Apple Watch offers walking exercises with celebrities

What’s happening? Apple has launched the “Time to Walk” feature for the Apple Watch, which provides celebrity-led outdoor walking exercises. The walks, which are tracked by the watch, last from 25 to 40 minutes. The first four in the library feature Dolly Parton, Draymond Green, Shawn Mendes and Uzo Aduba. Users will hear stories about their lives intermixed with music tracks and photos curated by the guide. Wheelchair users may use the “Time to Roll” feature as an alternative. Both features are part of Apple’s recently launched Apple Fitness+ service, which is available through a monthly $10 subscription.

The broader picture – Wearable devices were already increasingly becoming a part of everyday life before Covid-19 hit. During the course of the pandemic, however, their popularity has really taken off.

It’s not just fitness trackers – people are also interested in monitoring other health statistics, such as heart rate and blood pressure. The ability to measure blood oxygen levels at home is particularly appealing as Covid-19 can cause them to drop dangerously low without symptoms. Indeed, UK doctor Matt Inada-Kim said everyone should buy a pulse oximeter for this reason.

Great potential? Companies know wearables can empower people to improve their health and have tapped into this. For example, life insurer Foresters Financial, in partnership with dacadoo, is introducing a wellbeing platform for its members. This is largely based on wearable-app technology and behavioural science – participants will earn points for meeting their health goals, which can be exchanged for rewards. Other life insurers, such as Vitality have similar offerings.

There’s even potential for wearables to be integrated into public health programmes. In 2019 Singapore’s government paired with Google-owned Fitbit to offer its citizens free fitness trackers, provided they sign up to a $10 monthly subscription to the company’s premium coaching service. The aim is to help people take control of their own health against the backdrop of Singapore’s ageing population. People taking up the offer are given the choice to share their data with the Health Promotion Board.

The downsidePrivacy is still a concern for people considering adopting wearable technologies. They want to know how their data is collected, stored and what it will be used for. People also want assurance the apps and devices they use are effectively protected against data breaches.

This issue was a major concern in Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, with the tech giant having to agree with regulators that health and location data collected by the devices wouldn’t be used for advertising. In a positive move, Apple’s next iOS will include the App Tracking Transparency feature which will explicitly ask users to opt-in to data sharing when downloading an app.

Being able to easily opt-out of non-essential data sharing is also vital so personal or sensitive information can’t be collected. An example of why this important is Strava’s “global heatmap” which shows the most popular running routes. In 2018, it became apparent that the map revealed the locations of secret US military bases. This resulted in the Pentagon banning deployed troops from using fitness-tracking apps or other wearable devices that require geolocation.

A dystopian thought – Apple’s “Time to Walk” aims to get people outside just at a time when many countries are telling people to stay at home unless for essential purposes. Imagine if data from your smartwatch alerted the authorities that you had left your house more than once in a day and where you had been.

It would be tough answering the door to officials questioning your movements and saying you went for a walk with Dolly Parton probably wouldn’t be a convincing answer.

Nicola Watts

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