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Wearable Tech

How to count steps with your Apple Watch

After these tips, all that's left to do is walk.

Matt Elliott/CNET

After being a dedicated Fitbit wearer, I decided to switch to an Apple Watch for its prettier display, superior design and extra features to continue my step-counting ways.

Read more: Apple Watch vs. Fitbit Versa

But after spending so much time with a Fitbit, I was disappointed to discover that the Activity app deemphasizes step counts. I quickly grew accustomed to checking my current step count with a quick glance at my Fitbit, and didn't like that my Apple Watch made me dig and tap and swipe to see the number I've come to care more about than the time of day. I also had some questions about the accuracy with which it was counting my steps.

Thankfully, I found a way to add a step counter to my Apple Watch's face and a few ways to get a more accurate accounting of my daily travels. Let's, um, step to it.

Enter your health data

If you're new to step counting, the first thing you need to do is set up the Health app with some information about yourself. It uses your age, height, weight and gender to estimate things like calories burned and steps taken.

On your iPhone, open the Watch app and on the My Watch tab, tap Health and then tap Edit. Enter your information and then tap Done.

The Health app will share this information with the Activity and Workout apps as well as third-party apps that support it.

Enable location services

Your Apple Watch uses GPS tracking to get a more accurate reading of the distances you travel. The Apple Watch Series 1 (£230 at Amazon Marketplace) lacks the GPS of the newer Apple Watch Series 3 or the discontinued Series 2. It counts steps using only the accelerometer if you go for a walk without your iPhone, and then will sync with the Health app when you return within range of your iPhone.

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No matter your Apple Watch model, you'll get better, more accurate results if you enable location services for it. On your iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and make sure that Location Services is turned on. And while you're here, you can enable location services for the two Watch-related items on the long list of apps. Near the top of the list, you should see Apple Watch Faces and Apple Watch Workout. Set both to While Using the App.

Enable fitness tracking

Location services are only half the battle. Your Apple Watch and iPhone use an accelerometer that measures your total body movement to track your activity. You'll want to let the accelerometer do its thing for times when GPS info is unavailable, whether you have a Series 1 and are without your iPhone or are walking where there's poor coverage. There are separate settings for your phone and watch.

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For your iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and scroll all the way to the bottom of the list of apps and tap System Services and make sure that Motion Calibration & Distance is turned on. Then go to Settings > Privacy > Motion & Fitness and make sure Fitness Tracking is enabled along with Health and any third-party apps that you're using to track your fitness.

Next, open the Watch app on your iPhone and on the My Watch tab, tap Privacy and make sure Fitness Tracking is turned on.

apple-watch-fitness-tracking
Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Calibrate for increased accuracy

Without its own GPS, an Apple Watch Series 1 needs a little help to learn how you walk or run. You can calibrate the Watch by letting it compare data from its accelerometer with GPS data from your iPhone so it can get a better handle on your stride length and arm movements. Here's how to calibrate it:

  • Put on your Apple Watch and head outside, preferably to a flat, open area under clear skies (so you get good GPS reception).
  • Bring along your iPhone and carry it in your hand or wear it in an armband or on your waist.
  • Open the Workout app on your Apple Watch, tap Outdoor Walk or Outdoor Run, and set a time goal of 20 minutes.
  • Walk or run at your normal pace for 20 minutes.

Add step counter to watch face

After getting my Apple Watch Series 1 finely tuned to count my steps, I was dismayed to find that I couldn't add a step counter to any of the watch faces. Some watch faces let me add info from the Activity app, but only calories burned, exercise minutes or hours standing. After a little digging, I found an app that let me add my current steps to my watch face so it's only a glance away, just like my Fitbit.

The app is Pedometer++ and it's free. It was the only app of the handful of fitness trackers I tried that included complication integration -- that is, adding information to the watch face itself.

First, however, you'll need to grant it permission to use your Apple devices to count your steps. On your iPhone, open the Health app, tap the Sources tab, tap Pedometer (it drops the ++ on the iPhone for some reason) and tap Turn All Categories On.

To add a step counter complication, Force Touch your watch face to call up the gallery of faces and select one that lets you customize it. Tap the Customize button to edit the complications displayed on your watch and use the digital crown to scroll through the options until you find Pedometer++. I found that the X-Large watch face offered the biggest, boldest step counter. 

Now, I've got my Apple Watch set up so it accurately counts my steps and displays my current count on the watch face. And with the X-Large watch face, in particular, the number is easier to read than the tiny, thin font on my Fitbit Charge 2. The only downside is that it updates less frequently than my Fitbit, which can be frustrating to a compulsive step counter. Or maybe it's a good thing -- it'll force me to relax and not check my step count so frequently.