Using the Apple Watch for Cycling

Apple’s new watch arrived on my wrist a few days ago (thanks, Jeremiah!). I enjoy it and while a lot has been written about it, it’s been written from the standpoint of pasty white guys. I’m a tanned white guy, because I cycle, and the fitness aspects are important to me.

The fitness apps and hardware of the watch are in the same vein as a lot of other tracker devices, like the Fitbit and Jawbone UP. I’ve since given up on those devices a year or more ago because I found the data they collected wasn’t easily manipulated or helpful. It was never helpful to see a graph of how many steps I took because it was really just a graph showing how many places I had to be that day. I, like most people, don’t wake up and say, “Okay, I have to walk X steps today.” Walking is not the end-all-be-all of exercise.

Apple Watch’s value to me is in the heart rate monitor, the ability to calculate calorie burn, and whether it can change the right kind of behavior.

I commute daily by bike. I do not set goals when biking, I just bike. Apple Watch puts the option to set a goal (either by calorie, time, or distance). Which is great if you actually set a goal. But at the very end of the workout cycling options is a “no goal” option, where you just start it and it go and when you’re done it stops and tells you what you did. This is a lot like Strava.

Strava vs. Apple Fitness

And speaking of Strava, the only thing Strava gives me that Apple’s fitness app doesn’t is a map of my ride. But my rides are boring because they’re always the same. So I don’t care so much about that which is why I’ve stopped using Strava. I don’t get much help out of the social aspect of it, either, since none of my friends bike nearly as much as I do.

If you care about the social aspect or mapping parts of Strava, stick with it. Otherwise, since Strava can dump data into Apple’s Health app and Health can also pull from the watch, you’re not missing much if you switch.

Apple Watch for weight loss

The kicker for anyone interested in weight loss is measuring calories in and out. Trackers like the Fitbit and UP can get close on calories, but only if you’re walking or running. When it comes to cycling they’re useless.

Because your wrists (or hips, in the case of Fitbit) are primarily steady on the handle bars or seat of a bike, they don’t record steps. Apple Watch, however, is crazy accurate between the phone’s GPS, its heart rate monitor, and the ability to know my current weight, height, speed, distance traveled, and processing power.

For weight loss and calorie burning calculations, Apple Watch is far and away superior. When it comes to calorie intake, I’ve long found that frustrating and hard and Apple doesn’t have a solution of their own. I’m currently testing livestrong.com’s MyPlate app. But it still runs into problems of how to calculate what a homemade taco is worth.

Battery life is a concern

Reviewers have mentioned they haven’t run into battery life problems with the watch, but the last couple of days I’ve been around 10% by bedtime. Last night I was at 7%.

I don’t cling to the watch all day. I use it respectably and about as much as any reasonable person who receives emails, iMessages, and phone calls would.

But because the reviewers have all mentioned they don’t do heavy fitness work, they don’t run into this problem.

I ride about 15 miles a day at a minimum. When I flip the watch into Fitness mode and start tracking my trip the heart rate sensor is working more heavily, which drains the battery quickly. If I spent time doing a really long bike trip, as I sometimes do in the spring and summer, there’s no doubt it’d quit on me before the end of the day.

For comparison, I get up around 6:30 and the watch is on me from 7 a.m. to about 9:30 p.m.

Walking is evidently exercise now

The watch tracks three activity types: “Stand”, “Move”, and “Exercise”. Standing seems somewhat annoying to me because at the :50 minute mark of each hour it’ll ding me if I haven’t stood up. It’s annoying, but I get it.

“Move” is actually a measure of caloric burn. It’s calculated with resting calorie burn and active calorie burn together.

“Exercise” is what it sounds like: a measure of how much exercise you’ve done.

You can’t change your stand or exercise goals. They’re locked at 12 hours and 30 minutes respectively. You can, however, change your “Move” (the calorie) goal. It defaulted to 400 calories a day for me but I’ve doubled it to 800.

Since I can’t change my exercise goal, I always blow past it every day. The 30 minutes would only be difficult to achieve if you drove every day to a job where you parked right by the door and sat at a desk all day. Which can barely be described as living anyway.

The watch is smart enough to figure out when I’m walking briskly enough to be considered exercise, so it flips into a quasi-fitness mode and does count into that. Today I took the bus downtown and just walking around it put me halfway to completion.

This is troubling to me because somehow walking shouldn’t count as an exercise unless you’re elderly or have some sort of ailment. I don’t even walk that fast (as many can attest to). In my world view you’re not exercising unless your heart rate is elevated. For me, my resting rate is around 67 bpm and my active heart rate is around double that, at 120 bpm. Walking puts me at 80 bpm, which seems weak.

Good for weight loss, clearly mass-market, will be better in time

I think the Apple Watch hits where Apple likes to be: the mass market. Since most people evidently don’t exercise much and have to be goaded into walking more than a block a day, this could change some people’s behavior. For me, it just gives better data points and an accurate calorie calculator, which I’ve always wanted. This week it’s apparent to me that I’m netting about 200 calories a day, which I never really knew before. Some days, like Monday, I was at an 800 calorie deficit.

Battery life is rough on my 38mm model, but I’m sure it’ll get better in future models. The 42mm is probably better, but I have small wrists.

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