Siri watch face. It learns your behaviour patterns as you use it, so if you usually go for a jog at 6am, it will remind you to do so if you’re running behind schedule, and provide a shortcut to open the Workouts app. Apple has opened this up to third-party developers, too.

    There are still improvements that I’d like to see in the Apple Watch. A better user interface for the iPhone Health app would be a good start, as would built-in sleep tracking (you need a third-party app to provide this feature at the moment). But WatchOS 5 feels like a huge breakthrough for the Apple Watch and personally, I’m thrilled about not having to rock two wearables!