This month’s Apple event dropped some big wellness-related releases on us, and they all center around the Apple Watch. While Fitness+ — Apple’s game-changing workout streaming subscription, which we already wrote about — won’t be launching until later this year, Refinery29 was given an early chance to try out both the watchOS 7 software and the Apple Watch Series 6. We’re reviewing some of the most groundbreaking wellness-related features for you, including the Blood Oxygen sensor and app, the sleep tracking, and the hand-washing detection feature.
Blood Oxygen Sensor & App
First up, the release everyone’s talking about: the Blood Oxygen sensor and app. This is only available on the Apple Watch Series 6, not the less-expensive SE. It measures blood oxygen saturation, which according to Apple is an important indicator of overall health. The tech company is being super-clear that this app is not a diagnostic tool. Though they’re not saying it explicitly, we’re clearly meant to read between the lines: This is not a COVID-related release.
But it feels a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge. We all know that at-home pulse oximeters, also used to measure oxygen in blood cells, have been flying off the shelves during the pandemic. There’s been some controversy over how useful they are: Some doctors recommended people get them, because they can help determine whether someone with COVID-19 needs to go to the hospital. In April, however, the American Lung Association put out a statement discouraging people from buying them, saying that they aren’t always accurate and warning that they could provide a false sense of security.
"I agree with Apple's caveat that this device should not be used as a diagnostic tool for COVID-19, at least until it has been studied for that purpose," Paul Pottinger, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, tells Refinery29. (Such a study is underway at UW, he notes.) "Can COVID-19 cause a low oximetry reading? Yes. However, if someone is at home and feels totally fine otherwise, then a low oximetry reading is unlikely they have COVID-19 infection."
Coronavirus aside, if we take Apple at face value, Series 6’s blood oxygen readings are simply meant to join the other measurements Apple provides — including resting heart rate, heart rate variability, ECG, and VO2 max — to provide a complete picture of your overall health. Most people probably don’t need to track it, unless they have asthma or heart disease or are at a high altitude. (The Series 6 also comes with an elevation tracker, so Apple may be subtly encouraging us all to lace up our hiking boots this year.)
Still, they make it really easy to use. You just open the app, press start, and sit still for 15 seconds, ideally with your arm resting against a table. There are four clusters of infrared and red LEDs on the back of the watch. The light shines onto your blood vessels, then back to devices that determine your oxygen levels based on the color of your blood. (Which is pretty cool.)
Your Apple Watch Series 6 will also randomly measure your blood oxygen levels throughout the day to give you a sense of your averages. At this moment, my oxygen saturation is sitting at a healthy 97%, in case you were wondering.
The watchOS 7 introduces sleep tracking, a function that's new to the Apple Watch. That's right — the tech company waited a long time to get into the sleep tracking game.
The big hurdle Apple has to cross with sleep tracking is charging. Though the Apple Watch Series 6 has an additional hour of battery life, it doesn’t hold a charge for a full 24 hours (Apple claims 18), and most users are probably accustomed to wearing it all day and charging it overnight.
The OS tries to solve this by pushing alerts to your phone that warn you when your watch has dipped to a 10% charge; the Series 6 also charges in just 1.5 hours, a big improvement on the Series 5. I've had nights where mine died on me while I was sleeping, but I'm trying to adjust my schedule. Now, I'll charge my watch after dinner, then slip it back on before bed.
Here’s how the tracking works: You input a sleep goal — six hours, nine hours, whatever you want. It doesn’t push you to get the much-touted eight hours, as research has shown every individual needs a different amount of sleep.
Then, the watch lets you enter an ideal bedtime and wake up time for each day. It'll also prompt you to use the “Wind Down” function that'll help you create a pre-bedtime routine (which is excellent ~sleep hygiene~, as they say — a great way to kick off a good night of rest, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine). You can also create “shortcuts” that correspond with your wind down time. You can set a relaxing playlist or go straight to your library app. The way I set mine up, I get a ping an hour before bed, and my screen beckons me to open my Calm app.
