How to set personal fitness goals with Apple Watch

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Positive goals, like training for a marathon, tend to be more effective than negative goals, like losing weight.
Get creative with your goals to achieve greater results.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Apple Watch gives you three goals: standing, moving and exercise. But these aren’t really goals. They are actually more like targets.

A real goal is something you want to achieve — an outcome you have in mind that is so important, it motivates you into action. Starting a fitness program without this kind of goal is like going on a road trip without any idea of your destination. Maybe you’ll arrive someplace nice, but don’t count on it.

So when it comes to fitness, the big question is: What are you trying to achieve?

The goals Apple gives you

Of the three Activity rings on your Apple Watch, two are the same for everyone: standing up once an hour for 12 hours a day, and elevating your heart rate to the level of a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day. (The latter is how Apple defines “exercise.”)

In an ideal world, your goals would be tailored to your individual needs. But that is probably expecting a little too much from a watch. Instead, Apple takes a one-size-fits-all approach, which raises the question: How do you benefit by achieving these goals?

Sitting down for long periods of time, or “sedentary behavior” as scientists scornfully describe it, is known to be bad for your health. Research published earlier this year analyzed data from 47 separate studies and found that people who sat for long periods had a greater risk of dying from all causes, regardless of how much they exercised. In other words, even if you are super-fit, you could still have a problem if you spend your non-exercise time sitting slumped in front of your MacBook.

Apple attempts to address this by interrupting your couch-potato lifestyle with prompts to stand up every hour. To my knowledge, there is no research that shows this helps to reduce the risks of an otherwise-sedentary lifestyle, but it certainly can’t do any harm.

By contrast, the exercise goal is supported by plenty of scientific evidence. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least five days per week for “overall cardiovascular health.”

Apple’s one-size-fits-all goals are designed to improve our health and reduce our risk of death. And it’s hard to argue with that.

Moving your goals

The third Activity ring is the Move goal. This is the only one that Apple tailors to you as an individual. It is an estimate of how many calories you burn by moving around throughout the day.

Apple Watch initially suggests a Move goal based upon your gender, age, weight, height and current activity levels. If you achieve this goal regularly, it will suggest a higher goal the following week. And it will continue to increase your suggested Move goal until you can no longer keep up.

Challenging goals like this are known as “stretch goals.” The idea is that they should push you to achieve more. This is all very well and good, but in practice they can have a negative psychological impact if you consistently fail to achieve them. And as I’ve argued before, if you accept every increase that Apple suggests, failure eventually becomes inevitable.

Ultimately, you can’t rely on your Apple Watch to set the Move goal for you. You need to decide for yourself what is right for you, and adjust the number of calories for your Move ring accordingly. Which brings us back to my original question …

What are you trying to achieve?

If you simply want to establish some healthier habits without too much effort, then Apple’s one-size-fits-all approach is ideal. But for most of us, our goals are a little more ambitious.

When I asked Cult of Mac readers to share their experiences of getting fit with Apple Watch, weight-loss turned out to be far and away the most popular goal. But it is not the only fitness goal — there are plenty of others. Maybe you want to run a marathon, or get better at tennis, or just look buff in your Speedos on the beach.

When you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you can look beyond the one-size-fits-all approach and start setting goals that are personal to you.

Weight loss is one of the most popular fitness goals
Make your weight-loss goals more compelling by describing them in positive terms.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

How to set your own goals

Psychologists have been researching goals for years to find out what makes the difference between goals that are achieved versus those that are not. Some clear patterns have emerged.

Successful goals tend to be expressed in “positive” terms: Rather than describing what you don’t want (the “problem state”), it is better to describe what you do want (your “desired state”).

For example, here are some goals that describe problem states:

  • I don’t want to be unhealthy.
  • I don’t want to be lazy.
  • I don’t want to be fat.

Whereas these are goals that describe desired states:

  • I want to keep up with my kids.
  • I want to run a marathon.
  • I want to fit into that wedding dress.

As you are deciding on your goals, ask yourself, “Is this something I want to move toward?”

Moving away from something is like walking backward — you can’t see where you’re going. Whereas, when you are moving toward a goal, you can see exactly where you’re going, which means there is a very good chance you will get there.

This is important, because “weight loss” implies a problem state: being overweight. It’s something you want to move away from. You can make your goal more compelling by describing your desired state: Ask yourself, how will your life be better when you achieve your target weight?

Getting started toward meeting your goals

If your goal involves losing weight, this usually means you need to reduce the number of calories you are eating, and that is not something the Activity app helps you with directly.

However, many of our readers have found that by raising their awareness of their health and fitness, the Activity app encourages them to make healthy choices throughout the day — including when they are deciding what to eat.

The Activity app has its limitations. Depending on your goals, there are other apps you will probably want to use as well, like MyFitnessPal, Withings Health Mate, Strava or Nike+.

But the Activity app is a great place to start. In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring how you can customize your Apple Watch experience to help you achieve your individual fitness goals.