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How Apple's Fitness Plus solves the Netflix forever-browsing problem

Apple head of fitness Jay Blahnik tells CNET how the recommendations engine powering the new app makes it easy for anyone to find their ideal workout.

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Fitness Plus gives you two types of workout recommendations: more of what you like, or something completely new to balance out your routine. 

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

With much of the world stuck at home due to coronavirus restrictions, it seems like Apple planned the perfect time to launch Fitness Plus, its $10 a month subscription service with all kinds of workouts ranging from dance to yoga, that you can do from just about anywhere. The launch timing however, was sheer coincidence, as the idea behind Fitness Plus and how it uses the Apple Watch at its core to help recommend workouts has been in the works for a while.

I spoke with Jay Blahnik, Apple's senior director of Fitness for Health Technologies, about the recommendations engine that drives Fitness Plus to give you the best workout.

Less time searching, more time working

Pandemic or no pandemic, Apple is entering an already-crowded at-home workout space. There's all kinds of fitness content ranging from connected workout equipment like Peloton, to apps like Nike Training Club, to free workout videos on YouTube and Instagram, some of which already have loyal fanbases.

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Apple Fitness Plus streaming on the AppleTV. 

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

While the content and instructors on Fitness Plus are certainly top-notch, I've done seven workouts so far that prove it, the secret sauce is how easy the service is for newcomers. There's no setup involved, for starters. The app is already preloaded on the iPhone and Apple TV with the update to iOS 14.3 and TVOS 14.3, or a click away in the app store if you're using an iPad. For better or worse, Apple already has all your fitness data from the Health app, so you can start using Fitness Plus as soon as you open it, and it automatically tells the Apple Watch to start logging the corresponding workout. The watch then shares your heart-rate data with the app so you can see your stats like heart rate live on the screen and use them to make the most out of your workout. 

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But beyond that is the fact that it's easy to find what you want, something that was front and center to building the service. "No one wants to spend 20 minutes looking for a 20-minute workout", says Blahnik. 

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The app itself is easy to navigate with a filter tool that lets you sort by workout type, duration, instructor and music genre. While it doesn't let you filter by level of difficulty like some other services, it does include a brief trailer for each routine that gives you a preview of what to expect. You can also follow along with the other trainers in the background as there's usually one doing a harder or easier version of what the main instructor is showing. 

Let Apple choose your workout for you...

If you don't know exactly what you want in a workout, or need ideas about what to do next, Fitness Plus has you covered. 

There are two categories with recommendations within the Fitness Plus app. The "More of what you do" library and the "try something new" option. The first does exactly what it says by finding workouts similar to what you've already done in the past. It looks at your workout history over the last 60 days and matches you with specific workouts, workout times or trainers that are already part of your regular schedule. 

This is by no means the first service to offer recommendations based on previous workouts, but it's unique in that it has access to past workout data outside of the app as well. That includes outdoor runs or training sessions at the gym that you've logged on your Apple Watch, or even workouts you've done on other third-party fitness apps, as long as they connect to the Health app. 

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…Or try something new

Fitness Plus also makes it easy to venture outside of your usual routine by serving up workouts and trainers that are completely different to what you normally do in the "Try something new" section. This can mean a new instructor or a completely different type of exercise to what you're used to, and one that complements your current workout plan. If you do a lot of cardio for example, it may surface some flexibility and strength training videos to balance out your workout and change up the way you're using your body, which could help prevent muscle fatigue in the long run. 

Whether to balance out your routine, build strength, or do another 20-minute session of what you love, the app includes a line about why that particular workout was chosen for you. "We built Fitness Plus to make it easy for all of these types of users to navigate the workout library without feeling overwhelmed", says Blahnik. 

That's going to be even more important as Apple continues to grow its fitness content with new videos publishing weekly. Time will tell whether or not the mix of content and the personalized recommendations will be enough to keep people coming back to Fitness Plus.