Fitness+: Apple executives on why the company has launched its digital fitness platform – and why it had one big aim in doing so

Speak to anyone at Apple about its brand new Fitness+ service and a few words keep arising: inclusivity, accessibility, welcoming people to the party, meeting people where they are. Perhaps because of the images that a digital fitness video service might conjure – hunky, grunting, focused personal trainers at you – the company is keen to stress just how easy it has tried to make it to work as hard as you can.

And when you start using Fitness+, it’s there. It’s there in the design of the app, which lets you flick through classes as well as having them suggested to you. In the choice of instructors, who are a fantastically diverse set of friendly faces, and who you cannot possibly imagine yelling at anyone. It’s there in the design of the studio from which the fitness classes are broadcast, all colourful walls and bright lights.

It’s everywhere because it was the guiding principle of the entire process, according to Apple’s chief operating officer Jeff Williams and fitness technologies director Jay Blahnik, who spoke to The Independent this week. The aim was to ensure that the service would allow people to work out – whoever they are, wherever they are in their fitness journey, whatever they want to do, whether or not they had ever stepped into a gym.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has repeatedly said that he hopes and expects that Apple’s biggest contribution to mankind will be in the form of health and fitness. He said it last week, speaking to the Outside podcast: “I really believe that if you zoom out to the future and you look back to ask, ‘What has Apple’s greatest contribution been?’ it will be in the wellness-and-health area.”

Williams and Blahnik are clear that Fitness+ is a central part of that mission: to make it easier to access and exercise, no matter who you are.

“I think most of us want to be more active and get more exercise, but life gets in the way,” says Williams. “And so we all need a little guidance from time-to-time – and Fitness+ is really geared to do just that.

“It’s to meet you where you are – with great trainers, with a fantastic selection of music, and in classes that are welcoming to really everyone no matter what their fitness level is.

“The three rings on Apple Watch, as you probably know, have helped a tonne of people sit less and move more, and get exercising. When it comes to the exercise side, people have asked for more help. And we’re trying to provide a service that we think is going to be really accessible to all – no matter what your fitness level is, we’re going to offer something for you.”

(It’s worth noting that Fitness+ isn’t accessible to absolutely everyone: for one, you need an Apple Watch, and an iPhone to use it with. It’s also not free, costing £9.99 in the UK, thought the subscription can be shared within a family, there is a free trial, and it is cheaper as part of the Apple One bundle.)

Fitness+ arrives at perhaps the best and worst possible time. One of the rare bright moments among the dark of the pandemic has been the rise of digital exercise services: with gyms closed and people often confined to their houses, but with a bigger focus than ever on fitness, people started working out at home.

But Apple says this was always the aim. Inevitably, the pandemic will change the way people are able to use the workouts, but it won’t changed what workouts they’re offered. It was notable, for instance, that even in its launch video in September, people were shown working out at the gym; a key part of the service is its treadmill and indoor cycling workouts, which will require most people to go somewhere else to use.

“We’ve been following the plan; we started well before Covid,” says Williams. “And there’s many aspects of this that we think will be even better when people get back to the gym, because we wanted to meet people where they were – including at the gym.

“You know, I show up and run on the treadmill, but don’t have an exciting programme to run to, and don’t have a treadmill at home. And so I’m looking forward to using that aspect.

“And on the flip side, given we’re all stuck at home, and in this period of Covid, there’s of course, many advantages to having this set of exercises.

“So really no change in plans. And we’re excited to get to a post COVID world, like everyone else, and think Fitness+ will be just as strong and even stronger in a post-Covid world.”

Both Blahnik and Williams are clear that they don’t think the idea of the gym is over; the move away from them during the pandemic is a temporary pause, not a permanent stop, they both say. Blahnik points to the example of Australia, for instance, where a limited number of cases mean that gyms are safer and more open than they are in the US or UK, and were still seeing plenty of use. While the outbreak has meant that being able to work out anywhere any time “ended up being great for this time”, it was the plan from the beginning and has not substantially changes in response to Covid, they say.

That’s not to say that people won’t be working out more or differently than they did before, Blahnik notes. He says that the growth of digital fitness as well as the pandemic has allowed people to “give themselves permission to experience fitness in new ways than they have before”.

Some might be committed gym users but find themselves adding classes at home in a way they didn’t before, he suggests; some might be afraid of but interested in the gym, and services like Fitness+ can serve as a more comfortable way of getting involved. Whatever way they do it, digital fitness programmes mean that people can take a “much more holistic approach”, slotting in their exercise wherever they need and can take it.

That holistic approach underpins much of the Apple Watch, even before Fitness+ arrives. Blahnik notes that many people would never have been able to see themselves doing dedicated exercise like session-based workouts, but the structure of the rings and other features spur them on; they might start by walking their dog and up the stairs each day, before progressing on to more dedicates exercise. That might be 10 minutes at first – and Fitness+ has lots of those – before leading up to longer sessions.

