Get fit with Apple Watch and nail your New Year’s resolution

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How to get in shape with Apple Watch in 2019
How to get in shape with Apple Watch in 2019
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

If your New Year’s resolution is to get fit with Apple Watch in 2019, maybe I can help. I know from personal experience that it’s never too late to get in shape.

I’m a middle-aged guy, and up until a few years ago, I lived a very unhealthy lifestyle. I never exercised, I only ate junk food, and I was seriously overweight. Today, I have a six-pack, I run seven miles a day, and I even write about fitness for Cult of Mac.

The secret to my transformation is something I call “The Ratchet.” It’s a way of running that makes it so easy to get started that pretty much anyone who can walk can do it. All you need is your Apple Watch and a pair of running shoes.

So if you’re thinking about New Year’s resolutions for 2019, why not give The Ratchet a try? Here’s how.

How to start running with Apple Watch

When I decided to get in shape, I was so unfit that I could only manage to run once around the block before I was gasping for air. So to get started, that’s literally all I did. A single, 400-yard lap around the block.

That might seem so little that it’s hardly worth the bother. Your Apple Watch will tell you it only burns a handful of calories. But it’s not about the calories. Not at this early stage. Initially your aim should simply be to establish a streak of daily workouts. And that streak, even of just a few days, will give you loads of motivation to keep going, because you won’t want to break it.

After a couple of weeks of running around the block, something else happens: It becomes a part of your routine. I found I no longer needed to think about running. Every day, when I got home from work, I went for a run automatically, without any conscious thought or effort.

That’s why it’s so important to give yourself an easy goal to start with. Like just one lap around the block. What you are doing in the first few weeks is establishing a pattern of successful behavior that you can build on over time.

How to check your streak in the Activity app
How to check your streak in the Activity app.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Check out all those green dots in the Activity app

In the Activity app, every day that you log a workout you get a green dot next to your activity rings. It’s a great visual indicator of your streak building up over time. Right there is your motivation: those tiny green dots.

Some people recommend giving yourself rewards, or gameifying your workouts to stay motivated. But personally, I don’t find that helpful at all. I believe that running should be its own reward, and seeing those green dots build up in the Activity app should be all the incentive you need.

The problem with most incentives is that they feel like bribes. And if you bribe yourself to run, you are sending yourself a powerful signal that running is not really something you want to do.

That said, I did promise myself that after my first month, if I maintained my streak, I would go to Nike Town and buy myself a proper pair of running shoes, rather than the tatty old sneakers I had been using up until that point.

But this wasn’t really a bribe. I though of it more as a celebration of a milestone reached, and a recognition that I had become a real runner who needed real running shoes.

This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but these subtle messages we send ourselves every day really do have a big influence on our behavior. Keeping in mind the real reasons why you are running is the best way to keep going.

Introducing The Ratchet – making gains the easy way

In my first week, I logged just 1.5 miles. Now I average around 50 miles of running a week. But that didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow and steady process that took about nine months. And this is where The Ratchet comes in.

Mechanically speaking, a ratchet is a mechanism that controls the rotation of a cog, so that it can only turn forward, never backward. Similarly, when I started running, I made myself a promise that I would only ever increase the distance of my daily run. I would never decrease it. That promise is what I call The Ratchet.

For example, in my case, for my first week, because I did just one lap around the block, my target distance each day was 400 yards. But I soon found that I could manage a bit more. So after a couple of weeks, I added a second lap, and the target distance became 800 yards. From then on, I was always running at least 800 yards. I had ratcheted up.

It only took a few more weeks of daily running before I could handle four laps, or 1,600 yards, which is about a mile. The idea of running a mile a day was unthinkable to me when I first started, but by steadily ratcheting up the distance in small increments, I got there in just over a month.

How to set yesterday's distance as the target for today's workout.
How to set yesterday’s distance as the target for today’s workout.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

How your Apple Watch helps with The Ratchet

Apple Watch is perfectly designed to help you follow The Ratchet, because it remembers the distance you ran in your previous workout, and can suggest it as the target distance for your next one.

But it doesn’t do that by default. The trick is, on the select workout screen, rather than tapping the main Outdoor Run button, you tap the “…” icon, which you’ll see top-right within that button, and then select Distance. When you do this, the distance of your previous run is automatically set as the target distance for your next run. (If you just tap the big Outdoor Run button, it defaults to the target distance from your last run, rather than the actual distance you ran. That’s why it’s important to tap the “…” icon.)

Then, during your run, you are presented with a blue ring as your progress indicator.

As long as you always start your workouts this way and close the blue ring before you finish your workout, you can be sure you have completed your daily Ratchet distance.

