The Ebb and Flow of Fitness

It is often easy to present the Apple Watch, especially the Ultra model, as a rugged and powerful adventure companion that is suitable for crossing the Sahara with naught but your wits. And it is, it is a useful companion for all manner of dramatic adventures. However, I was recently reminded of another quieter but perhaps even more vital attribute: its persistence.

When worn regularly, the Apple Watch quietly collects information about you and monitors your well-being. It can be somewhat judgmental with activity alerts and prompts, but personally, I prefer to turn them all off and let it settle into the background, waiting until I need it.

Fitness is a process of extremely slow accumulation of incredibly small choices. Perhaps most insidiously, the effects of those choices are highly removed from when you make them. The effects, positive or negative, manifest themselves well after you make them.

In much the same way as sitting on the beach, you can clearly tell the difference between high and low tide, but at any one moment, you can’t really tell if the tide is ebbing or flowing. So it is with fitness; I can tell when my fitness is meaningfully greater or lower than it has been before, but in the moment, it is really challenging to tell which way the tide is moving.

On the negative side, this can then form a trap. You are so removed in time from the ultimately negative impacts of your current choices that you only realize that you are at “low tide” after a sustained period of negative choices. And then, sadly, on the positive side, you can feel like you are putting in all the right efforts and working hard in the moment, but it may seem like you haven’t changed the tide at all.

The last part of 2022 was a rough time for me with regard to my physical fitness. A combination of mental and physical health challenges made it difficult for me to build consistency into my workout schedule and as a result I just did a lot less. In the busyness of the season this was easy to overlook and not give much attention to, but eventually I could feel that the tide of my health had receded from where I’d like it to be and decided that I would do something about it.

So, I began to exercise more regularly and eat better. Nothing dramatic, or shocking, just the basic small choices that I know from experience are effective for me. In the moment each morning when I’d leave my home gym, these sessions often felt unproductive. I could vaguely sense an improvement, but in such a start-stop manner that it was very easy to get discouraged.

This is where my Apple Watch has been really helpful. It had quietly been keeping an eye on me this whole time, persistently collecting vital stats about my body’s wellness. So I can now tap into those to get some motivation.

Here is a rough plot of the weekly minutes that I spent with my heart rate above Zone 1 (in my case >131bpm):

You can see clearly the doldrums I found myself in at the end of last year and the turnaround I have been able to sustain since. What I love about this plot is that the earlier data was being collected even though I wasn’t at all focused on fitness during that period. I still wore my Apple Watch 23 hours a day, so I now have a legitimate point of comparison, even though it is only recently that I am consciously focused on collecting data.

Then perhaps even more motivating and encouraging for me has been looking at the graph of my Cardio Fitness in Apple Health. This is based on their estimates of my V02 max value. Which is a good general correlate to your overall fitness.

When I look at my plot of this I can see the clear signs of the “tide going out” last year. A steady decline in my overall fitness which then stabilizes and starts to climb up again directly in line with the effort I’m putting in. That upward slope is a beautiful thing to see.

The combination of these two graphs has been incredibly motivating to me in terms of keeping up with my exercise/health practices. In the moment, it often feels like little is being accomplished, but when I can see the slow accumulation of this change, it is really powerful.

I am grateful that my Apple Watch has been gathering this data for me, even when I didn’t care to look at it. It means that I now find myself on a better track and with more motivation.

Each day, the heaviest thing I lift in the gym is the door handle to come in and get started. I doubt it will ever not be a struggle, but the more that I do it, the lighter it becomes.

David Smith