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Apple Watch: All of the health and fitness features, explained

The Apple Watch can help you live healthier, no matter your goals.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple Watch ($349 at Amazon) serves as an extension of your iPhone ($1,000 at Best Buy) on your wrist, allowing you to take calls, control your music, and read emails. But more than that, it's a robust health and fitness device that supports your workouts, fitness goals, heart health and sleep.

Apple Watch series 4, which debuted in 2018, is one of the most advanced activity trackers on the market, with features that go beyond its competitors. The next big software update, WatchOS 6, is bringing even more features and will be available later this year.

This guide walks you through all of the health, fitness and wellness features the Apple Watch has, and we'll be updating it as more features are added. 

One more thing -- the Apple Health app on your iPhone is an important companion to the Apple Watch, so if you're not already familiar with all of its features, you should be. Check out our guide to Apple Health to brush up.

Read more: Apple updates watchOS 6, adds voice memo and calculator

New for WatchOS 6: Menstruation tracking

Apple has finally created a way for you to log your menstruation cycle, called Cycle Tracking. Coming soon with WatchOS 6 (and iOS 13), you'll be able to log your symptoms, see when you can expect your next period to begin and keep tabs on when you ovulate if you're trying to conceive.

We've long had apps that already do this, but now it will be native to the Apple Watch. You'll also be able to track your cycle within your iPhone's Health app.

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New for WatchOS 6: Protect your hearing with the Noise app

Hearing loss is a scary thing, and we're more at risk than we think. Construction zones, concerts and listening to podcasts during our commutes can all contribute to hearing loss, but we aren't always aware that the noise around us is loud enough to cause problems.

The new Noise app for the Apple Watch (coming soon with WatchOS 6) uses the watch's microphone to monitor the ambient noise around you. If you're in an area where the noise level reaches a point where it could damage your hearing, the watch will let you know so you can move away from the source or use ear protection.

Exercise and activity

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Those rings track your daily activity, calories burned and how often you stand.

Angela Lang/CNET

Activity tracking

One of the core fitness features of the Apple Watch is the activity tracking. Rather than counting steps (which the Apple Watch still does!), it shows your movement in rings. You can view this tracking info on your watch and in the Activity app on your iPhone.

  • Move ring: The red outer ring tracks your active calories burned each day. It gives you a general sense of how much you move around, whether that's walking around your house or going for a 10-mile bike ride. Unlike the other rings below, you can change your target active calories to better reflect your goals or lifestyle.
  • Exercise ring: This green ring tracks any exercise you do each day. In this case, exercise is defined as any movement that is at or above a brisk walk in intensity. The goal is 30 minutes of this kind of activity each day, and you can't reduce or increase that number.
  • Stand ring: The Apple Watch doesn't want you to be sedentary, so it will remind you to stand up and move around for at least 12 hours each day. After moving around for a minute or more, the watch will record that you stood up. Those hours don't have to be consecutive, so if you sit at your desk and skip standing up, you can make up for it later.

If you want to track your activity through the number of steps you take, you can easily count your steps with the Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch also offers daily coaching to help motivate you to close your rings. You'll get notifications during the day that encourage you to get up and move around, or ones that help you put in the final push to close your exercise ring.

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When you do close a ring, you'll get a notification and a fun animation that celebrates your achievement. The same happens when you close all of your rings.

If you're not into coaching or the goal completion notifications, you can turn off both in the Activity app on your iPhone.

Long-term activity trends

Starting with WatchOS 6, the Activity app will transform all of your daily activity metrics into long-term trends. It evaluates your activity levels in the last 90 days, then compares that to the previous 365 in order to see how your fitness is improving or changing.

If you've been moving and exercising less than before, the Activity app will provide coaching to help you turn things around.

Workout tracking

Whether you run, walk, swim, row, hike or do yoga, the Apple Watch can track your exercise sessions and show stats in real time. For most workouts that means showing you time elapsed, distance traveled, pace, heart rate and calories burned.

