Apple Watch Gains Massive Cardio Fitness Monitoring Upgrade in watchOS 7.2 (Here’s How to Set It Up)

Apple Watch Cardio Fitness Credit: Jesse Hollington
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Yesterday’s release of iOS 14.3 and watchOS 7.2 brought some pretty interesting updates with the launch of Apple’s much-anticipated Fitness+ service and support for AirPods Max, but one new feature that’s flown a bit more under the radar are some significant improvements in the heart-monitoring capabilities of the Apple Watch.

As a prime example of how much of the magic of the Apple Watch is found in the software, rather than the hardware, Apple has managed to develop some improved algorithms that will offer even better tracking of heart-related fitness, and these aren’t just new features for the Apple Watch Series 6 — they’re available on every Apple Watch that can run watchOS 7.2.

In fact, Apple sent posted a press release yesterday just to make sure nobody misses these improvements, highlighting how Apple Watch users can now view an easy-to-understand indicator of their cardio fitness level right within the Health app, thanks to new data that the Apple Watch is now capable of collecting with watchOS 7.2.

The magic behind all of this is something known as VO2 max, a metric that measures how much oxygen you’re taking in when you’re exercising, determining the maximum amount of oxygen that you’re body can actually use and thereby providing a valuable indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness.

In clinical settings this is typically measured by having you run on a treadmill while breathing into a ventilator for maximum accuracy; the Apple Watch has always been able to provide a rough estimate of a user’s VO2 max during workouts, but until now this has never come close to the accuracy of professional equipment.

With watchOS 7.2, however, Apple has now figured out a way to measure a full range of VO2 max levels by analyzing data from all of the sensors on the Apple Watch, including not only the optical heart sensor but also the GPS and the accelerometer, allowing it to estimate lower levels as well as higher levels.

More significantly, however, while it was previously only possible to gauge VO2 max levels during vigorous workouts, watchOS 7.2 now allows the Apple Watch to take these measurements throughout the day, whether they’re tracking a workout or not.

This means that VO2 max and cardio fitness measurements aren’t just for athletes and workout enthusiasts anymore — even users who don’t complete high-intensity workouts can take advantage of this data to get a clearer picture of their heart health.

What This Means

The American Heart Association has long recognized a link between poor fitness and a higher risk of related health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. In fact, several research studies have suggested that cardio fitness could be a more accurate prediction of future health problems than all of the other high-risk things we’ve been hearing about for years, such as smoking, diabetes, and hypertension.

American Heart Association science associates low cardiorespiratory fitness levels with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. The American Heart Association is focused on helping all people equitably achieve longer, healthier lives, and we believe that emerging technology solutions can empower individuals to manage their own health.

Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO

The practical upshot of this in iOS 14.3 and watchOS 7.2 is that users will be able to get a more accurate read on their cardio fitness levels, along with insights and recommendations on what can be done to improve their heart health and thereby reduce the risk of future problems.

Specifically, iOS 14.3 and watchOS 7.2 users will now find a new “Cardio Fitness” category in the Health app on the iPhone. From here, you can see your current Cardio Fitness level with indications as to whether it’s in an optimal range for your age group and sex, as well as seeing the history of it over time and even enabling proactive Cardio Fitness notifications as well. Guides are also provided to help you learn more about Cardio Fitness and what you can do if your Cardio Fitness is below average.

How to Set up Cardio Fitness Monitoring

Like many of the Apple Watch and iOS Health features, you’ll need to specifically opt into the new Cardio Fitness monitoring by going through a quick set up process that involves answering a few quick questions about your sex, height, weight, and age and whether you’re any common medications that could affect your Cardio Fitness, such as calcium channel blockers or beta-blockers.

You’ll also be guided through screens that will explain Cardio Fitness levels, factors that can lower your Cardio Fitness, and how the Apple Watch measures VO2 max to determine your appropriate level, and you can be prompted to optionally turn on notifications that will periodically let you know whenever your fitness level is low — about once every four months.

If you choose not to enable Cardio Fitness notifications right away, or if you decide later that you want to turn them off, you’ll have to do this from the Watch app on your iPhone:

  1. On your iPhone, open the Watch app.
  2. Tap on “My Watch” at the bottom if it’s not already selected.
  3. Tap on Notifications.
  4. Tap on Heart.
  5. Tap on the switch beside “Cardio Fitness Notifications” to toggle it on or off.

You can also adjust other heart-related notifications from this screen, including whether you want notifications for irregular heart rhythms that could be symptomatic of atrial fibrillation, as well as the thresholds for high and low heart rate notifications.

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