Welcome to Apple World. That’s what launching an Apple Fitness workout is like, stepping into a world of wood-paneled walls, charming accents, and Apple Watches. You can almost smell the eucalyptus towels, except you can’t, because this is a virtual gym beamed through one of your Apple screens.
Apple has just debuted this new subscription fitness service, and it’s either right on time or much too late. A lot of people have been locked down at home this year, looking for ways to stay active and maybe even formulating some fitness plans for the new year (a bold move, considering how 2020 panned out). But companies like Peloton, Nike, and Strava have had years-long head starts, and their apps are sticky. They also offer social networks, which Apple has never quite been able to successfully integrate into its products.
I’ve been using the Apple Fitness app since it launched last week. I managed to do eight workouts across different categories (some of the workouts were only 10 to 20 minutes long). I’ve been comparing it primarily to Peloton, both the bike and the mobile app. My WIRED colleagues and I plan to do a comprehensive roundup of popular fitness apps and home gym equipment in the coming months, but that’s going to take a little more time.
Apple Fitness is … fine? I signed up for a three-month free trial, so I’ll continue to use it in rotation with other workout activities and apps. It’s one of the finest integrations of fitness and tech I’ve experienced—assuming “integration” is really a thing to want in home fitness. The app doesn’t offer the live classes or coaching for outdoor runs you’ll find on other platforms, and in general the Fitness classes lack the entertainment value that Peloton has. Those things could improve over time. The one thing that’s likely not going to change: You’re gonna need a lot of Apple products to use Apple Fitness .
First: You have to have an Apple Watch to use Apple Fitness . The least expensive version you could buy and still access the necessary software is the $169 Apple Watch Series 3. This means you’ll also need an iPhone, since you can’t set up an Apple Watch without an iPhone. And if you plan to stream Apple Fitness classes on your TV, you’ll need an Apple TV box ($149 and up).
You can also download the Fitness app to your iPad and access classes on the tablet. However, you’ll still need the combination of Apple Watch and iPhone, since you can’t set up an Apple Watch on the iPad. And again, you need an Apple Watch to access Apple Fitness . It’s not hard to see what Apple’s doing here; the company’s very inclusive fitness program just happens to exclude anyone who has an Android phone or another company’s wearable.
The cost of the Fitness subscription is $10 per month, with a few options to consider. For anyone who has purchased an Apple Watch in the past three months, the first three months of Fitness are free. You can also pay $80 per year, saving $40 bucks annually. And if you and your family are totally locked into Apple’s ecosystem, you can opt to cough up $30 per month, and then you and five others can access a bundle that includes Apple Music, TV , Fitness , News , and 2 terabytes of iCloud storage.
You’ll also likely need some workout basics—ample space, a yoga mat, hand weights if you’re one of the lucky few who has acquired some this year—and a stationary bike if you plan to indulge in Apple’s cycling classes.
Close Your Rings
These are surely first-world problems, but anyone who likes experimenting with fitness technology knows that it’s never get-up-and-go. You’ve got to strap on the smartwatch or arm band, connect it to your phone, program the playlist, find the right yoga video on YouTube, then cast it to your TV, et cetera, et cetera. If you’re using a first-generation Peloton bike (the horror!) you’ll have to hit Start on both the bike and whatever smartwatch you’re using.
Apple has gone to great lengths to remove some of that friction in Fitness , and it has largely succeeded. I was able to test the app with the full trifecta in place: Apple Watch, iPhone/iPad, and a third-generation Apple TV box. It really was as easy as choosing a class on my phone, sharing it to the living room TV, and pressing Start on the Apple Watch. (The green Start button automatically pops up on your Watch when you select a Fitness class.)
During workouts, your Apple Watch rings—three color-coded concentric circles—appear in the upper right-hand corner of whichever screen you’re using. Apple is very clearly leaning into the rings as part of its fitness schtick; they’re not only painted on a giant brick wall in one of the studio locations, but instructors regularly shout out, “Don’t forget to close those rings!” In the upper left corner of the screen is a module that shows a timer, your heart rate—beamed in real-time from your Apple Watch—the number of calories you’ve burned, and something called the Burn Bar.
You’ve Got Class
I’ll explain the Burn Bar in a bit, but it’s probably important to cover exactly what kind of classes you’ll have access to if you subscribe to Fitness . There are no live classes and nothing that will coach you outdoors. (I love Peloton’s outdoor running programs, which you can access through a mobile app for $13 per month.) Apple Fitness does offer classes for high-intensity interval training, yoga, core work, strength training, treadmill, cycling, rowing, dance, and “mindful cool down.” The classes vary in length, from 5 to 45 minutes, with 21 different instructors and an assortment of music genres to keep you pumped.
