Can Apple Watch really help you get fit?

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Swatch has an answer for Apple Watch. Photo: Apple
Swatch has an answer for Apple Watch. Photo: Apple

With Apple Watch about to become a reality, recent reports have questioned the benefits of fitness trackers, highlighting their inaccuracy and even claiming they make you fat.

So can wearables like Apple Watch really help you get fit? From my experience, what’s in your heart is more important than what’s on your wrist — but gadgets still have a role to play.

After a brush with cancer in 2007, I decided to get fit for the first time in my life. The shocking realization of my own mortality prompted me to take my health more seriously.

But there was something else that helped me with my midlife turnaround: Nike+ Running. I know from personal experience that when you’re serious about change, fitness trackers can be a big help.

Tracking your behavior is not the same as changing it

Of course, there are limits to what a fitness tracker can do. They’ll record your exercise habits, but they won’t do the exercise for you. That’s where you come in.

How you think about your fitness tracker has a huge impact on whether it will actually help. Psychologists talk about a “locus of control.” If you have an “internal” locus of control, then you believe you are in control of your own destiny, whereas if yours is “external,” you tend to think that what happens to you is someone else’s fault.

With an external locus of control, you may blame your Apple Watch if you don’t achieve our goals rather than taking responsibility for your own choices. In which case, your watch will become your excuse and it could do you more harm than good.

Is fitness tracking right for you?

So, fitness trackers are not a magical solution. But they can still help you in achieving your fitness goals, provided that you are seriously committed and prepared to do what it takes.

I was serious. Serious like cancer. For many people, this kind of health scare prompts them to change. Other big life events, like having kids or suffering a midlife crisis, can similarly prompt the desire for change.

If the truth is that you are not serious about change, then a fitness tracker can’t help you. And that’s fine. After all, there are loads of other cool things you can do with your Apple Watch aside from fitness.

But for those purchasing an Apple Watch with a serious desire to improve their fitness, and a willingness to pay the price (not only for the watch, but all the hard work as well), I believe Apple’s wearable could be life-changing.

How fitness trackers can help

Frank Sinatra said it right when he sang about the ant and the rubber tree plant. Small actions, repeated over time with consistency, can result in large changes.

These small actions, like ants, can be hard to see. You sometimes need a magnifying glass to make out what is going on. And that is where fitness trackers come in. They are like a lens that reveals the significance of all the tiny decisions you make, showing you how your actions build up into big changes over time.

In an article in Wired magazine back in 2009, Nike revealed a magic number: five. Once someone logs five runs on Nike+, they are massively more likely to keep going. And this makes intuitive sense to me. If you’re starting from scratch, like I was, five runs is just enough to start seeing the tiny but compelling evidence of progress in your stats.

You’ll only stick at it if you enjoy it

Some fitness apps offer rewards to incentivize you into changing your behavior. Personally, I think this is the wrong approach.

Ultimately, what motivated me to start using Nike+ was the simple desire to run. It was something I wanted to do. And as I got better at it, I started to enjoy it more and more.

The reward I get from running is “intrinsic.” I run because I enjoy running, not because I want to earn points to spend on stuff or yearn to compete with friends in a “gameified” app.

These games and prizes are “extrinsic” motivators. They are bribes for doing something that you don’t like.

Forcing yourself to do things in this way can have negative consequences. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, this can lead to “ego depletion,” which is a short-term lapse in your self-control.

So if you force yourself to run when you know you hate doing it, you may burn some calories. But you’ll probably consume far more calories afterward from all the junk food that you succumb to in a moment of ego-depleted weakness.

If you don’t like running, why bother? Life is too short, and there are plenty of other fitness activities you could be doing instead. Find the kind of exercise that is right for you. Something you get an intrinsic reward from.

And when you’ve found that, there may well be a tracker than can help you get better at it. Apple Watch, for example, supports walking, running, cycling and rowing. And if cardio is not your thing, there are apps for tracking weightlifting and other sports.

Change comes from your heart, not your wrist

Changing our level of fitness only happens if we’re committed to our goals and prepared to do what it takes to achieve them. Fitness trackers can’t magically provide us with motivation we don’t already possess. But if you are serious about making changes in your life, and you find an exercise you actually enjoy, trackers can help you maintain your fitness habit by showing how your progress builds up over time.

Logging my runs has become so important to me that if a glitch results in one of my runs being deleted from Nike+, I feel like it doesn’t count. And as crazy as this may sound, I end up running a longer route the next day just to make up for those missing miles.

I may be a bit obsessive, but I think this mentality illustrates where fitness trackers are effective. They key into our inner passions and support us in doing what we love.