Why it’s impossible to keep up with the Apple Watch Activity app

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Time to take the stairs, not the elevator.
Time to take the stairs, not the elevator.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

The Activity app on your Apple Watch suggests new “Move goals” each week, based on how many calories you burned the previous week. To test how this works in practice, I accepted every new goal my Watch suggested during the past 10 weeks.

The Move goals became progressively more challenging as the test went on. They nearly doubled, from 950 to 1,840 calories, and I could no longer keep up. I realized that Apple is following the Peter Principle, and that’s why I was always destined to fail.

Failure is inevitable — the Peter Principle

Lawrence J. Peter was a professor of education at the University of Southern California.  His book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, was published in 1969 and quickly became an international best-seller.

Peter argued that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Employees normally receive promotions as rewards for performance in their current role, rather than because of their ability to perform their new role. So they keep getting promoted until they are no longer competent, and then they get stuck in that role.

It was intended as a joke, but The Peter Principle made a serious point, with implications beyond management theory. The Generalized Peter Principle states that “anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.” It has been applied to everything from evolutionary theory to accident prevention. And it is equally applicable to the Apple Watch Activity app.

Apple states on its website: “Each week, Apple Watch can suggest a new daily Move goal for how many active calories to burn each day, based on your recent history.” In other words, your Apple Watch will repeatedly increase your Move goal until you fail to reach it.

I couldn't keep up with my Apple Watch
I couldn’t keep up with my Apple Watch.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

How I failed

I like to think I’m pretty fit. I live an active lifestyle. I go running every day, and I’m a bit of a gym rat. So I have to admit I didn’t anticipate that Apple’s Activity app would present much of a challenge. How wrong I was.

When I initially set up my Watch, it asked me my gender, age, weight and activity level, then suggested a Move goal for me of 950 calories a day. That proved to be too easy. I didn’t just close the Move ring, I frequently lapped it twice.

So my Apple Watch upped the ante, suggesting I increase the goal by 300 calories. I accepted. A couple of weeks later, it wanted to increase the goal by a further 130 calories. And so it went until we reached 1,840 calories. That’s a whopping 890 calories more the original daily goal.

At this point, I could no longer keep up. After a long streak of success, my Move rings were now left incomplete. Finally, on the 10th week of the experiment, my Watch sheepishly suggested that we change the goal to 1,660 calories. It politely did not mention that this was a decrease of 180 calories.

I felt deflated. Humiliated. I thought I could beat the Activity app but after 10 weeks, it finally had beaten me. And yet, wasn’t this always inevitable?

How are Move goals calculated?

I’m curious to know how Apple Watch suggests new Move goals. My admittedly unscientific experiment suggests that they are based on an average of recent activity, without consideration for what is a realistic and healthy long-term goal.

Apple says the purpose of the Activity app is to help you “live a better day.” But would I really have lived a better day if I had managed to burn the suggested 1,840 active calories? Is moving more always a good thing, regardless of how much you are moving already?

I wonder if there is any upper limit to the Move goals that Apple Watch suggests. I could not get any further than 1,840 daily active calories, but it would be interesting to know the highest Move goal Apple Watch has suggested to other Cult of Mac readers. (Let us know in the comments below).

Setting better goals

You do not have to accept the Move goal your Watch suggests. You can adjust it up or down at any time. Just launch the Activity app on your watch, force-tap, then select the “Change Move Goal” option.

Apple recommends that you pick a Move goal that “feels right for you.” But how should you decide this? Is it best to pick a challenging goal that you might not achieve, or a realistic goal that is motivational but might not encourage you to move more?

How much is too much? And for that matter, there is more to exercise than moving — strength and flexibility are also important, but these are not tracked by the Activity app’s rings.

Ultimately there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to setting your fitness goals. It is a very personal thing. But from my experience, you can’t simply leave it to your Apple Watch to decide for you.