Activity by the Numbers
We are pleased to feature this article by Alex Hall, which was originally posted to AppleVis. While much of the information is tailored to those using an Apple Watch, it would seem that there are some important points to consider, whether or not you are using an activity tracker of any kind.
Opinion: How Not to Work Out with Apple Watch
I've had my Apple Watch for about ten months as of the time of this writing. I got it for a few reasons, but a major one was fitness. I wanted my movements and exercise to be tracked, I wanted calorie burn estimates, I wanted heart tracking, and I wanted to be reminded to move every so often. Plus, I wanted a simple way to log and track my workouts so I would have the data and so I could look back at trends.
The Watch has done all that, and done it well. But at the end of the day, it's still a computer, not a personal trainer, and it can't know or do everything. Here are the fitness-related traps I've found while using the Apple Watch as a health and fitness companion. Hopefully, these will serve as warnings and/or reminders, so you don't make the mistakes I did. I don't have all the answers; in fact, I'm still in the process of changing my own fitness habits even as I write this. I just wanted to share my experiences, to help others not follow me off the path we should all be on.
I'm not a health expert by any means. My sister has a dietetics degree and takes an intense interest in fitness, and a good friend of mine is a fitness nut studying to be an adaptive physical education teacher. Both of them have helped me with this post, and given it their okay.
That said, please don't consider anything in this post to be medical advice. Check with your doctor/trainer before taking any of my suggestions, and don't think that just because something works/doesn't work for me, it'll work/not work for you. Everyone is different, and you know yourself the best. Basically, I'm not a professional, and I don't intend to sell myself as such here. Check in with real health/wellness pros before listening to me.
Quick Watch Primer
In case you aren't familiar with how the Apple Watch tracks activity, the system is simple. Your "move" goal is how many calories you burn, your "exercise" goal is how many minutes you spend with your heart rate above a set threshold, and your "stand" goal is how many hours during which you are active for at least one minute. Apple wants you to do at least thirty minutes of exercise, twelve hours where at least a minute was active, and--by default--350 calories burned per day, though you can raise or lower the calorie burn goal if you want to. These three metrics are displayed as rings on the Watch's screen, and your job is to fill those rings in each day. For VoiceOver users, the percentage of each goal is spoken aloud, such as "Moving, 50%, exercising, 27%, standing, 75%". When I talk about "rings" or "numbers" in this article, this display is what I mean.
While the Watch can track several types of workout, it has a limited set. Weight training, body-weight exercises, yoga, marshal arts, and other common forms of exercise simply aren't available. Instead, you use the "other workout" setting. This monitors your heart rate more closely than normal, like any other workout type, but doesn't do any additional customization to its algorithms as it can for workout types it knows about. Instead, it credits you with the same work you'd do during a brisk walk. Not a perfect system, but there it is. Plus, your heart rate and movements are factored in (as far as I know), so it's not like this "other" kind of workout is completely generic. It's just not as tailored as the specific ones are.
Working Out Isn't One Thing
The first, and perhaps biggest, trap I found is the idea that exercise is exercise. It's just one number on the screen, so as long as you do some form of exercise, you're good. So says the Watch, at least.
The truth is that workouts are different, and target different muscles. A long walk is nothing like lifting weights, yet both will help you meet your goal on the Watch. That leads to not doing a good balance of exercises. For instance, I try to take a walk every day when the weather allows, which fills the exercise and move rings easily. However, since I meet those goals on those days, I think to myself, "Okay, done. No more exercise for me!" On days with bad weather, I'd head to the basement and do some bodyweight and free-weight exercises and, again, I'd consider myself done so long as the rings got filled.
That's a very bad idea. You see, a walk is great, and weight training is great, but you can't do just one or the other if you want to get/stay in decent shape. I never understood why the odd weight training session never got easier. It took a while for me to realize that consistency was lacking, so, like you would be on a new instrument you only pick up every few weeks, I was never getting better. I simply wasn't doing it enough to let myself get used to, and then improve on, anything. Sure, I could fill the rings every day, but I was only solving a part of the overall problem.
The best way to do it is to alternate. Take a good, long, brisk walk one day, and do a strength-centric workout the next. If you need to do some walking to finish up a goal, go for it, but don't make it a long or fast one. Similarly, you can do weight-based workouts every day, but focus on different parts of your body in each one instead of doing everything every day. By doing this, you give the muscles you work one day the next day to rest and recover.
Replacing the Calories
As with most things humans do, when we get more, we use it. Make a more powerful computer, and we get more resource-hogging software to max it out; make light cheaper to produce, and we'll leave the lights on longer; make food more available, and we'll eat more of it; increase the amount of calories we burn in a day, and we'll put those calories right back in, with interest. That last one is, I think, what happened to me.
As I increased my move goal, and kept hitting it consistently, I thought that I was burning more and more calories. Thus, I had room to eat more than I used to, which worked out as all the new exercising made me hungrier. However, I overdid it. The odd bag of chips with lunch turned into not feeling guilty about grabbing a dessert or three from the break room at work. I started to eat more fast food, since it was so convenient with the new job I started not long before I got my Watch. I thought I was fine, because my goals kept being met, so in the terribly inaccurate estimations my brain made, I was fine.
