Apple Watch + roller derby = love

One of the chief reasons I've been so excited for the Apple Watch these past few months is the possibility of using it to properly track my movement and exercise day-to-day. Four nights a week I play roller derby, a full-contact sport on quad roller skates, which has proven... difficult for most health and fitness gadgets to track. Steps aren't tracked nor helpful when you're talking about wheeling around, nor can most devices be worn without fear of them falling off or otherwise being destroyed.

But two weeks in, not only is the Apple Watch giving me proper tracking data for my full-contact sport — it's making me healthier all-around.

The sit-stand curse

I've been playing derby for about two and a half years now. You'd think I'd be pretty fit from four to six days a week of a contact sport, and you're partially right: Between skating and crosstraining, I've achieved a level of physical fitness I never had as a teen.

But these high-intensity activities all happen on evenings and weekends — largely after I've been sitting or standing stationary at my computer, working, for eight to nine hours. You know, as a kid, when they tell you to stretch and warm up along with a good cool down, because it'll make your muscles happy? It's about 1000 percent more important as an adult.

When you work full-time and your practices bump up against the end of your workday, however, you aren't always afforded these luxuries. I can't count the number of times I've gone into a derby practice having rushed from feverishly typing out a transcription of an Apple financial call, or an all-day marathon of iMore coverage — and my body suffers from it. I may be in shape, but my muscles are stiff from being in the same position all day, and that makes me much more prone to stupid injuries — pulls, bad ankle twists, you name it.

I know this is bad for me. And in the past, I've tried to break up my work day with exercises, yoga, stretches, you name it. But I've been unsuccessful building a routine.

Until now. The Watch's focus on activity tracking, standing, and third-party nutrition tracking has allowed me to keep my body lithe and comfortable throughout the day, which makes playing or coaching derby in the evenings feel refreshing.

I've done my fair share of griping about the Watch's stand notifications, but the guilt of having a half-filled Stand ring — especially when I can nail my Move and Exercise targets with derby — has gotten me to really focus on moving around throughout the day. When I get that notification, I do quick yoga, burpees, squats, a run to refill my water or tea; any random exercise that gets me away from my computer.

I thought this would disrupt my workflow, but it's actually kept me more focused and on task: Because I'm moving around so often, I'm not getting stiff or sleepy, which lets me concentrate more clearly on my tasks when I am working. (Great just-now example: I'm writing this story while on a plane, and the Stand notification just went off; usually, I try to stay in my seat as long as possible during a plane ride, but the notification actually got me to get up and stretch my legs rather than keep working in my cramped seat.)

In addition, I've been using a third-party Watch app to track my water intake, which is helping me pay attention to my hydration levels in a much more active way. On the phone, logging has always felt tedious and annoying. Dig out your phone, unlock, find the app, tap the water icon, log your drink. On my Watch, it's three taps: press the Crown, press the app icon, press the water logger. (Two taps, if I use a press-and-hold on the Digital Crown to activate Siri and launch the app from there.)

In doing this, I've learned that I'm a lot more likely to pay attention to nagging notifications — and logging apps — if they're readily accessible. My phone may always be in my pocket, but wrist-wear is a step beyond that: It's convenience and easy accessibility. And, at least for me, it's helpful to have a device so limited in its multitasking that you don't accidentally forget what you're doing and go check Twitter, instead.

Side-note: I love the fact that the only place you see alerts is in the Watch's Notification Center; your apps don't display an unread marker on them they way they do on your iPhone and it's so very peaceful. This way, you only have to see notifications when you want to — they don't constantly demand your attention.

The Watch has also kept me more aware of my exercise needs on non-derby days, encouraging me to walk or go biking to accomplish a mid-day errand in my neighborhood rather than taking my car. I love anything that gives me an excuse to ride my bike more often — especially now that Boston finally has nice weather again — and it's already paid off in me being able to bike up the (monster) hill I live on without looking like an out-of-breath idiot.

$350 watch, meet full-contact sport

Okay, so the Watch is pretty great for my day-to-day exercise needs. But what happens when it meets a full-contact sport?

