I hate working out but Apple Fitness+ got me hooked

Apple's fitness subscription is just the right amount of gamification and fun. After many workouts, I'm hooked on working out with Fitness+'s overly cheery trainers.

Apple Fitness+ review: Apple Watch
Raymond Wong / Input

Story time: I have never paid for a gym membership or a fitness class. I’ve never found it compelling to pay money to use smelly, sweaty workout equipment or embarrass myself in front of a trained professional and a group of strangers.

I had a very good reason for not throwing away money at fitness: with enough determination I could get fit for free. Run outside and then run back home. Do jumping jacks or jump rope. Do push-ups and sit-ups. Do crunches. Find a playground monkey bar and do pull-ups. Take the stairs instead of an elevator whenever possible. Power walk. Stretch with yoga. I’ve been doing some combination of these money-free activities at home (and socially distanced outside) on a daily basis this year with the Apple Watch as my motivator.

I’ll never make the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine, but my once skinny frame is more defined and toned than it was pre-COVID-19. Let me be clear: I don’t enjoy working out at home. I do it because it’s a daily routine that boosts endorphins to keep me sane. Looking good is secondary to feeling good, which I’d argue is more important during the pandemic than before.

With my mindset, I was not expecting much from Fitness+, Apple’s new fitness subscription service ($9.99/month, $79.99/year, or bundled with Apple One Premier for $29.95/month) that pairs an Apple Watch with video workouts delivered on an iOS device or Apple TV. “Great, Apple is trying to reinvent the Jane Fonda workout tapes my mom used to watch in front of the CRT,” is what I thought at first.

Many Apple Fitness+ workouts later, I am hooked.

Many Apple Fitness+ workouts later, I am hooked. It’s not just that Apple’s hired a bunch of attractive and fit trainers draped in immaculate Nike activewear to coach you through various workouts (there’s no shortage of those on YouTube), but that the fitness routines and the coaching are actually fun.

Fitness+’s integration with data measured by the Apple Watch is clever and adds value to the smartwatch. Yeah, Fitness+ is sort of a modern take on the jazzercise of the ‘80s, but the workouts are more engaging and very well produced, which only makes them more addictive. I don’t think it all “clicked” until I took a dance “class” with one of the trainers, Ben Allen, that Fitness+ became fun. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just need to be having a good time!” he said as he busted a move and encouraged a flailing me to keep going.

Something about that hit differently. I stopped thinking of fitness as something to keep me sane, but as an enjoyable distraction from the bleakness of the world right now. Alright Apple, you got me. Take my money. It’s yours.

For Apple heads

I want to be clear about Fitness+: It’s for Apple users. If you don’t own an Apple Watch and an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch (this thing’s still alive!), or an Apple TV, you can’t use Fitness+. Like Apple Arcade and Apple News, Fitness+ is a service designed entirely for users who live in the Apple ecosystem.

Apple sent me a loaner reviewer’s kit with an Apple Watch Series 6, iPhone 12, iPad Air 4, and Apple TV 4K to test Fitness+ ahead of the service’s launch. You don't need the latest version, so long as it's a Series 3 or newer Apple Watch, and the iPhones and iPads run iOS 14. I personally own some version of all of these devices so my cost to entry would only be $9.99/month or $79.99/year. But if you only own an iOS device or an Apple TV and not an Apple Watch, you’re going to need to get one.

There’s also the matter of additional equipment. Some workouts require dumbbells and, obviously, the treadmill and rowing workouts require those machines. If you own these things, great. If not and you want to get into them, that’s an additional cost.

Android users are out of luck. There’s no way to access Fitness+ workouts in a browser and there’s no Fitness app for the Mac at all. On the plus side, up to six family members can access your Fitness+ subscription via Family Sharing. When you divvy it up, the cost suddenly becomes a bargain.