It’s a process of learning what works and iterating. That happens to be the same process that helped build the Apple Watch – which when it first launched had fitness as one of a number of features, but has gradually come to be defined more and more by it – as well as Fitness+ itself.

“The whole journey on our Apple Watch has been one where we’ve been we’ve been pulling on threads, and it’s been growing from there,” says Williams. “I mean, from the very beginning we had this notion of helping people be more active. If physicians could write on prescription it would be for people to be more active.

That aim led to the three rings that are now so familiar to any Apple Watch user, measuring their activity throughout the day and encouraging them to fill them. It also led to structuring the Apple Watch around the measurement of exercise.

“And along the way, we just decided that one of the things we’ve been trying to do is help democratise health, and bring health to more people. And we looked around and said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of stuff out there. And a lot of people have personal trainers, and a lot of people pay for access to to special classes and things like that’.

“But we really, we had this idea of saying, we’d really like to bring it to more people and make it affordable, and really help more people be active.”

It’s from there that Fitness+ arrived, Williams said. Blahnik notes that it’s also that point that led to the inclusion of those same rings and other metrics from the watch within Fitness+ – an inclusion that is such a big part of the design that it is not actually possible to use the service without a Watch of your own, even if you have an iPhone or other device capable of watching the videos on.

“We thought, what if those same metrics that you get during the day with the rings, and the same metrics you get during your run or your workout could actually be combined with the content itself?” he says. “And it really made it a more immersive experience. And it felt really integrated in what our customers were already experiencing already. So that became a real discovery as we as we started to design the service.”

Fitness+ grew out of the Watch to such a degree that it was never imagined in any other way, says Blahnik: “we couldn’t imagine it without the watch from the beginning, because we knew that we were all inspired by what we had started to see”.

The tight integration means that metrics will appear at the top of any workout: not only your rings, which will fill as you go, but your heartrate and other important information too. That happens dynamically, so that if you happen to fill your rings during a class then you’ll be greeted with the excitable animation so familiar from the Watch, and if an instructor makes specific reference to a metric like your heart rate, it will be highlighted in the corner.

“A central piece of this is the feedback that makes you feel like you’re a part of the class, and that the class somehow knows you,” says Williams. “And it gives you that sense of connection that we thought it was just central to the experience. And so that’s why we decided to launch this with with watch as an integral part.”

Then came the design of the app, which has plenty in common with other Apple services like Music or TV+, but also offers important steps outside of it. For one, it is very keen that you don’t get set in a certain mode: while the goal of Apple Music is to suggest more songs like those you already like, Fitness+ specifically nudges you towards taking different things, with the aim of ensuring you’re a well-rounded athlete. If you’re doing a lot of running or cycling, for instance, it might suggest a strength workout to ensure that your body is equipped for the strains of your favourite exercise.

Once again, that also means talking about accessibility, as many conversations around Fitness+ do. The focus on beginners doesn’t mean the workouts are easy or aimed at novices, since everyone can need coaching in their way.

Beginners at a certain activity might not be beginners to all activity, Blahnik notes, and the workouts are also designed to engage those people; some of those might be the instructors themselves, who appear in each other’s videos, often as beginners demonstrating the less challenging modifications that people newer to the workout might want to take. “They’re very strong, they’re very fit, but they’re not very flexible,” he says. And so you know, for them, yoga is the intimidating, you know, entrée and, and thinking of doing 45 minutes of it is is quite overwhelming.

“And so we’ve been really, really excited about the fact that in our testing, people really been trying the 10 minute workouts and loving them as an on ramp for just things they don’t do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not fit.”

With the technology in place, Apple had to do something not necessarily associated with its products or services: build a set. The company has dedicated fitness spaces from which the classes are taught, and with which users will become acquainted. The aesthetic is a departure from other services such as Peloton which have something of a nightclub feel; the rooms are like an Apple Store crossed with a school gym.

“From the very beginning, we thought to ourselves, what is the kind of space that you know, lots of people would really find inviting and welcoming?” says Blahnik. “And I think you’ll see as you explore the workouts, a lot of attention to detail put into the studio, a lot of attention to detail put into how we film each video.” He points to a garden area that’s on view during yoga workouts for a relaxing feel; the bright lights of the studio that’s used for the dance workouts.

Once again, and by this time it should be far from surprising, the main concern was about making the space accessible.

“A whole part of the design was, ‘how do we make this inclusive? How do we make this as welcoming as possible? How do we make it feel like the kind of place that you would want to go to work out? And how do we lift as much intimidation as there might be out of the experience of fitness?'”

It’s the theme that Williams returns to when asked about those competitors, such as Peloton, who are also growing quickly as the digital fitness boom continues.

“I’d probably spend less time comparing to others,” he says. “There’s seven billion people on the planet, it would be good if everybody moved a little more.

“And so we were focused less on competition and more on what we wanted to offer. And that was something really accessible to people.

“There are many fantastic programmes out there,” he says. “And I hope they’re they’re all successful. There’s plenty of room for everyone.”

Blahnik agrees. “It’s a really great time if you really want to get into exercise.”

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