I'll admit, I was both excited and nervous to try out the Watch on roller skates: Aside from having consistently trackable data about how I'm doing in practices and scrimmages, I've been coaching with my phone for a long time; the idea of being able to run drills without having something gripped tightly in my hand (or shoved in a hoodie pocket) has been a big motivator for my interest in wearable technology.

I also was curious to see how a device largely made of glass would do on a derby track — would I have to wrap it in something? Put it elsewhere on my wrist? Would I be so concerned about its well-being that I'd stop thinking about the game? I've traditionally never worn jewelry on the track, and it was a huge concern.

After two weeks of using it on the track, though, I'm happy to report that it works fantastically both as a coaching device and fitness tracker. The Watch is slender enough that it hides right under my wrist guard; while it's there, the Sport Band keeps it so snug to my body that I don't even notice it. I do wear a sweat band on top of it, to protect the screen from any accidental scratches, but my standard wrist guard gives it almost complete protection from being hit or shattered against other people or the ground. My teammates didn't even realize I was wearing the Watch during practice until I pulled back my wrist guard to time an exercise.

Speaking of time, the stopwatch app is a great asset when coaching, and I use it constantly. I customized a clock face with stopwatch and timer complications specifically for derby, and it's awesome to have that at a moment's notice.

I do wish there was some sort of Notes app for the Watch, though: Currently, I have to stick my practice plans in a text message to myself if I want to be able to access the text on my wrist. A few people have recommended I try Evernote and its Watch app: It's on my list to try at my next practice, but I'm still a little annoyed that Apple didn't ship a version of its Notes app. I'm also hoping that future versions of the Camera app support video recording so that I can start an iPhone recording of a practice from a tripod; right now, the app is limited to taking photographs.

As for activity tracking, I've been pretty impressed with how well the Watch consistently tracks my activity and heart rate when the Workout app is engaged, though the lack of a Skating Sports option makes actual calorie tracking a little difficult. A hard derby practice, on average, should burn 1000-1200 calories; the Watch is currently reporting 700 - 900 when I track it with the Other Workout option. That's not terribly off, but I'd still like to see more exercise options in the app going forward.

Unfortunately, unless you turn off constant heart rate monitoring, the Workout app is a monster on battery life: After moderate use in the morning and a two and a half hour logged practice, I managed to drain my Watch to 30 percent battery by 1PM. It trooped through more moderate use during post-practice beach outing and I got it on a charger around 5PM before it could dip below five percent; an hour on the charger was enough to charge it well enough for the remainder of my day. But be aware: heavy workouts — whether they're on skates or not — will kill your Watch faster than daily meandering.

Even with the attempted battery murder, I love seeing the data the Watch returns after hard workouts like that. When logging on Other, you don't get distance data, but you can see your total time, average heart rate, and calorie split — all of which helps me plan for the remainder of my day. (After Sunday's 947-calorie practice, for example, I used those metrics to get my body the right amount of food so that I didn't crash on my bed by 4PM.)

Going the distance

I can't tell you that the Watch will be perfect for your fitness routine: Everyone has different needs and responds to nagging and tracking differently. But for me, it's absolutely changed how I conduct myself day-to-day, and I can feel the results. I'm faster at practice, I feel more energy throughout the day, and I'm not struck by dehydration headaches or midday exhaustion after early morning practices.

I'm excited to revisit this in a few months, when I have a lot more Activity data to share, but in the meantime: If you have an Apple Watch, let me know in the comments if its fitness reminders are helping you, annoying you, or both. (And if you don't have a Watch yet but have one on order: What are you looking forward to, fitness-wise?)