Tons to start

Sort by workout type, trainer, duration, or music.Raymond Wong / Input

Just like Apple News+, Fitness+ lives inside of the Fitness app (formerly Activity) on iOS and Apple TV. Fitness+ workouts show up in your Summary tab alongside any of your other workouts (i.e. runs, walks, biking, etc.). A new Fitness+ tab is your portal to Apple’s programmatic workouts with its overly enthusiastic trainers.

I’m not kidding when I say there’s something for people of all fitness levels. Whereas other fitness services like Fitbit Premium can be confusing (the table on the website showing the differences between the free, Premium, and Premium + Health Coaching is enough to scare people away), Fitness+ is organized in a straightforward manner and there are different ways to choose a workout.

You can choose a workout by type such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), or core, or yoga, or treadmill, etc. Or pick by trainer; Apple’s got over a handful of peppy trainers ready to motivate your sedentary butt to sweat. And then within a selected type or trainer, you can sort by workout times, 10, 20, 30, or 45-minutes workout and even music genre. Also like Apple’s other iOS apps, it starts recommending workouts you’d be interested in based on the ones you’ve done.

There are at almost 200 workout "episodes" on Apple Fitness+ launch.Raymond Wong / Input

There’s a lot at launch. I counted about 180 workouts across the different activities (HIIT, yoga, core, strength, treadmill, cycling, rowing, dance, and mindful cooldown). Apple says it’ll add more over time. How much more and at what frequency is unclear, but there is a “New This week” section within the app to spotlight the latest ones. Not releasing new workout videos at a steady interval will be what hurts Fitness+. A subscription service is a failure if it runs out of content. Apple has the massive war chest to ensure this never happens. But if history has taught us anything, Apple’s missteps (ahem, butterfly keyboards and trash can Mac Pro) often aren’t financially related, but rather stubbornness and arrogance. I pray Apple has a steady flow of workout videos lined up for the rest of the year and beyond.

For this review, I did a little of everything. I started out with some workouts grouped into the “For Beginners” section, broken into seven workout episodes to get me started. As I got more comfortable, I turned things up from the 10-minute workouts to 20, and 30 minutes. I bounced between trainers to find the ones that fit my speed. Kudos to Apple for casting a diverse group of trainers from differing cultures and backgrounds.

A good high

Even the music selection and one-tap integration with Apple Music is genius.Raymond Wong / Input

I’ve tried following many fitness workout videos before. Last year I surprised myself by getting into yoga (something I always brushed off) and learning poses with a trainer on YouTube, who I legit don’t remember the name of. I think her name was Adrienne or Anna — I’ll never know. At the height of quarantine, with nowhere to go, I tried to get jacked following a muscle head, also on YouTube. I gave up watching both of their videos quickly because the workouts, pacing, and production weren’t to my liking. This is usually how it goes when I try to follow video workouts online. They all really suck.

Apple Fitness+’s videos are different. The workouts and trainers are scripted so it’s not like having a personal coach help point out, say, your posture when you’re stretching or lifting dumbbells. What sets Fitness+ apart from other video workouts is the Apple Watch integration. The synchronization is intuitive and functional.

The real-time metrics did more for my self-motivation than any video coach has ever done.

By default, when you start a workout on an iOS or Apple TV, the app tells you to hit the play button on your Apple Watch, which then counts you down to the workout’s warm-up routine. During the workout, a box in the upper left shows the duration of the workout and real-time stats of your heart rate and calories burned. And in some workouts, if you’re really fired up, a special “Burn bar” appears to show how you compare to others who’ve done the workout. In the upper right, your Activity ring data is in view. You can turn this stuff off, but why would you? It's most of the appeal of Fitness+.

