Apple Watch and Activity: Everything you need to know

Apple Watch
Apple Watch (Image credit: iMore)

The fitness tracking on Apple Watch goes beyond just counting steps or tracking calories, instead focusing more on your overall health, differentiating between movement and actual exercise, and encouraging you to stand more than you already might. Performing the activities suggested by your Apple Watch helps fill up those rings in the Activity app, but how does Apple measure all of that, anyway? Well not to worry, we've got you covered right here.

Here, you'll find absolutely everything you need to know about the Apple Watch and activity tracking, from how to set it up and sharing activities to starting workouts.

Let's start with what the Activity app actually does, what it tells you, and what kind of data it collects.

The Rings

The Stand, Exercise, and Move rings make up the central display for your overall activity as captured by your Apple Watch. Scrolling down in the Activity app on your watch will show you an hour-by-hour breakdown of your activity for each (when you've moved, when you've recorded exercise minutes, and when you've stood).


This one seems pretty easy. You fill the stand ring by standing up for one minute an hour in 12 separate hours. What this ring and the alert that comes with it are actually telling you is that you haven't moved in a little while. So when your Apple Watch notifies you that it's time to stand, don't just stand up and stay still, but walk around a little bit. Take a short stroll around your office, or if you're at home, go check the mail.


This ring tracks a specific kind of activity. Apple defines exercise as anything equivalent to a brisk walk or more that raises your heart rate consistently. Apple monitors your heart rate and your movement data to make sure you're actually exercising, and you can track workouts using the Workout app on your Apple Watch. Additionally, you can feed workout data into the Activity app using third-party workout apps that support this feature, meaning you can use all of the features provided to you by your favorite workout app while still filling the Exercise ring.

One thing to note about the Apple Watch's exercise measurements is that, as you more, they will change over time. So the same activities that would potentially help you close your Exercise ring when you first got your Apple Watch may only get you part of the way there after months or even years of consistent activity. The Apple Watch learns your habits, and will consistently push you to go further.


This ring shows how many calories you've burned throughout the day. It takes into account everything from motion to heart rate data, but it represents your total movement in a 24-hour period, not just exercise. You work towards a calorie goal that you set, and as you continue to wear your Apple Watch, it will be better able to measure how you burn those calories.

Health, Workout, and Activity

Health, Workout, Activity

The Health app on iPhone, Workout app on Apple Watch, and Activity apps on both are separate and have distinct functions, but can work together to offer a detailed picture of your overall health.


The central repository for all of the information your Apple devices have collected about your health. The data in the Health app includes the activity data collected by your Apple Watch, included Stand, Exercise, and Move data.

With your permission, the app can accept data from third-party apps, and you can also let those apps import your health data as well, to better help them tailor workouts to you. As long as you have granted access to read and write data to any third-party apps of your choice, the data they provide will become part of the overall picture of your health.

Workout app

This is the default app for tracking workouts, comes built-in with every Apple Watch, and exists solely on the watch. The data from this app feeds into the Health app on your iPhone, covering all sorts of activities, such as indoor and outdoor walks and runs, cycling, elliptical machines, rowing, hiking, and more. This is the data that will most likely go into your Exercise ring.

Activity app

Existing on both the Apple Watch and iPhone, the Activity app keeps detailed records (more on the iPhone than the watch, admittedly) of each day's activity. Using the iPhone app, you can explore your activity for each day that you've worn your Apple Watch, getting breakdowns of how and when you burned calories, looking at exact details of each workout, and exploring your past achievements and achievements still to come.

Third-party fitness apps

Whether you use Pedometer++ to track your steps or Runkeeper to track more intense workouts, third-party fitness apps on the Apple Watch have come a long way since the device debuted in 2015. These apps can contribute to your Exercise ring on your watch and send and read detailed workout data from the Health app on your iPhone.

With this knowledge in hand, it's time to actually get activity tracking set up.

How to set up Activity on your Apple Watch

After syncing the Apple Watch, you will have a chance to set up Activity through your iPhone.

  1. Launch the Activity app from your iPhone's Home screen.
  2. Tap Set up Activity.
  3. Enter your personal information.

  1. Tap Continue.
  2. Set your Daily Move Goal. You can use the plus and minus signs to adjust.
  3. Tap Set Move Goal.

Once you've got Activity set up, there's a lot you can do with it, whether its keeping track of fitness goals or sharing your workouts with others for some friendly competition.

How to set goals and track your progress with Activity on Apple Watch

Goal-setting is the key to measuring success and the Activity app on your Apple Watch lets you quickly see your progress towards your goals at any time. The three areas your Apple Watch tracks — move, stand, and exercise — are each represented by a colored ring in the Activity app. The closer you get to completing a specific goal, the closer the ring will get to completing itself. Apple Watch also lets you scroll down to view a little bit more of a data breakdown if you choose.

How to set up and use Activity Sharing

If you like to work out with friends or find a little healthy competition between you and someone else, the Activity app can help you out. When you enable Sharing on your iPhone and Apple Watch, other people can view your progress and compare and challenge themselves to work out as hard or harder than you, and even send you taunting messages along the way.

How to customize notifications for the Activity app on Apple Watch

With the Activity app, you will get daily — often hourly — alerts reminding you to stand up, get moving, and do a bit more exercising to meet your goals. Sometimes though, you're stuck in a car, on an airplane, or otherwise stationary for hours and hours and just can't do your routine. You can silence these reminders altogether or even just for a day.

How to use the Workout app on Apple Watch

Apple Watch (Image credit: iMore)

The Workout app that is built into your Apple Watch lets you track a lot of common workout types from outdoor running and walking to indoor stationary equipment such as an elliptical. Starting a workout is easy. When you're done your workout, it will automatically be logged in not only the Workout app but the Activity app and the Health app on your iPhone.

How to customize workouts in the Workout app for Apple Watch

By default, your Apple Watch will show you some different metrics during a workout. Things like duration, heart rate, distance, calories burned, and more, can all be displayed during a workout. You if want to change what metrics you see during your workouts, you can head over to the Apple Watch app on your iPhone and customize it to your liking.

Joseph Keller

Joseph Keller is the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.