If you're running, there are a few additional metrics the Apple Watch can show you. Pace Alert lets you set a desired pace and the watch will tap your wrist (using haptic feedback) if you're too fast or too slow. Want to know how your speed from the last mile compares to the one you're currently running? Check out Rolling Mile, which shows you exactly that. Finally, Cadence shows you how many steps you're taking per minute.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You can manually start a workout from the Workout app by opening it and picking from the 12 different options:

  • Walking -- There's a dedicated Indoor Walk option for treadmills, indoor tracks, or walking around a mall
  • Running -- There's also an Indoor Run for treadmills or indoor tracks
  • Cycling -- Pick Indoor Cycle for stationary bikes and spin class
  • Elliptical -- Designed for an elliptical and other similar machines 
  • Rower -- Designed for use with a rowing machine
  • Stair stepper -- Designed for stair-stepping machines
  • HIIT -- High Intensity Interval Training, with short bursts of intense exercise and shorter periods of rest)
  • Hiking -- Tracks elevation gain throughout your session
  • Yoga -- Works for all types of yoga practice, including restorative, hatha and vinyasa
  • Swimming -- There are two modes: Pool Swim for laps and Open Water Swim which uses GPS
  • Wheelchair -- There are two modes: Outdoor Wheelchair Walk and Outdoor Wheelchair Run
  • Other -- Use this when no other option fits, and at the end of your workout you can pick a category, such as weight lifting and dance.

Follow the prompts on the watch's screen to start your workout, and swipe right to pause or end it.

Automatic workout detection

When the Apple Watch senses you're beginning a workout, you'll get an alert asking if you want it to start tracking. You can respond to that notification to choose your workout type and beyond a session.

Best of all, if you missed out on a few minutes before beginning to track the workout, Apple Watch will give you retroactive credit for that, too. And if you forget to stop tracking when your workout is over, the Apple Watch will detect that and automatically end it.

Compete with friends

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One of the best things you can do for your own fitness is to have an accountability partner. Someone who is cheering you on, or challenging you to work harder than them.

With WatchOS 5, you can challenge your friends to weekly competitions, track your friends' progress and see how your activity compares to theirs. You pick a seven-day competition and invite your friends to participate. Then you earn points from the total percentage of the Activity rings you close each day.

Heart rate and heart health

Heart rate monitor

The Apple Watch series 1 ($200 at Walmart) and all of the newer models are able to measure your heart rate through a sensor on the back of the watch. You can trigger a heart rate reading on demand by opening the Heart Rate app on the watch, but the Apple Watch is also taking measurements throughout the day to get your average resting and walking heart rates.

During a workout, you can also see your heart rate on the Apple Watch screen alongside the other exercise stats.

The Apple Watch's ECG app

CNET

Apple Watch EKG

The Apple Watch series 4 is FDA-cleared to conduct an electrocardiogram, also known as an EKG or ECG. There are electrodes on the back of the watch and in the watch's digital crown. By pressing your finger to the crown while the watch is attached to your wrist, the watch will measure your heart's electrical pulses.

It will then tell you if your heart is in a "normal" sinus rhythm, or is experiencing atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib is an abnormal heart rhythm that needs to be brought to your doctor's attention because it can cause life-threatening conditions, such as stroke or heart failure.

This guide shows you how to use the Apple Watch's ECG feature.

Fall detection

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Fall detection

Apple

Falls are a serious cause for concern for older adults, or anyone with mobility limitations.  But, step aside Life Alert -- the Apple Watch can now call for help if you fall and can't get back up.

The Apple Watch Series 4 has fall detection, so if fall while watching it, it will sound an alarm, tap your wrist and ask if you are OK. If you don't respond or move after around a minute, the watch sound another alarm, start a 30-second countdown. After that count down, the watch will call emergency services and then send a message to your emergency contacts about what just happened.

Read more: How to enable and use fall detection on the Apple Watch.

Focus on your breathing

The Apple Watch has a Breathe app, which encourages you to take a few minutes out of your day to take a few deep breaths to relax.

Open the app and an animation guides you through a series of deep breaths, showing you the cadence to take, which is essentially a slow inhale, holding the breath for a few seconds, then a slow exhale and waiting another second or so before repeating the process.

Sleep tracking

Despite being one of the most robust smartwatches and fitness trackers, the Apple Watch isn't really designed for sleep tracking. Partially, that's because the battery life isn't long enough for all day and all night.

If you're dead-set on tracking your sleep with the Apple Watch, there are a few workarounds, with the help of a few third-party apps.

Mentioned Above
Apple Watch Series 4 GPS (40mm silver aluminum case, white sport band)
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