I Did Everything My Smart Watch Told Me to Do for a Month—Here’s What Happened
I followed the Apple Watch's little buzzes, prompts, and guidance (or what sometimes felt like interruptions). Two doctors help explain the difference I felt in my health.
Some recent research hints that most of us have some blindspots when it comes to judging how healthy our daily practices really are. The results of a 2022 study that involved nearly 10,000 participants concluded that an estimated 75% of us overrate how healthy our diet is, for instance. (No judgment if that sounds familiar!) Other research, such as one 2019 sports medicine study, suggests some of us tend to overestimate our activity levels.
Fitness and wellness trackers like the Apple Watch aim to close these gaps between perception and reality—but for a user, it can be tough to pinpoint how accurate these devices really are.
From personal experience, I credit my Apple Watch with helping me get fit during the pandemic. But with hobbies and my hours of work at the computer as a writer, it wasn’t practical to wear it all the time…and as I found myself constantly taking the watch on and off, one day, I just never put it back on.
So, for this journalistic experiment, I aimed to bring the wearable tech back into my daily life, doing everything the watch told me to do for a month and tracking the effects—plus, investigating how on-point my mental record of my lifestyle really is.
Closing the “Move” ring was a challenge at first
I’m a really active person: Three to four days each week, I train on the flying trapeze, as well as log a few hours of aerial arts, and aim to get out rock-climbing. I don’t wear the Apple Watch during these activities, so they’re not logged against the “Move” ring that closes as you approach 500 calories burned each day.
But wearing the watch again revealed one of my major blind spots: Thanks to what working from home does to your body, I did not move much outside of these bursts of high-intensity training. So each day, I made it a mission to close that pink ring organically—moving however and whenever time allowed—and here’s what happened:
My heart rate variability improved. Dr. Marie Kanagie-McAleese, MD, recently explained to me that heart rate variability measures how quickly your heart rate increases with activity or stress, and decreases with rest. A higher heart rate variability is better—the swifter your heart rate adapts to your activity level, the healthier it is for you.
I experience less fatigue and brain fog during the day. Hopping up to jog in place or play catch with one of my dogs got my blood flowing and my heart pumping and delivered a burst of energy in the moments of the day when I often find myself starting to slump.
The tightness that I sometimes feel in my lower back and shoulders has started to ease. It might not seem like much, but Alaina Victoria, PT, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy, emphasizes how powerful it can be to break up the window of time you sit at your desk. “Adding periods of standing instead of prolonged sitting offers numerous health benefits, including alleviating back and shoulder pain, strengthening the core muscles, improving posture, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.” Those little moments of movement also promote blood circulation, boosting your heart health, she adds.
The “Stand” prompt turned out to be a game changer
People love to hate the Apple Watch “Stand” notification. While the reminder to get up every hour can feel intrusive, one 2020 study asserted that the average American spends 7.7 hours a day being sedentary. This lifestyle, which some scientists are now referring to as the sitting disease, is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality (along with links to weight gain, neck pain, and depression).
As for the effectiveness of the prompt: According to Apple’s own Apple Heart and Movement Study, the notification increases the likelihood someone will stand by 50%. For those who close the other activity rings regularly, the reminder triples their probability of standing.
At first, I begrudgingly obeyed the stand prompt, mostly just hovering over my desk for a minute or two. But without realizing it, this cue turned into a habit-stacking ritual. When my wrist would buzz, I’d get up and refill my glass of water, clean a dish in the sink, go outside for a minute, or tackle something small on my to-do list. In fact, I started to look forward to these micro-breaks and noticed how refreshed I felt when I returned to my desk.
The “Exercise” ring helped me stay accountable to my goals
I already exercise at least 30 minutes a day, so again, I didn’t count my current habits toward the Apple Watch goal. But I’ve been inconsistent in forming a routine around activities like stretching, soft movement like yoga, and mobility exercises—and that’s where the looming green ring helped to motivate me.
While I experienced the benefits of moving and standing more almost immediately, forming this routine took more patience. That’s where Apple’s ring design really gave me an assist. Some recent research explains why: The gamification of fitness and wellness objectives in devices like the Apple Watch is consistently shown to improve people’s motivation to achieve those goals. Seeing an extrinsic reminder that you’ve accomplished something—like the ring closing—activates your brain’s reward center, giving you a boost that encourages the habit. In turn, this leads to lasting behavior changes and improved outcomes, says Dr. Victoria.
So much so that in my case, I’d often squeeze in a few more minutes of downward dogs while watching TV at night to trigger that little green firework on the Apple Watch display.
It’s important to note that gamification is not without its challenges, Dr. Victoria says. “As much as it motivates, it can sometimes make people feel discouraged if they’re not able to keep up.” There’s also the risk of people becoming dependent on these rewards for motivation in ways that can conflict with true wellness—says Dr. Victoria: “In all the excitement of meeting activity goals or trying to get to the top of leaderboards, it’s essential not to overlook our body’s needs for rest and make sure the eagerness to close those activity rings doesn’t lead to overexertion,” she says.
“Breathe” strengthened my mindfulness practice
I try to keep a meditation practice but tend to just “squeeze it in.” What I liked about the “Breathe” prompt was how it did serve as a sort of interruption in the day, reminding me to take a moment and reset even if it wasn’t necessarily convenient.
If you’re skeptical that just one minute of meditation is useful, these micro-meditation practices can yield significant benefits if practiced consistently, says Ryan Sultán, MD, a psychiatrist and research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center. “While it may seem brief, even one minute of focused, mindful breathing can help calm your mind, reduce stress, and bring a sense of relaxation,” Dr. Sultan says. Specifically, a minute of deep breathing (think: Big, slow, belly breaths and even longer exhales) calms the brain’s amygdala (the fear and anxiety center) and activates our relaxation-inducing parasympathetic nervous system, focusing our senses on the present moment.
Admittedly, I found the prompt a bit annoying at first. Once I started sticking with it, I noticed:
My focus improved, with less daydreaming or my mind wandering to my to-do list.
The deep breathing gave me a huge burst of energy.
The tiny, minute-long reminders made me crave more mindfulness—it motivated me to actually make the time for dedicated 10- or 20-minute meditation sessions later in the day.
Bedtime reminders boosted my sleep schedule
A goal of mine over the past year has been to wake up at the same time every day—but I didn’t pay much attention to when I went to sleep. Sleep researchers say the best rest comes not from just a regular wakeup call, but ensuring you’re getting a consistent amount of sleep. That means adhering to a regular bedtime, too.
The first few days of heeding the Apple Watch’s bedtime reminder were harder than I thought. I’d normally go to sleep when I felt my body was “ready,” so there was plenty of tossing and turning as I forced myself to hit the hay at a specific time. But I was shocked at how quickly my body adapted—within about a week and a half, my body was trained to get sleepy just before the notification would even go off. The structure works: I wake up refreshed minutes before my alarm, too.
Ryan Sultán, MD, a mental health physician and research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center
Current Developments in Nutrition: "Can United States Adults Accurately Assess Their Diet Quality?"
Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "A source of systematic bias in self-reported physical activity: The cutpoint bias hypothesis"
NeurIPS 2022Workshop on Causal Machine Learning for Real-World Impact: "A Large-Scale Observational Study of the Causal Effects of a Behavioral Health Nudge"
Korean Journal of Family Medicine: "Sedentary Lifestyle: Overview of Updated Evidence of Potential Health Risks"
Sustainability: "Gamified Wearable Fitness Tracker for Physical Activity: A Comprehensive Literature Review"