Once you're scheduled to be winding down into dreamland, a Do Not Disturb screen descends on your phone and watch. You’ll stop getting push notifications, and you’ll have to take an extra step to wake up your devices. This feature frustrated me, but in a mostly good way. I would glance at my watch to see if I got any texts, only to be met with a dark screen. Yet, I know it's smart to limit distractions when I'm trying to conk out.
Each morning, you’ll be nudged into wakefulness via a soothing alarm sound or some gentle watch vibrations (the latter was more effective at waking me up than I'd suspected it would be).
Your Health app stores your sleep metrics for you to pore over the next day: You'll see sleep duration and when you woke up during the night, as measured by a “accelerometer” on your watch, which tracks micro-movements.
What sets Apple apart from other sleep trackers is that it’s more focused on behavioral change than cold, hard data. It won’t tell you when you were in REM sleep throughout the night, for instance. Seema Khosla, MD, the medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep, thinks that’s great. “I love this idea of taking a step back,” she says. It’s easier to correct for what’s waking you up at night (like environmental noise or bathroom breaks) than it is to try to figure out how to get more REM.
Some sleep experts argue that it’s helpful to know how much time you’re spending in different sleep stages, but Dr. Khosla says that a simpler approach could potentially help people who struggle with orthosomnia, an unhealthy fixation on how much rest you’re getting that can actually disrupt your sleep.
It was enough info for me, anyway. When I started using the sleep tracking feature, I was averaging five hours a night during the week and a whopping 10 on the weekends. But I know I feel my best when I get at least seven hours. After just wearing the watch for two weeks, I noticed I was going to bed a little earlier on weekdays, even when I was tempted to ignore my bedtime reminder in favor of a little extra work (or Netflix). And… I felt a little sharper.
There’s not much to say about this watchOS 7 feature except… It works incredibly well. I don’t even know how it works. I just know that every time I stick my hands under a faucet, the timer starts counting down from 20 seconds, offering a little buzz when my time is up. (Yes, I've tested it by rubbing my hands together when I'm not really washing them. No, my watch wasn't fooled.)
In the Health App on my phone, I can even see the average amount of seconds I spend lathering up. (A potentially humbling metric.) And you can set reminders to wash your hands when you get home. That’s just neat — and in the age of COVID-19, necessary.
Overall Look & Feel
If you’ve worn an Apple Watch before, you know what to expect. (Yes, it’s still square.) Apple has made some modifications — the always-on display is brighter outside to make for easier reading, for one, and the new colors are beautiful — but for the most part, they’re minimal.
They made a big deal about the Solo Loop bands, which are clasp- and buckle-free. I was sure I would hate these bands. Sure, they come in nine sizes, but I still figured it would always be too tight or too loose.
Turns out, I don’t hate them. I tried the rubber one, and while my wrist did get sweaty under it, it fit well and looked fine. I also didn’t miss the clasp, which tended to bump up against my laptop as I typed. Time will tell whether I become a true convert.
If you already have an Apple Watch, download the watchOS 7 update and have fun — the sleep tracking and hand-washing detection are useful, and Apple is promising to debut more health-related features on the platform later this year. The watchOS 7 platform is already being rolled out globally. It requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or later.
If you don’t have a watch or you're ready for an upgrade, you can swing the hefty price tag, and you love to dig deep into health data like ECG or blood oxygen readings, go for the Series 6. When the Series 5 came out, people complained that it wasn't that different from the Series 4. With the Series 6, Apple seems to be trying to level up in a noticeable way. And while they won't come close to saying that the Blood Oxygen sensors could be at all useful during the pandemic, I don't hate having one strapped to my wrist right now. The Apple Watch Series 6 is available for preorder now, and is out on September 18. It starts at $399.
If you want a more basic model, Apple did debut the SE version of its watch this year, which has many of the fitness capabilities, without the bells and whistles, at a lower price point. The new Apple Watch SE starts at $279, but doesn’t include features like the ECG and the Blood Oxygen. The Apple Watch Series 3 is also still available for $199.