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

38 Comments
  • I've found that jogging with the 38mm and phone present, no texting or phone calls, or music playing from the watch, it uses right about 20% per hour of Workout app usage. I've not tested without having the phone present to see if there's a difference (I'm still using the phone's GPS to "calibrate" the watch, which is probably no longer necessary after a few jogs.)
    At first, I was worried the battery would not make it through the day having used the Workout app for ~2hrs, but I have yet to hit zero by bedtime (lowest was 9% at 17 hours) as there are periods of a few hours a day where the watch only drains 5-8%. I finally decided to remove the battery level from my Complications because I was frequently obsessing about the battery. I just use the watch now and enjoy it. I, too, look forward to the Notes app and remote triggering of video!
  • I run about 15-20 miles a week with my 42mm while carrying my iPhone (been carrying my iPhone for a LONG time anyway, so used to it). First, I am an IT Tech for a school department, but a lot of days I sit at my computer. Glad the reminder comes up to tell me to stand. I do hate it when I am already standing and I get the alert, but maybe Apple just needs to tweak that a bit. The battery seems to hold out, but as a precaution when I get back from a run I throw it on the charger while in the shower, so I have no issues during the day, even with heavy use. And it's nice to get a good look at how your day is going, movement-wise... the rings really help.
  • I’m with you, Serenity, the Apple Watch has really goaded me to contemplate my overall health. . . . Now I move more throughout the entire day; I’m exercising every single day, even if I don’t feel like it; and I pay much closer attention to what/how much I eat.
  • Do you have any tips on consistent heart rate tracking? I've noticed that the heart rate monitor gets confused with cross-training workouts like CrossFit. I've tried tightening the strap super tight but it gets uncomfortable and is still hit-or-miss. It works great for walks and runs though.
  • I bought the 38 and go tit the first day. Mostly I bought it for my workouts and so far I have been very pleased. I find it is accurate for calories burned for my runs, but not so for an hour of intense heavy weight lifting. But I don't really care about calories burned. I too charge my phone after I run in the morning while I shower so I have never run out. Usually it is on workout for an hour in the morning, then for a half hour for my noon cycle. For running I have tried third party apps but keep coming back to the simple one app,e provides. But I am a recreational runner so splits etc are not important to me. I do have a Garmin but find I am not using it very much now. I wish the figures on the apple watch were bigger as without my reading glasses it is a bit hard to see in the sunlight. I too find it annoying when I am told to stand if I am already standing; But I read somewhere that we are not supposed to just stand but to move a bit for a minute or so. I too will do something like jumping jacks or jump rope to get my stand credit. I love how it has made me get up at night when I am watching TV. I used to think I did enough exercise during my runs etc but now I know I have to move even in the evening hours. My husband keeps asking me why I am standing up in the living room . Ha ha One night I needed about 50 calories to meet my 450 a day. It was a non heavy exercise day so I walked around and did a few squats at 10 PM just to meet my goal! I am not sure how long this enthusiasm will last but my Withings app ( have the scale) has noticed the difference; I got a notice today that in the last 2 weeks( after watch came) I have increased my exercise by 21 %; So I believe the watch is making an already healthy exercise nut even healthier. Nothing to do with exercise, but I love to take calls/messages on the watch. Saves me hunting my phone down in the house or pulling it out of the sports band or my pocket book. I think this is what I love about the phone the best. Oh and I like knowing the temperature and time handy,again without having to dig out my phone.
  • You're such a badass, Ren. <3 "I do wish there was some sort of Notes app for the Watch, though..." Bingo. And also a calculator Watch extension for the iPhone app.
    How hard could that be? But back on topic, yes, I've found that the watch has really helped me have more discipline in exercising. My Levi's 501s are fitting looser around the waist already. I've only done hikes, but I plan to get back on track with my karate workouts. That should ramp up the heart rate and get that pesky yellow "workout" circle to be complete.
  • Checkput 'Calcbot' by Tapbots, it's a great iOS app and has a nice Watch implementation that also includes conversion.
  • Ren, what is the water intake app you guys are using?
  • Gulps! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/gulps/id979057304?mt=8&at=10l3Vy
  • The watch has improved my fitness dramatically. I bought it in order to get fitter and I've since bought a new bike, and thanks to cyclemeter I've started a new training plan and am noticing the differences as I am two weeks into switching the ciggies for an e-cig. Love this thing! Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm not sure I'd be so flippant about a device recording data that is off by over 30% but I understand that exercise accuracy isn't as big of deal to some (most) as it is to others