Close the blue ring to complete your target distance

It’s easier to get fit with Apple Watch if you do it every day

Most fitness experts will tell you that you shouldn’t work out every day. That you need at least one day’s rest per week to give your body time to recover. This will help you stay healthy and avoid injury.

I’m sure that’s good advice, but I totally ignored it. I ran every day, and I still do. Why? Simply because I find it easier that way. If I allowed myself one day off a week, then every day when I went for run, I’d be considering if I should take the day off instead. Every tiny ache and pain would become an excuse for a rest day.

Conversely, by running every day, I never even need to think about it. It’s just something I do, so there is no mental effort involved. It’s true, I’ve got injuries from time to time. Mostly ankle-related. Very occasionally a problem with my knee. But in general, running every day has not given me any problems.

If you decide you’re going to have rest days, my advice would be to pick a particular day of the week and stick to it. That way, it still becomes a part of your routine.

Running does more than just burn calories

If your goal is to lose weight, you might question whether running is much use. Most experts agree that for weight loss, diet is far more important.

Exercise, like running, can help a bit, by burning a few extra calories, but unless you are already a long-distance runner, you probably can’t burn all the calories you need to from running alone.

So why bother?

For me, running turned out to be a key factor in my losing weight. It wasn’t just that it burned calories (although as my distance steadily ratcheted up, this made an increasingly important contribution). The reason running helped me is because it changed my mindset.

Once I had successfully maintained my running streak for a few weeks, I felt pretty proud of my achievement. Eating junk food felt like I was spoiling it, and wasting all that hard effort.

In other words, I found that running made me want to eat more healthily. So I never felt like I was “dieting,” in the sense that I didn’t have to force myself not to eat things. I just made better choices.

What next?

Once you’ve ratcheted up to 10 or more laps, running around the block can start to get a little boring. At this point, it’s time to start exploring the neighborhood. Maybe there’s a nearby park within reach of your daily target distance.

I find it’s easiest to run the same route every day. That way, I know exactly how far I’m running. I don’t need to waste any mental energy thinking about where I’m going to go. So when I progressed from laps around the block to the local park, I found a route through the park that worked for me and I’ve stuck to it ever since.

The Ratchet can’t go on forever. In the early days, when you start a new workout routine, gains tend to come easily. But as you progress, it gets harder and harder. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you just can’t comfortably add any more laps to your daily distance. And that’s fine! Congratulations, you have successfully completed The Ratchet and found the right distance for you.

For me, that distance turned out to be around seven miles. Occasionally, I might miss a day due to sickness, travel or holidays. And sometimes I run longer or shorter distances. I’ve even been known to run the occasional marathon, but I definitely don’t plan on ratcheting up to 26 miles a day.

Once you’ve completed The Ratchet, your daily run should be a well-entrenched part of your routine, so varying it occasional won’t do any harm. As long as you get back into your routine again afterward.

Force yourself to take a
Force yourself to take a “before” pic right now. You’ll be glad you did.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Take a ‘before’ pic, so you can compare it with your ‘after’

One of my biggest regrets about how I got started is that I felt so ashamed about my appearance that I have very few photos from back then. I was always trying to hide my body in baggy clothes, and I avoided being photographed.

Now I wish I had a good shirtless photo from back then which could be my “before” photo. Having a before photo can be incredibly motivating, to remind yourself of just how far you’ve come.

If you want to take a before photo and be sure it’s totally private, just copy it into a password-protected ZIP file on your Mac, and delete the original from the Photos app. Or on your iPhone, you can store photo attachments securely in Dashlane, the official password manager of Cult of Mac.

For the same reason, be sure to keep your logs of your first workouts in the Health app. Comparing the data on your Resting Heart Rate and Heart Rate Recovery provides a good indication of how your fitness is improving.

Also, remember to log your weight measurements in the Health app on your iPhone. Smart bathroom scales that support HealthKit, like the Withings Body Cardio, will do this automatically. But you can also enter your weight manually, straight into the Health app.

Get started on January 7 and share your progress with the #CultFit hashtag

Your New Year’s resolutions doesn’t have to start on January 1. Most of us are still recovering from the night before, so it’s not the best time to begin a new fitness regime. The whole point of The Ratchet is that it should become a part of your routine. So it makes sense to wait until Monday, January 7, when the disruption of the holidays is over. Then you can start as you mean to go on.

If you decide to get fit with Apple Watch and give The Ratchet a go, let us know how you get on. Use the #CultFit hashtag on Twitter and Instagram and join us on our Cult of Mac Club on Strava. Happy New Year and good luck!

NB: Always check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regime. And remember, we are all different, so use your best judgement in terms of how much exercise is right for you. Don’t push yourself too hard, especially at first. Safety is most important! What really counts in life is perfect effort, not perfect results.