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A man and a woman on a morning run through a park. A man and a woman on a morning run through a park.

How Accurate is the Apple Watch Fitness Tracker?

Recent Study Compares Wearables’ Heartrate Feature

 

There are many ways to track your workouts and fitness levels these days. Numerous free apps work with both iOS and Android devices, and the workout wristband market is competitive with companies like FitBit putting out wearable tech that can monitor your heart rate and track your progress over time.

The Apple Watch was seen by many as an extension of the iPhone, and continues to be used by many as a means of getting notifications, data, and updates without having to pull out a smartphone. However, it's heart rate monitor is a key component of its fitness capabilities. Combined with its workout apps, the Apple Watch offers a “best of all worlds” approach to wearable tech -- but is it a “jack of all trades, master of none” when compared to FitBit and other similar devices?

The verdict is in. According to a recent study putting the health tracking capabilities of devices to the test, the Apple Watch didn't just succeed -- it came out on top.

How the Apple Watch Stacks Up Against the Competition

The study, published in JAMA Cardiology, pitted four popular wearable devices against each other to see which delivered the most accurate heartrate readings -- which, in turn, provides insight into the accuracy of the data derived from the device, such as calories burned. The Apple Watch went head-to-head with a Fitbit HR, Moo Alpha, and Basis Peak, and all devices were analyzed against EKG readings (the medical standard for heart data). 50 participants were tracked, going from rest to walk to run.

An illustration of a heart with a EKG reading inside of it.

But Will it Replace My Doctor?

Keep in mind that no wearable device is considered to be a medical device. Its very nature prevents it from being accurate enough to offer a level of accuracy high enough for true medical findings. What they do provide, though, is "good enough" results that inform your day-to-day living and workout routines -- results that can give you a pretty darn good sense of how you're doing without having to be hooked up to an EKG.

During the study, all four devices were found to have comparable accuracy during the walking stages. It took more strain on the participant to show some variability, mostly due to the way wearable tech collects data (through skin contact on the wrist versus the heart monitors of an EKG). Through it all, the Apple Watch showed the highest level of accuracy, maintaining a score of more than 90% at high intensity levels. The other devices fell down into the 80 percentile, sometimes even into the lower end.

Which One is Best for Me?

What does this all mean? It all depends on what your needs are. A good comparable is the accuracy of a GPS on smartphones. This tech is invariably more or less accurate depending on the phone model but even if they’re only 80-90% accurate, you’ll still know roughly how many miles you ran or biked, as well as your pace. If you’re training for an elite competition, you may need something more accurate but for general “get in shape” purposes, it does the job. That’s the same thing with heartrate monitors on wearable tech. For most users, these are fine -- and among the “just fine” group, the Apple Watch comes out on top. But the Apple Watch comes loaded with other workout benefits as well...

Your Apple Watch is More Than Just a Fitness Tracker
Of course, there are other elements of the Apple Watch that are dedicated to your workout. These won't necessarily make the tracking of your workout more accurate, but they certainly are convenient and helpful ways to make your workout better, even more enjoyable.

watchOS 3
In the original version of the Apple Watch, it was described as “water resistant” rather than “waterproof.” There's a very distinct difference between the two. The term “water resistant” means that the device is capable of withstanding general exposure to things like rain, the shower, washing hands, etc -- essentially, incidental contact to water through general day-to-day activities. It does not necessarily mean that it can used for swimming or other types of full submersion. “Waterproof” is what you get with the Series 2 model. It can withstand submersion up to 50 meters in depth, so unless you're deep sea diving, it will be able to work anytime you go for a swim. This is a breakthrough in connectivity for swimmers, allowing them freedom of movement without a paired iPhone. It also means that in addition to workout tracking, streaming pre-loaded playlists is possible for swimmers using waterproof earbuds. If you're a swimmer, the Nike+ Apple Watch is simply the best choice of wearable tech for your needs.

A man checking his apple watch while in the pool.

