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Apple Fitness+ is designed to make working out easier for everyone

The company’s head of fitness Jay Blahnik explains his thinking behind the Apple Watch-based exercise service, which debuts December 14.

Apple Fitness+ is designed to make working out easier for everyone
[Source photos: jacoblund/iStock; fizkes/iStock; dima_sidelnikov; courtesy of Apple]
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The Apple Watch originally launched as a sort of multipurpose remote control for the iPhone, but by the device’s second year, 2016, Apple was clearly positioning it as a fitness device. It worked. Sales started to take off. Fitness has always been one of the most tangible uses of the watch, with its ability to not only measure workouts in a biometric way, but also to nudge, remind, and motivate users to move, stand, and exercise.

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Now, with Apple’s new Fitness+ subscription workout service, the watch’s exercise heritage extends off the wrist and onto the larger screens of iPads and TVs, and adds 21 human instructors whose workout sessions are available on demand. The Apple Watch is central to Fitness+; the service doesn’t work nearly so well without it.

“We feel like this is an iteration of the things we’ve been doing since the very beginning, which is to try to make it easier for people to be motivated and inspired to be more active and more fit, and so it fits right into that,” Apple’s head of fitness tech Jay Blahnik tells me. Blahnik is known for developing fitness devices and apps at Nike, and for his work on the Nike+ Running app in the mid-2000s. He now leads the development of Fitness+ at Apple.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
The on-demand workouts, which you view on your iPhone, iPad, or home TV, feature a wide array of exercises from 10 disciplines, including strength training, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), cycling, yoga, dancing, rowing, and others. Some of the workouts, like rowing and strength training, require you to bring your own equipment. Others, like yoga, need only a mat.

The watch, which connects to your iPhone, iPad, or AppleTV via Bluetooth, transmits biometric data (like heart rate) and workout timers to the screen so you can see them while you’re moving. There’s also a “burn bar” that rates your performance against other people who have done the workout (you can turn this off if that doesn’t motivate you).

We feel like this is an iteration of the things we’ve been doing since the very beginning.”

Jay Blahnik

The service will launch on Monday, December 14, as the U.S. heads into perhaps the worst period of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us have been mainly in stay-at-home mode since March, a condition that’s likely to continue for at least six more months. As you might expect, at-home workout products and services have seen a rapid rise in popularity, and Fitness+ will likely be no exception. Apple says it didn’t build Fitness+ with the pandemic in mind, but the launch timing is serendipitous.

As Apple often does, it’s moving into a mature space—here, connected workouts—with a new product that leverages the company’s unique control over both hardware and software. But Fitness+ isn’t just for exercise aficionados: It’s designed to appeal to a large number of the 1.5 billion or so people around the world who are already hooked into the Apple ecosystem.

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Making exercise approachable

If there’s a secret sauce to Fitness+, it’s the way Blahnik and company designed the service to appeal to a broad swath of users, from fitness buffs to people with no exercise habits.

Unlike other exercise apps which offer different workouts for different experience levels, Fitness+ tries to address every fitness level within its various workouts. To do so, each video includes three different trainers on screen at the same time, and at least one of them—Blahnik calls them “modifiers”—is doing a simpler or less-taxing version of the activity.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
In a cycling workout, one trainer might be pedaling more slowly; in a yoga session, one trainer might be doing simpler poses or using a chair for support. The trainer acting as the modifier in one video might be the lead trainer in another type of workout. For example, you may see one of Fitness+’s expert rowing trainers doing a cameo as the modifier in a yoga video. Because that trainer isn’t as familiar with yoga as compared to rowing, the experience of watching her feels more relatable; it’s new to her, just like it might be new to you.

You’ll also find a series of 10- or 20-minute “getting started” videos that are designed for absolute beginners who aren’t quite ready to jump into the main studio workouts. These videos usually have just one instructor who welcomes you and gives you some pointers on how to do a particular exercise. For workouts that involve equipment, like rowing or cycling, the trainer might include some basic info on how to set it up. For me, I’m planning to try a rowing machine for the first time, and I’ll need a bit of orientation on proper form.

“One of the things we’ve heard that’s been consistent is that working out is tough for people,” Blahnik tells me. “If you’re a beginner, it’s tough because you don’t know what to do, you don’t know where to start, or maybe you’re not in great shape and going to a gym or taking a class is actually way too much . . . of a commitment when you’re brand-new.” More experienced people can get in a rut or have trouble getting motivated during COVID-19 times (like me).

“It was clear to us from the very beginning that if we could do something to make working out a better experience for everybody, that felt like a really great thing to do for Apple Watch customers,” Blahnik says.

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The power of suggestion

Exercising for a day or a week is one thing, but keeping on it is quite another. That’s why a good suggestion engine is very important in fitness apps, not only to give people inspiring suggestions for new workouts, but to keep them out of the quagmire of having too many workouts to choose from—and the Apple+ library will soon have thousands.

