Apple's Jay Blahnik outlines how fitness devices drive behavioural change

We take them on dates and to the movies. We go to the gym or on a run with them. We even take them to bed. They are our silent partners, watching and digitising our every move.

From the most ubiquitous basic fitness tracker, the Fitbit, to the most innovative smartwatches – like the Apple Watch or Samsung Gear S2 – the activity tracker is now a common sight in modern life.

Once found only in the gym or on the track, it's not uncommon to now see them in boardroom meetings or at your local bar; strapped proudly to wrists as all and sundry track their steps taken, flights of stairs climbed, kilometres cycled or run, and heartbeats beaten.

Despite the differences between the many and various makes and models,  the key focus of any activity tracker is to address the number one element for improving your fitness: change.

Breeding good habits

For Jay Blahnik, Apple's fitness guru and advisor of all health-related aspects of the company's Watch smartwatch and iOS platform, changing your daily habits is just as vital to improving fitness as a regular workout.

If you keep it small, if you keep it specific, behaviour change can happen in a lot of different ways.

Jay Blahnik

"Simple reminders about simple things, can lead over time to really good behaviour change," says Blahnik, discussing the Apple Watch's Stand reminder, which alerts uses to stand up if the wearer has been sitting for more than an hour.

"One of my holiday goals is to drink more water. Everyone says to do this. I'm in the health and fitness space. I should, but I don't. Throughout the day [this app] will remind me to drink water and then I can log it.

"This [app] becomes a really simple smart trigger. Having a glass of water now won't make a big difference in the course of your day, but doing it over the course of weeks will."

Sitting in Apple's Sydney HQ – clad head-to-toe in Nike apparel except for the Apple Watch that predictably adorns his wrist - Blahnik gives off an air of calm intensity, and is informative and occasionally candid when discussing the company's first foray into the smart wearables market.


Get smarter

American market research and analysis firm IDC predicts the company will sell more than 13 million units globally of its premium smartwatch in 2015. It's a sizeable incursion into a crowded but still growing market, where even basic activity tracker Fitbit sold more than 7 million units in the first quarter of 2015. Such is the level of our collective zeal for improving our fitness while being hyper-connected to each other.

But to think of any smartwatch as a mere high-tech luxury is undervaluing its potential. More than a health tracker and communications device, a smartwatch is a tool for change, with many health and fitness apps geared towards gradual change in our daily habits.

"Apple doesn't believe, and certainly no health expert believes, that standing up for one minute in an hour is going to change your health," says Blahnik.

"It's not about the one minute in one hour; it's really about many hours of sitting less over time. If you keep it small, if you keep it specific, behaviour change can happen in a lot of different ways."

Little actions add up

Like many aspects of life, we develop our health and fitness habits over time and likely rarely devote conscious thought to them. How often do you think about eating slowly to give your stomach time to tell your brain you're full and so avoid overeating; or take regular drinks of water to hydrate, regardless of whether you're thirsty or not?

Similarly, the idea of 30 minutes of exercise, five days per week - while a habit for many people - is now being challenged as being as beneficial as we once thought. Blahnik believes it's not about the length of time you work out - rather, we're simply meant to move more.

"Workouts, as a dedicated notion, have been around for about 30-ish years," Blahnik says.

"But when you think about what we're designed to do as human beings, it's not 'go and do a dedicated workout and then be done'; society has evolved into that. That idea has hijacked what is actually a more holistic view to activity, which is be an 'antsier' population.

"Exercise is great, working out is great, but it was never meant to make up for what is essentially a sedentary lifestyle. There's research to suggest that's less healthy than just being really mobile and really active."

The good news

But before you go spinning into a shame spiral over the lack of short-burst activities you do, consider that you're probably getting more exercise than you realise.

"Most people only give themselves credit for exercise when it's hard and they're sweaty: 'I only ever count the hardcore moment at the gym'," Blahnik says.

"But all the world's health organisations agree that exercise starts at the level of a brisk walk, which is where we give you credit towards your exercise goals.

"So now people realise that when they're walking really fast, they might get an extra hour of exercise that they had previously not been counting."

Get regular

Research continues to prove that the regularity of exercise may be more important than the intensity of what you do during longer intervals.

A 2012 study carried out by the University of Arizona found that adults who took three 10-minute walks per day not only experienced the same reduction in blood pressure (BP) as those who took one 30-minute walk, but they also experienced fewer spikes in BP throughout the day.

Interestingly, a study by Dr Joan Vernikos, former director of Life Sciences Division at NASA, found the simple act of sitting up numerous times per day as beneficial as going for a walk; interrupting the act of sitting breaks the period of inactivity that can be detrimental to health.

Along with research like this and many other examples, we now have a growing number of apps that support the notion of 'less is more'.

Shift in paradigm

Mobile apps like Daily Water, Moves, Pocket Yoga, 7 Minute Workout and Apple Watch's own Stand reminder, mark a furthering of this shift in paradigm, each one designed to engender a more positive lifestyle through minor changes to our daily habits rather than simply logging and tracking your workouts.

"There's very little success found in giant change in a short period of time," Blahnik says.

"Most people who've lost their fitness over time, it's happened over time; it's a bunch of small things that have happened over time.

"The more elite you get, the only thing left to change is small stuff. Talk to an elite-level athlete and they're trying to shave seconds off their time. They're in the same space as a beginner; somebody who's just trying to get progress towards a different goal."

Less can be more

If you already own the likes of an Apple Watch, a Fitbit activity tracker or a Gear S2 smartwatch, and your goal is to attain improved fitness and energy, your wearable device is the perfect tool.

Rather than striving to get in an hour at the gym or pounding the footpath, use regular amounts of shorter activity to take the small steps needed to reach the top.

As Blahnik says: "It's not about the most you can do that determines your success. It's about the least you can do that still matters."