  • It's not so much flippancy as it is acknowledgement that until Apple provides me with a dedicated Skating Sports entry option, there's no way that the watch will be able to track a more niche subject like skating or derby accurately, because it's not calibrated properly. But I've filed a bug report with Apple, and the rant is coming...
  • I'm wondering, how do you know that it's inaccurate? Maybe your workouts really do only burn 700-800 calories for you?
  • I can't know 100 percent for sure, but I've charted derby workouts in the past with (uncomfortable) HR monitors that gave data closer to the 1200 mark.
  • I use the runkeeper app on the watch which transfers its info into the activities app via the health app and then use the workout app for my cooldown walk. I also use the workout app while i am doing P90X ab ripper. I have found that the run keeper app provides me with more info while I am running and I also enjoy the route tracking that it provides. Sent from the iMore App
  • I have fairly modest fitness goals: get stronger, easily run a couple of miles, and look good for the summer. My Watch is definitely helping. You'll still need an ounce of willpower to go with it. But it'll nudge you over the edge if you need some encouragement and reminders. It'll help you make those dozen little decisions throughout the day to get off your butt, take the stairs, and go for a stroll during lunch. Another benefit is that I now have a more accurate view of my daily caloric requirements. It's based on my actual movement and not set-reporting, so this is will help plan my diet.
  • With all due respect, I find these articles claiming the watch improved people's health to be puffery. To even have the watch now likely means one is in an economic class that already enjoys better health overall. Secondly, there is no evidence any of these heart rate monitors on smartwatches, etc, affect health outcomes. Lastly, changing our habits for two weeks doesn't mean a whole lot. I know this site spends a lot of time pushing people to buy apple products, but using the prospect of improved health is misleading.
  • You disagree that permanently improved habits lead to improved health? That's about the only certainty related to health, as far as I know.
  • The hammer won't build the house and the paint brush won't paint the painting. They are tools. It all depends on how they are used and how effective they are at their job. I've had the watch for over two weeks and I've lost 4 pounds (20% to goal), because I am tracking my calories in and out so much easier than I have with any other fitness app or device. It all comes together better on Apple Watch, and it is the combination of helpful hardware and software features that is helping me improve my own health. You don't need to believe, but my own experience is proof to me.
  • I agree that 2 weeks is too short to make any definitive claim regarding health. But for what it's worth, I've had the Watch for 2 weeks and there are zero signs of it "going in the junk drawer", literally or figuratively. It's a simple, yet compelling combination of reminders to move, motivation to get your day's worth, and building awareness of your personal habits and trends. Personally, I am 100% more aware of my own heart rate and caloric requirements than 2 weeks ago. And it's entirely possible to have money and have poor exercise habits. At least in the developed world, $349 to get an Apple Watch means you're a middle class geek, not rich.
  • I bought the Watch SPECIFICALLY to wear during roller derby practice. There is no way it's comfortable under my wrist guard. I've tried wearing the face up, the face down, the wrist guard tight and loose. And I've tried, to no avail, to wrap the straps in a way it doesn't compress the face. Nothing works. I still use the Watch for cycling and walking but I really bought it for skating. Any suggestions?
  • What wrist guard are you wearing? I've been using the new 187 wrist guards and they've worked perfectly for me. (Occasionally I'll trigger Siri when I move it off the face, but seems to work fine otherwise.) Other suggestion is these guys + sweat band to avoid scratches.
  • I wear brand new 187s and my watch is 38mm Stainless Steel with the classic black band. I have pretty small wrists, maybe that's the problem. If I figure out how to wear it I'll definitely check out the sweat band. Thanks.
  • Hmm. Might be the classic buckle that's messing things up; I wear a sport band and it works great. (Fellow small-wristed person here.) I do wear medium 187 wrist guards, though!
  • Do you have the regular 187s or the 187 derby? The derby ones don't have a plastic splint on the top of the wrist. I tried fitting my apple watch under my wrist guards (pro designed - which does have a top plastic splint) and they wouldn't even strap.
  • You're making yourself healthier, not the watch.... keep it up !!
  • You may want to try this for your skating protection or even just basic protection http://www.macrumors.com/2015/05/12/third-party-apple-watch-cases/
  • Is this article a joke? No offense, but you need a watch to tell you to drink water and remind you that sitting too long is unhealthy?
  • Need? No. Does it help when I'm super-busy? Absolutely.
  • I wish fitness trackers were more useful for people who lift. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I agree 100 percent there. Watch isn't quite there, but I'm hoping they'll figure out proper calibration for it soon.
