Upgrading Apple fitness apps: What’s missing and what are the alternatives?

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How could Apple improve their fitness offering?
How could Apple improve their fitness offering?
Image: Graham Bower / Cult of Mac

Apple’s fitness apps are surprisingly limited given that is a core selling point of Apple Watch. Even basic features like mapping runs and challenging friends are currently missing. And from what we’ve seen so far, watchOS 2 won’t address these shortcomings.

Here’s my wish list of 10 things I’d like to see Apple do to get its fitness apps in shape.

10. Buy Under Armour’s apps

Apple caught up with its competitors in music by buying Beats. The result was Apple Music. A similarly large acquisition could put them in the lead with “Apple Fitness.”

I think Under Armour is a possible acquisition target. Their digital portfolio includes MapMyFitness for GPS tracking, MyFitnessPal for diet tracking and Endomondo for community. These are all areas where Apple’s fitness offering is weak. OK, so it is a bit of a stretch to see Apple getting into Lycra base layers. Perhaps Strava or Jawbone Up would be a better fit.

9. Split Fitness and Activity apps on the iPhone

After a long run, I like to relax by smugly reviewing my progress and past glories online. While Fitness and Activity are separate apps on the Apple Watch, they are awkwardly combined into one Activity app on the iPhone. And this just doesn’t work.

You have to hunt around in the Activity app to find your workouts, and the only way you can view your progress over time is in a calendar filled with Apple’s activity rings. The iPhone Activity app is just not designed for people who exercise frequently. It even gives you an “atta boy” for just standing up.

I’d like to see a dedicated Fitness app on iPhone, where you can view your workouts by type (e.g. running) and get charts of your progress, so you can view trends in your pace, distance and heart rate. And for my post-run smugness, I’d like to browse my progress on my MacBook, via a dedicated Fitness web app on iCloud.com.

In the meantime, Nike+ Running and Strava offer websites with all these features and more.

Adding Fitness and Activity to iCloud.com would make it easier to browse your workout data.
Adding Fitness and Activity to iCloud.com would make it easier to browse your workout data.
Mockup: Graham Bower / Cult of Mac

8. Weight resistance

The Fitness app uses the heart rate sensor, GPS and the accelerometer to measure your workout. While these are fine for most cardio workouts, they tell you nothing about other kinds of exercise, such as weight resistance.

If you are trying to get into shape, some weight resistance training is usually essential. The trouble is, this kind of workout is not easy to measure with the sensors in a watch. No one has cracked it yet. But if anyone can do it, Apple can. Maybe they could use iBeacons and Bluetooth to enable your watch to communicate with the equipment you use at the gym, and the watch’s accelerometer could count your repetitions.

Currently, the best way to track your resistance training is with apps like Fitness Buddy or (ahem) my gym-logging app, Reps & Sets.

7. Diet tracking

The sensors in your Apple Watch can’t tell what you’re putting in your mouth, but that doesn’t mean tracking your diet is any less important to your fitness. Many people cite weight loss as their main fitness goal, and dropping pounds is not usually possible through exercise alone. You must make some changes in your diet as well.

Since diet is a missing ingredient in Apple’s fitness software, you might want to consider supplementing your apps with MyFitnessPal.

6. Body measurements

If weight loss or building muscle is your goal, you need to track changes in the size of your body.

Apple’s Health app currently allows you to log your body fat, lean muscle mass and body mass index. I’d like to see them add the ability to log waist, hips, chest, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, thighs and calves as well. In the meantime, Bodybuilding.com provides a good solution for this, including video instructions on how to take accurate measurements.

5. Improve the Watch app

Perhaps it is just a sign I’m getting old, but when I’m jogging along, I find the small text on the Fitness app’s display very difficult to read. Especially since I’m usually outdoors and the watch’s screen is hard to see in direct sunlight.

The Nike+ Running watch app does a much better job of this, with big bold type on an uncluttered screen.

Another Nike+ feature I miss on Apple’s Fitness app is auto-pause, which has long been a feature of iSmoothRun. With Apple’s Fitness app, I have to force-tap my watch and then tap the pause button every time I stop at a crossing. With Nike+, it pauses my run automatically.

While we’re at it, maybe Apple could go one step further and automatically detect the start and finish of your runs as well, so you don’t have to bother launching the Fitness app at all.

4. Community

Trash-talking with your running buddies can be fun. Take my pal Peter, who, as you can see from the image below, needs a bit more motivation this month. (Sorry Peter.)

Nike+ shows your running buddies in a leaderboard. (Sorry Peter).
Nike+ shows your running buddies in a leaderboard. (Sorry Peter).
Photo: Graham Bower / Cult of Mac

Nike+ not only presents a league table of you and your mates each month, but you can also compare your performance to averages from the Nike+ community. Strava lets you compare your run with a friend on a specific route, while Endomondo lets you share your fitness activity in a feed and send challenges to friends.

3. Smarter goal-setting and coaching

When you set a goal, you need to have a purpose in mind. There should be a rationale for how your training will help you to achieve it.

The way Apple’s Activity app suggests increases to your move goal every week is unsustainable. And one-size-fits-all goals like “stand” and “exercise” are not tailored to your individual ability and goals.

A good personal trainer or running coach will design a personalized program tailored to the specific needs of the individual client and their goals. Alternatively, Nike+ Running offers a “Coach” tab, with programs designed for 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon runners.

No swimming - Apple Watch is water resistant but not waterproof
No swimming – Apple Watch is water resistant but not waterproof
Photo: Graham Bower / Cult of Mac

2. Swimming

Maybe it’s because I just got back from a beach vacation, but I’d really like to see Apple add swimming support. In fact, practically the only thing that would persuade me to upgrade my Apple Watch right now is if Cupertino brought out a waterproof model. Better still if it also had a built-in barometer so it could measure depth for diving as well.

While some users have already successfully tested the Apple Watch for swimming, Apple only claims the device is water-resistant — not waterproof. So if you decide to risk swimming with it, you’re on your own if anything goes wrong.

Right now the only solution is dedicated swimmers watches, such as the Garmin Swim.

1. Maps

The most serious omission from Apple’s current fitness lineup is, in my opinion, the lack of maps for tracking runs and cycle rides. While Apple uses GPS data from your iPhone to help track your runs, it oddly does not provide any access to view the mapping of your runs.

Maps help you identify where you took a wrong turn and enable you to find better running routes. For example, Nike+ provides a heat map that shows you the most popular routes in your area. By matching your routes with others in the Nike+ community, you can compare your performance.

Practically every other running app on the market does this, not least the eponymously named MapMyRun. It baffles me that Apple has not included this functionality, especially because the company owns a map platform, which means they could do this better than anyone else.

When I’m smugly relaxing after a long run, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than relive the moment by following my run in all the 3-D glory of Apple’s Flyover.