How Social Accountability Works in the Apple Watch
And how it makes it a better fitness device for the average user
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I’ve been fascinated with the notion of accountability — from coworking spaces/cafes for remote working to cohort programs for learning and building and, now, to fitness.
If you think about it, a lot of fitness is about social accountability. Take gyms for example. One major benefit is that you get to see other people working out. This motivates you to give it your all. The advice when starting a workout routine is to just get to the gym, rest is taken care of.
This concept of social accountability was extended to home workouts during the pandemic, with companies like Peloton peaking in popularity. For those unaware, Peloton is a fitness system — either a stationary bike or treadmill — that’s connected to an online community of trainers and members through a screen. In the live sessions, instructors can see who has joined, their stats and progress, and give them encouragement.
The common thread between gyms and Peloton is the social aspect. In this piece, I take a look at how fitness trackers/watches tackle the social aspect and why I think the Apple Watch is better than other fitness devices for the average user. I’ve reached this conclusion from my personal experience with the Apple Watch for the last 6 months after owning Fitbit (2019-2022) and Garmin (2015-2017). Let’s get into it:
Apple Watch’s Social Features
First, let’s discuss Apple Watch’s social features and how it benefits the average user:
Sharing activity progress
Apple Watch has this simple yet effective feature of sharing your fitness activities with your friends and family who also have Apple Watches. I’ve now added eight of my friends and regularly get updates on their exercise progress.
With this feature, you get access to their daily goals and progress of calorie burn, exercise time, and stand hours. This automatically makes you compare your goals with your peer group. Of course, everyone is built differently and can have different goals, especially according to gender and age.
But, for example, if I see I’m doing way less than my peers, I am spurred into doing something extra in the evening to catch up. This sort of motivation might not work for everyone. Some might get disheartened looking at low numbers, but it works for me since I take competition positively :P
I asked my friend Radhika about her experience and here’s what she had to say: “Since your friends can see your activity data, meeting your goals brings you a sense of accomplishment.”
Notifications on Exercise
More than just looking at the progress of your friends, you get notifications when someone has completed a workout. This acts as a very timely nudge for you to also exercise.
And, so do they when you complete yours. I’ve come to realize that the thought that your friends will be notified is at the back of your head when you start a workout.
In fact, it comes up in conversations like, “I’ve noticed that you’re exercising a lot.”
You can always switch off these notifications by being in Work focus mode. Though, it’s a good idea to only add close friends so you're not overwhelmed with notifications.
On notifications, Radhika said: “I feel that social connections through the Apple Watch definitely give a boost to your activity because of increased tracking, comparing, competing. In its simplest form, it's almost like peer pressure”
Once your friends receive the notification of your exercise or that you’ve reached a milestone, they can leave a message of encouragement directly from their watch. This adds another level of motivation to keep you going with your exercise habit. This message gets sent through iMessage or SMS.
Compare this to someone you know posting a gym selfie. When you see the post and all the encouragement they got from online followers, it has the same effect: it inspires you to do your own workout and get your own gratification on your social channels from those seeing your workout and your progress at the gym.
Even in Fitbit, you can taunt and cheer your friends. But the friend interface seems like a version of Facebook with posts, and a public friend list, and it’s just not inviting.
Competitions are another way to keep up or exceed your fitness habit. In competitions, you can compete directly against your friend for a week on aspects of exercise and move goals.
I’ve found it to be a friendly competition between people. It can have multiple outcomes depending on how badly your friends trash talk.
I know a couple who’ve kept a competition and would do literally anything it takes to beat the other.
Marques Brownlee (MBKHD) — the famous tech YouTuber talks about group fitness challenges as a feature request in his podcast.
That’s a good idea because often it’s a bunch of people in the same group active with their fitness. It makes sense as long as there is opt-in from everyone and a possibility that my data will be shared with a friend of a friend.
Challenges are something that both Garmin and Fitbit do well. But it’s mostly a focused challenge like 5K step goal a day etc. Apple Watch’s competition makes competing dead simple with no friction whatsoever.
Along with the social features, what I’ve found really helpful are the nudges to complete your move, exercise, or stand goals.
For example, if it’s evening and I’ve not yet met my goals, the Apple Watch will intelligently prompt me to get in some exercise, if the goal is achievable.
I remember days when it was 11 pm and I got that notification, and I’m like let’s get an indoor walk or functional training in, just to be able to close the rings.
And closing the rings becomes a goal, which when achieved creates a fun animation.
The nudges are throughout the day and start in the morning reflecting on yesterday’s performance. Feels like a coach is helping you and it doesn’t get old.
Badges and awards
Badges and awards are time-tested gamification techniques to make you feel a sense of accomplishment.
Apple doesn’t stand out from the crowd when compared to Fitbit and Garmin, but it still does it tastefully.
Another friend, Karan, who has been a cross-fitter for the last 5 years, said this about badges and awards: “The notifications of which award my friends have got which encourages me to pull in a workout in case I have missed that particular day.”
Comparison with other fitness trackers
Fitbit and Garmin being dedicated fitness devices do really well at tracking fitness, GPS, offering dedicated challenges, and creating exercise plans.
Another major benefit of these devices is that it excels at battery life, often lasting a week without needing a charge. Apple Watch on the other hand has poor battery life, lasting just a day or so.
Sleep tracking on Fitbit and Garmin is also better, but now with watch OS 9, Apple is introducing sleep stages and might soon bring the sleep tracking data at par.
Both have dedicated apps, but if you look at the software available, it’s a few notches below Apple in terms of polish. In true Apple fashion, it’s simple but it just works.
Now coming to the social features. It’s more likely that your friend will own an Apple Watch rather than a Fitbit or Garmin. This is reflected in the market share numbers where Apple Watch has 34% of the smartwatch market share, while Fitbit has 4.2% and Garmin around the same as Fitbit.
This is where the Apple Watch excels. In the 2.5 years that I owned a Fitbit, I knew a handful of people who used a Fitbit actively. In the 6 months that I’ve owned an Apple Watch, I know at least 15-20 who wear their Apple Watch regularly. That makes the difference.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health outside of quitting smoking.
Doesn’t matter if you're working out of a gym, at home, or on the road — anything that reliably makes you exercise more creates a lot of value. By motivating you through social accountability, Apple Watch is superior to other brands. And it moves you further along your fitness goals all while remaining simple and user-friendly.
Thanks to Lisa Dawson, Russell Smith, Caryn Tan, and Dhrumi Savla for providing feedback on the early drafts of this piece.
📘 Read of the week: Morning Walk #40 - Stepa Mitaki (9 min)
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