My sense is that Apple has tried to create a fitness program that will appeal to the broadest audience possible, given the reach of its brand and the many millions of people who use Apple hardware. As such, it’s probably less geared toward fitness fanatics than it is towards beginners and moderate exercisers. Most Fitness classes feature more than one instructor, and there’s usually someone demonstrating modified versions of exercises. The classes also skew short; there are no 60-minute yoga classes, and when I applied a 30-minute filter to the strength training category, only a handful of options running that long popped up.
Fitness is also undeniably Apple-y. The classes are taped in what looks like the world’s most spacious Equinox gym. It’s also the world’s most verdant fitness studio, apparently, because the plant game is very good. Every instructor wears an Apple Watch, many are clad in Nike gear (Apple CEO Tim Cook also sits on Nike’s board of directors).
Fitness music playlists are sourced from Apple Music. You don’t have to be an Apple Music subscriber to hear tunes during a workout, but you do have to be a Music subscriber to save the playlist for later. You can’t swap in another music service of your choice, and you also can’t adjust the volume without lowering the instructor’s audio, so you’re pretty much stuck with Apple Music playing at whatever volume Apple feels is most appropriate. Most playlists are pretty good, except for when they’re distracting. I’ve grown used to the ambient royalty-free tracks on most YouTube videos, and hearing Drake in a yoga class feels jarring.
For what it’s worth, you don’t really have the option to change the playlists on Peloton, either; though if you have a bike or treadmill, you can indicate that you want the music channel to be at a higher or lower volume than the instructor’s voice. And you can always do an unstructured workout on the machine while playing your own music in the background.
You also can’t utilize any sensors other than your Apple Watch or whatever connects to Apple Watch. So for a strength training workout, I was able to pair a Wahoo heart rate monitor with my Apple Watch, and my real-time heart rate appeared in the Fitness app. But when I used the Peloton bike in “Just Ride” mode and propped up an iPad alongside the bike to stream a Fitness cycling class, there was no way for me to see in Fitness the cadence, resistance, or mileage data being collected by the Peloton bike.
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There also aren’t that many Fitness classes, depending on which category of workout you’re looking for. I took a dance class with instructor LaShawn Jones and loved it, but I wish there were more classes like that one available. There are more than two dozen yoga classes available, but that’s paltry compared to the millions of free yoga classes available on YouTube. If there’s any tech company with deep enough pockets to invest in production, it’s Apple, so I’m expecting to see more videos populate the app over time. Fitness also lacks the most basic tool of any app: a search bar.
Of course, these days you can’t just produce some exercise instruction videos and call it a fitness app. People want to be entertained and feel like they’re a part of a community. And with all of this technology at our fingertips and all the money we’re investing in our gadgets, who could blame them?
Peloton has won me over with its cast of charismatic instructors, whereas an app like Strava is the de facto app for people who want to show off their 80-mile bike rides or their record-breaking marathon times (like this guy). Ultimately, these apps are about making you feel less alone when you’re grinding it out alone. Or at the very least, less bored.
Peloton is all about the competitive leaderboard, which lets you race against other members. You’re also competing with yourself on the Peloton bike or treadmill, because your historical best output is visible at all times. Apple Fitness has the Burn Bar, which relies on data points like your heart rate and calories burned to calculate your exertion level and compare it to other (anonymous) users. But this is a small pink bar in the upper left corner of the screen, and it’s hard to tell whether you’re behind, ahead, or right in the middle of the workout pack.
Apple’s dedication to privacy in its services means it doesn’t really have a social network. I could share my completed Apple Fitness workout with family and friends via Apple Messages, but there’s no live competition or way to see each other’s past workouts. Another friend, who I’m currently sharing my Apple Watch workouts with, said my Fitness workouts came up as “null” on his wrist.
Some people would probably prefer a more individualized experience, and if that’s the case then Fitness might do the trick for them. Also, just because I’m on the Alex-Ally-Cody-Christine-Denis-Kendall-Sam train (don’t make me choose one) doesn’t mean the Apple Fitness instructors aren’t great. It’s a diverse group of trainers, athletes, dancers, and teachers, and when they’re not reminding you to close your rings, some are sharing tidbits about their lives—Jessica is a surfer, Betina wanted to be an actual rock star, UK-born Jamie-Ray is amused by America’s obsession with basketball, Bakari is both a dancer and a former college soccer player.
In the workout classes I’ve tried so far, there’s something careful and controlled about their deliveries. I’d love to see the instructors let loose and not be so committed to Apple branding. Apple could put together the most sophisticated personal fitness experience on the market, but if there’s anything this new era of at-home fitness has shown us, it’s that human connection may go a lot farther. Even if it all has to happen on screens.
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