Real-time metrics taken from Apple Watch and displayed in the corner are the best motivation of all.Raymond Wong / Input

I can’t state the importance of being able to see these metrics in realtime. They’re visual proof of your gains and that what you’re doing is actual progress towards fitness. The trainers could put on their biggest smiles and shout out their cheeriest words of encouragement, but none of it’s as meaningful as seeing your heart rate increase as you throw punches at an invisible opponent or seeing you burn more calories as you run on a treadmill. The real-time metrics, taken, from my Apple Watch, did more for my self-motivation than a coach through a screen has ever done. Several times I found myself wanting to quit midway through a workout because the pace was too quick. But then I’d see my heart rate keep going up or a Burn Bar and I’d just power through because I knew I was getting results.

After you finish a workout, your Apple Watch will display your stats.Raymond Wong / Input

In a way, Fitness+ gamifies fitness and makes it more accessible and entertaining. Remember how I said earlier that I work out because of necessity to get my endorphins pumping? Well, those endorphins never come with a grin on my face. I kid you not, I found myself happy and more buoyant after working out with Fitness+. In a year like 2020, I'll take genuine happiness from wherever I can. Apple doesn’t take the gamification to the extreme like others have (i.e. Wii Fit, Ring Fit Adventure, or Box VR), but gives just enough to make workouts out more engaging than a fit person speaking through a screen.

Fitness+ also has bomb music. Apple’s curated songs into playlists for each workout that match the intensity of each workout. I never thought I’d be strengthening my core to Janet Jackson, but I’m into it. I’ve added a bunch of new songs to my playlists that I discovered during my workouts and the app literally makes it a single tap to listen to them in Apple Music. The downside is that you can't turn off the music or replace it with your own songs.

Go further

The Fitness app on iOS shows all of your workouts and metrics.Raymond Wong / Input

At launch, I’ve been having a ton of fun using Fitness+. It’s a good start and the production quality and delivery are superb, but I’d like to see Apple take it further. Apple’s always talking up the machine learning and AI capabilities that are possible with its silicon and software. During some of the more advanced and faster-paced workouts like dance, it dawned on me there’s no way to measure proper technique. There I was, dancing like a madman, legs kicking and hands swinging from shoulder to shoulder. I was sweating bullets and having a blast letting off stress with the full-body sweeps, but frustrated that I wasn’t pulling off the moves correctly. Other times, I was annoyed that there was nobody to check if my back was arched or straight or my hands aligned correctly.

It sure would be great if Fitness+ made use of an iOS device’s Neural Engine to track your skeleton and body movements, Kinect-style, and then tell you in realtime how to improve. Certain apps like Homecourt use AI to help improve your basketball shooting form, which in turn helps improve accuracy. Adding a way to detect proper technique would be something no other fitness service has done before. Hell, I think Apple, with its user base of billions of iOS devices, is uniquely positioned to tackle this.

The production quality and delivery are superb, but I’d like to see Apple take it further.

My greatest fear with working out is getting injured by working out incorrectly. That’s why I personally don’t turn things up too much when I’m working at home by myself. My high school weight training coach ingrained in me the importance of proper technique over speed or reps. It takes a lot of discipline to work out correctly instead of quickly.

There are some things about Fitness+ that don’t quite nail it. Like it’s sometimes hard to follow what’s happening on your TV when you’re facing down or lying on your back. Using an iPad or iPhone instead and placing it on the floor is a workaround for portions of workouts where your body’s facing down, but not great when you’re not. Apple supplied me with an articulating stand and a bendable tripod grip so I could position an iPad or iPhone at different angles, but it’s still not ideal at times. Fortunately, most workouts don’t have you on your front or back for too long so it’s really just a minor annoyance when it happens.

My Fitness+ service expires soon and when it does I’m plunking down money for it and sharing the love with my family. Fitness+ isn’t for everyone. Serial fitness junkies will probably snicker at its simplicity. That’s okay because Fitness+ isn’t for them. Maybe in the future there will be more episodes that cater to their needs. But at launch, Apple’s fitness service is for beginners and intermediate people — that's a lot of us — who want to live healthier and just need the right amount of entertainment, gamification, and motivation to do it.