Waterproof
If you're a swimmer, then the Apple Watch Series 2 models are exactly what you've been looking for. The launch model of the Apple Watch offered a nominal level of water resistance -- basically, you could take a shower or wash your hands with it on. You couldn't, however, submerge it in water, meaning that its health tracking features were rendered useless for swimmers. The Series 2 watch rectifies this by making the Apple Watch waterproof up to 50 meters in depth. That means you can go swimming at the pool or in natural bodies of water while tracking your workout in one of Apple's new swim-friendly apps. You won't be able to go deep-sea diving, but perhaps that's up Apple's sleeve for Series 3. (Probably not, since the target market for that has to be tiny.) The Apple Watch Series 2 design also features an innovative new way to clear any water that may have gotten inside the speaker holes. The Eject Water feature uses those very holes to vibrate the water out, keeping your Apple Watch safe and secure after your swim.

Watch Bands
Chances are, you don’t want to wear the same watch band at all times. If the same watch band withstands all your business meetings, day-to-day life, nighttime activities, and various workouts, it’s probably going to get a lot of dirt and grime quick -- especially if you prefer vigorous outdoor workouts. One of the best features of the Apple Watch is its ability to quickly switch out watch bands. This one-click release makes it simple to switch watch bands in literally seconds. We generally recommend having three different watch bands: one for everyday wear and general activities, a sport silicone one for working out, and a nicer one used for evenings out and about. You can have more, of course (we know some people with more than a dozen), but this will cover all your bases and ensure that you don’t wear out any of them before their time.

iTunes Playlists
The Series 2 model of Apple Watches allows for local storage and playback of music, allowing you to truly pick up and go without the need to bring a paired iPhone. Note that you can't load individual songs via a USB cable like traditional media transfer. Instead, you have to select an iTunes playlist to sync up via the Apple Watch app on your phone. This is particularly useful for swimming with the Apple Watch and waterproof Bluetooth earbuds, as it provides a true standalone workout experience to the soundtrack of your choice.

An illustrated map showing GPS tracking of lcocations and the user.

Built-in GPS
We spent the first half of this article discussing the accuracy of the Apple Watch's health tracking, but the accuracy of its built-in GPS makes it a standalone device from its paired iPhone. The integration of a GPS in Series 2 watches emphasizes one clear benefit; mobility. With the original line of Apple Watches, the device had to be paired with an iPhone at all times for the workout app to track movements. This meant that if you wanted to go for a run, swim, or bike ride, you couldn't just pick up and go, you had to make sure your iPhone was on an armband or some other means of keeping it with you. However, thanks to the Series 2’s new hardware, it's as simple as putting it on and going. This is particularly important for swimmers, who probably don't want to risk their smartphones, even in a waterproof case or armband.

Fitness Tracking Accuracy Combined with Apple Technology

When you look at the list of features of the Apple Watch and combine it with the recent JAMA study, the conclusion is clear: the Apple Watch is the most robust piece of wearable tech for exercising out on the market. The recent Series 2 improvements have elevated its capabilities to a level that works with nearly any type of workout, be it on land, on wheels, in the gym, or underwater. So, is it right for you? If you’re already an iPhone user and you work out regularly, the answer is yes. Android and Windows Phone users are out of luck, as the Apple Watch only works with its sister product.

Is it Worth the Cost?

The only real choice health enthusiasts and weekend warriors have to face is cost. A FitBit costs anywhere from $50 to $150. The Apple Watch is more than double that, so it also depends on your technology wants -- do you want all of the robust connection between the Apple Watch and the iPhone or do you just need something to help track your exercise routine? Do you want to wear a watch for its notification and data capabilities or only while you’re out for a run?

Ultimately, the Apple Watch is a best-in-class choice. However, less-expensive alternatives are available if you don’t want the full capabilities of wearable tech. For those that do, it’s clear that the Apple Watch is the way to go -- and when you pick up your Apple Watch, remember to get at least one additional watch band to swap out for those intense workouts.