If you’re a bit of a reluctant exerciser like me, agonizing over the right workout or coach or music can be a downer at a crucial time, and that comes down to the technology. “Our mantra internally was we didn’t want people to take 20 minutes just to find a 20-minute workout,” Blahnik says. “And so we’ve done some really intelligent things to make it simple to get to your next best workout.”

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
These recommendations need some usage data to kick in, so you won’t see them immediately. But after you’ve used Fitness+ for awhile, the service starts seeing patterns and begins to suggest workouts you might like. One algorithm tries to offer you more of what it knows you like: If you like the weight training sessions, it might suggest more, but with a different instructor. The algorithm also might look for signals outside the app: If it sees in your Health app that you run outside, it might suggest an indoor treadmill run in Fitness+. Or it might try to balance out your workout diet.

Our mantra internally was we didn’t want people to take 20 minutes just to find a 20-minute workout.”

Jay Blahnik

“If you clearly are doing single-plane activities—you like the cycle and you like to run, so that your body is always moving in one direction—it’s going to suggest things like HIIT or yoga that move your body a little differently,” Blahnik explains. If you’re constantly doing strength training, the algorithm might suggest mixing in some cardio, he says.

There’s also a filter tool that lets you quickly narrow down the choices using some key parameters (like workout type, duration, music type, and trainer).

“I actually used it just this morning; I woke up and I said ‘I want to do HIIT, I like Jamie Ray, I want 20 minutes, and give me some hip hop,’ boom,” Blahnik says. “Then the only thing left were the workouts that fit that criteria—literally in 10 seconds I was off to the races.”

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Apple versus Peloton?

When Apple moves into a new market, you wonder who the casualties will be. In this case, Apple Fitness+ could become a serious competitor to Peloton, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the COVID-19 shutdown.

On first glance it doesn’t seem like Fitness+ and Peloton would compete for customers. Peloton, after all, sells a hardware/service bundle that includes a bike (or treadmill) and then layers on the subscription coaching content. Apple, on the other hand, appears to be selling just a content subscription.

As a result, Peloton CEO John Foley doesn’t seem too worried. “They’re not coming into that [hardware] category,” he said during his company’s first investor meeting as a public company in September. “They’re just going to be the content.” Anyone willing to pay thousands for a pure cycling home workout might not see a $10-a-month Fitness+ service as a comparable alternative.

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]
But when you factor in the Apple Watch, Apple is selling a hardware/service bundle, just like Peloton. If you don’t already own a relatively recent Apple Watch and you want to use Fitness+, you’ll need to purchase the hardware. Coincidentally, Apple is bundling three free months of Fitness+ with new watch orders.

The content the two companies offer is similar too. When you start looking at the Peloton workouts available in its  app, you’ll see that it goes way beyond cycling. Peloton offers workouts from 10 disciplines—just like Fitness+—including HIIT, strength training, dance, yoga, and others. You watch the Peloton trainers leading those workouts on a tablet or a TV (via AppleTV, AirPlay, Roku, Chromecast, etc.).

So Apple and Peloton may be coming at the same consumers from two different angles, with two different hardware/software bundles. Peloton’s bundle is expensive; the least-expensive bike is now $1,895, and you pay $39 a month for the workout content. But to use Apple’s Fitness+ effectively you may need to spend significantly more money than just the $10-a-month subscription price. You can spend as much as a grand for a good exercise bike to use the Fitness+ cycling content. And if you’re one of the many iPhone users who don’t yet have an Apple Watch, you’ll need to get one—a Series 3 or later—which means an additional investment of $200 at minimum.

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A natural evolution

There’s something inevitable about the arrival of Fitness+ (please read that in your Jony Ive voice). Apple already has the watch, which provides a natural way to measure the body during exercise. From there it’s just a Bluetooth hop to a series of other screens that Apple controls—the iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV—to display the visuals. Then add 21 engaging trainers and a big library of workouts, and presto. Blahnik and his team managed a lot of technical and design detail to make the whole thing work, but many of the big pieces were already there.

“We’ve been working on it for a number of years,” Blahnik says. “[The] Fitness and Activity and Workout [apps] have been a really core part of Apple Watch from the very beginning—since the very first year of Apple Watch.”

Of course, it only works within Apple’s world. “You need to be in the ecosystem in the first place and of course there are Android users who don’t even have the ability to use an Apple Watch with their phone,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi points out.

But that’s still a pretty big addressable market. The Apple Watch is easily the top-selling smartwatch in the world. Strategy Analytics estimates Apple sold 30.7 million of the devices worldwide last year and 22.5 million the year before. “You now have a fitness regime linked to the Apple Watch,” Milanesi says, adding that the data generated from workouts might be useful to the user’s doctor or health insurer.

Apple may be a little late to the connected-workouts party, but that’s how the company rolls: It waits and watches and learns, then jumps into maturing markets. Ultimately, the company doesn’t need to convert Android users or steal Peloton customers to be successful with Fitness+. Fitness+ may end up mainstreaming and popularizing connected fitness in general—and a few more months of pandemic stay-at-home life probably won’t hurt either.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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