Over the last year, though, my pants have told me otherwise. They've gotten just a bit tighter every week, and other clothes that used to fit have started to feel oddly uncomfortable. Sure, I'm still hitting those goals, but my Watch has no idea what I'm putting into my body, only what activity I make that body do. It can't up my calorie goal because I had Burger King for dinner, or lower it because I had some nuts and an apple for lunch. All it can do is give me an approximation of what I'm burning. My mind ran with that, assuring me I had way more leeway in my food choices than I really did. I'm not one to weigh myself all the time, but my pants don't lie.
Beating the Competition
A feature new in watchOS 3 is the ability to compete in fitness with your friends. If you opt into this with someone, the two of you can see each others' activity rings, get notified when the other person does a workout or hits a goal, and so on. This is great if you're doing this with people who share your approximate level of activity, but it can be a huge problem if you're not relatively evenly matched. This didn't happen to me personally, but I do use the activity sharing feature, and I can see how it could be a problem.
The friend I mentioned earlier, for instance, does a lot of working out. Gym, treadmill, outdoor running, skiing, hiking, and the list goes on. Were we sharing activity data, I would see my competition's rings getting full, then going way past full, while my own numbers stayed lower. Even if I were getting my own goals, watching my level of activity be dwarfed by someone else would be partly motivating, partly discouraging. Whatever my reason--to combat the negativity toward myself, or to simply try to win--I would feel like I had to do more. Not only would this make it far too easy to do too much of one type of exercise, as mentioned in a previous section, but it could make me go too far, as we'll talk about in a moment. I'm not a runner, and I could seriously injure myself if I suddenly decided that, to beat my friend, I needed to start running every day. Or I could dramatically overdo it on the weights. Or I could simply do so much exercise that I'd be too tired to do my job effectively. The point is that friendly competition is great, but if you're going to take it seriously, you should think twice about going up against someone who is a great deal more or less active than you are.
When I started to notice what I was doing wrong, I thought I'd fix it. I'd start standing at my desk at work, instead of sitting all day; I'd do weight training workouts every day, in addition to walks on days the weather would let me walk; and I'd just stop eating desserts altogether. Don't ever do this.
You see, I went too far, too fast. The "no desserts" thing lasted a few days at most, and my back and shins started to hurt quite badly from all my standing. My muscles weren't getting much better, so workouts never got any easier, which was very discouraging. Worst of all, my pants told me I wasn't making progress. Instead of starting the strength training slow and building it up, plus resting when necessary, I dove straight in with no idea how to swim and no chance to learn. My goals weren't just getting filled, they were getting crushed. Yet, the numbers on my wrist didn't tell the whole story. I was doing too much, too fast, but my Watch couldn't know that.
No Days Off
On the Apple Watch, you get credit for every day of activity, but you also get special achievements. For instance, if you hit all three goals every day for a full week, you get a badge. You get another for a full month's worth of goal-meeting, another for going more days than you have before while making a goal each day, and so on. The point is that a lot of the achievements you can earn are centered around never missing a day of meeting or exceeding your goals. That's not the most healthy way to approach fitness, though.
People need a day off. It's the reason we have weekends and vacations built into school and work, and it's why diets tend to work better if you can have a non-diet day every so often. Even if you alternate your workouts every day, sometimes you just can't do everything. You had a hard day at work, you're exhausted, and you have to be up early the next day, but those rings are sitting there on your wrist, tauntingly un-filled. If you fill them, you have a terrible day tomorrow, but if you don't, you break that streak you had going. If you break the streak, you start to feel demoralized, like you shouldn't even bother. Soon, that feeling builds, until you disable the activity data altogether and simply give up on staying fit.
Obviously, it's not that dramatic for everyone. Still, small defeats can add up in our minds, and the Apple Watch can supply more of those defeats than you realize. It will encourage you to keep trying, but it won't tell you that having a day off now and then is fine. That streak is broken no matter what you do, with no regard for your mental wellbeing or your motivation. We all need a relaxed day now and then, and the Apple Watch simply won't let you have one. It should, but it doesn't. So ignore it and take one anyway, because you need one every now and then, and that's okay.
This isn't to say that you should veg out on the couch from dawn to dusk once a week. On days you determine you can't meet your goals, try to fit something in. Some stretching or yoga, or a much lighter version of your normal routine, is perfect. The idea here is to let your mind forget that constant, nagging worry about keeping up your fitness, and to let your body recover and repair itself. This way, you're ready to go when you get back to normal the next day.
With all this negativity, some of you might be wondering why you should bother to track your fitness at all. The answer is going to vary from person to person, but for me, it's simple: motivation. The Apple Watch gives me a simple way to know that I'm doing something healthy--filling the rings--and it rewards me when I do something extra good, like doing twice the exercise I need to. Without it, I know for certain that I wouldn't be doing nearly as much exercise as I am, and I credit it for that.
At the same time, I have to keep in mind everything I've written here. I can't just do whichever exercise type I want to, and say I'm done, especially if I don't vary it for weeks on end. I have to know that just because I'm burning calories, I can't go adding more to my daily intake. I have to remember that it's okay to take a day every so often where I don't worry about any of it, because doing that reminds me why I do worry about it the rest of the time.
The Apple Watch is a great fitness aid, and I would hate to go back to not having one. But it's only that--an aid. You have to be aware of your body and how best to take care of it. Let the Watch motivate and inform you, which is what it's good at, but don't let the numbers take over completely.
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