  • I don't have a watch yet, but I'm interested. Is there a good app that will track my food intake and will adjust my available calories depending upon how active I am? I'm trying to maintain my current weight and this is important for me.
  • Yep! There are a bunch. http://www.imore.com/best-calorie-counting-and-diet-apps-iphone-myfitnesspal-lose-it-lifesum-and-more I know a bunch of friends use Lose It's Watch app and love it.
  • This might make it safer for roller derby:
    https://www.imore.com/e?link=https2F2Fi2F852...
    :D
  • Serenity,
    first let me say I think you’re amazing. Working all day and then participating in an energy draining sport 4 nights per week, wow. In addition you do other fitness training. I am a lot older than you are, in fact, chronologically you could be my daughter. In reading this piece I can see why the watch can be most helpful to you. Some of the numbers however, can’t be as exact as you would like. There are just too many factors to consider, and as you said there is no specific setting for skating. Also, as a teacher of Physics, I must question some of the numbers quoted by users of all these types of devices, not just the Apple Watch.
    First of all, none of these devices specify if they are counting energy calories or food calories. I addition I can’t find any information on the science and mathematics these devices are using. A food calorie is a kilocalorie or 1000 energy calories. So knowing that would make a difference. I know you probably have to enter your height and weight into the app so it can supposedly measure calories burned. But there are other factors. You are thin and very fit compared to most of the population. That means that you will have to raise your heart rate more to stress it. Secondly, you have to know the force of friction between you and the track. I am sure that the app does not take that into account. That force of friction is the resistance you must overcome when moving. I really know nothing about Roller Derby, so I did some research. It seems that the only women’s track that is banked is somewhere in Texas. That also would make a difference as to the amount of force (centripetal force) needed to keep the skater on the track. From what I have read, the HR monitor with sensor on the chest will always be more accurate than anything worn on the wrist. So, don’t be too hard on the watch as far as accuracy. I looked for a formula to calculate the calories burned in relation to heart rate. I found one that cites sources of several books. Here is the URL: http://www.shapesense.com/fitness-exercise/calculators/heart-rate-based-... . If you want to try this, I would use the equation rather than the online calculator provided, and see how close you come. Going strictly by the laws of Physics, you would have to climb straight up the side of a 4 mile high mountain to burn 1000 food calories. If you are indeed burning that extra 1000 calories for those 4 days, you should be consuming at least 3000 calories per day. You need that energy so that your body to do what it must to keep you in good health. That is very important. As for the watch or any fitness band providing motivation, you have been engaging in your sport since before anyone ever thought of a fitness band. The other reasons you stated however, are most definitely helpful to you.
    Sorry this is so long. My point is merely that users should not expect too much from the watch as far as fitness tracking. It will give you a decent approximation of how you are doing relative to the day(s) before. You just have to note how you look, and feel, to know if what you are doing is working.
    I view iMore every day and really enjoy you articles.
    Regards,
    Scott Randell
    Long Island Macintosh User Group
  • I've been using my watch for just a week now and, so far, I'm generally loving it. Third party apps are its weakest point so far--load times are unacceptably slow but I expect they will get better. One question: is there any way the Activity app can give me "credit" for activity if I'm only carrying my phone and not wearing the watch? i like the visual calendar display on the Activity app, especially seeing all my completed circles. The one time I don't wear the watch during the day is when I'm cycling (I have a Garmin Edge 1000 bike computer that records my activity stats, and I also have plenty of iPhone apps [Strava, MotionX GPS and others] that record my exercise data). I do, however, carry my phone with me during cycling. Although my iPhone Health app reflects my cycling activity I'd also like to see this information in the Activity app.
  • Ive only had my watch about 2 weeks, I’ve always been active so I’ve never needed a fitness tracker, however once I started using the watch I noticed some days I do SFA, and that can’t be good for someone who gets older each year!!! So at the very least the watch will give me a reminder or historical look back at how I’ve sat on my A*#e instead of using the free and fully equipped gym included in my company’s remuneration package. Playing golf 2 -3 times per week helps, but leaving the bar taptic head tap isn’t included as an app yet, so its down to me to do it, Buddha help me
  • I have been looking for an activity tracker for Derby for so long! But unfortunately I have a Samsung smartphone. Does the Apple watch connect to a Samsung Galaxy S5?