I first wrote about my health and fitness journey with the Apple Watch two years ago. The last couple of years have been eventful (to say the least), so an update is in order. I started 2017 on a high note, faced new challenges in my personal life that flipped my world upside down, saw the birth of my son, and moved my family to a new house.

My health and fitness journey and experience with running peaked in the spring, then I broke my healthy routines after a difficult experience over the summer that triggered a crippling depression — not the first episode I’ve experienced but the worst. Similar to physical health, mental health has long been something I’ve found difficult to manage throughout life for a myriad of reasons.

Fortunately, the personal situation settled down around fall, but I felt completely exhausted and needed a break. I’d met my fitness goals every day for a year and felt okay with resetting my Activity Rings streak. The journey back has been a brand new challenge, and it’s also shown me new ways to approach the Apple Watch — as both a coach and monitor for physical health as well as a signal for changes in my own mental health.

Frankly, I felt invincible after working so hard to lose weight (ultimately 70 pounds before deciding 150 pounds was the ideal weight for me). Taking a break from a thoughtful diet and exercise routine for a few weeks would have been fine, but reverting to my old unhealthy lifestyle eventually caught up with me.

My lifestyle reverted overnight, but gaining back weight was a gradual change that took a few months. This was a lesson learned: I am not invincible.

I think the slow decline contributed to me not noticing the effects as quickly or taking it as seriously from the start, but zoom out and I can see the downslide as clearly as my original progress — physical change happens over months from habits created by day-to-day decisions.

I’m not nearly as unhealthy today as I was when my fitness journey first started in 2016 after I originally decided to use the fitness features of the Apple Watch. I’ve still worn the Apple Watch every day in part for non-fitness features like quick access to notifications and information like weather data.

Apple Watch Series 4

These features are an important part of what makes the Apple Watch useful on multiple fronts and eventually click for people I think. That’s also made it possible to ease back in to my healthier routines from time to time throughout 2018.

If 2016 was about a lifestyle change for me and 2017 was about just keeping my feet on the ground, 2018 for me has been a months-long effort at course correction. I’ve started and stopped my previously successful routine of dieting and exercising, using the Apple Watch as a coach, but I’ve only had mixed success until recently.

My goal has been clear: to return to step one of the fitness journey I started two years ago. But this time I want to be as intentional about mental health as I have been about physical health. That’s been the difference now: I’m not starting over because I lost, I’m at the start of a more difficult chapter and I’m more aware of the challenges.

Part of this involves carving out time in an ever-busy schedule to guarantee I close the Activity Rings on my Apple Watch — no matter what. I was fanatical about this before and didn’t always realize. Now I need to be as dedicated but with intention.

Why? This sounds obvious when I say it out loud, but I find that my mind is most clear when I dedicate several minutes a day to just thinking about what challenges I need to face and how to best approach those challenges.

The endorphin rush doesn’t hurt either, and I just feel better. I also sleep better (more on that in a bit) and the physical activity contributes to a healthier heart. My resting heart rate (according to the Apple Watch) has stayed in the 40s and 50s range despite gaining weight back (something I’m proud of), and endurance is something I’ve maintained if only through irregular workouts with Apple Watch.

When my fitness journey first started, I couldn’t run a quarter-mile without stopping to catch my breath — no power song could save me. I gained more weight back than I’d like to admit after my last season with depression, but I also finished three half marathon races and even more 5K and 10K races that I’m very proud of — I finished each half marathon race faster than the previous race.

I haven’t beaten my old 5K and 10K times yet, but I’m really optimistic about finishing a half marathon in under 2 hours if I train regularly and put in the work to lose weight again. I feel like I’m starting from step one again in adopting healthy nutritional routines to lose weight, but I never totally hit the reset button with physical fitness with the Apple Watch as a motivator.

That’s another lesson learned: I can also be unfairly hard on myself and underestimate my effort.

Mental health isn’t as easy to monitor as physical health, and in either category there’s never a single suite of best practices that works for everyone.

For me, sleep tracking is proving to be a useful part of the equation. It’s like this: my responsibilities feel more manageable when I allow myself time to process what I’m up against regularly, and for me that time is necessarily when I’m exercising. It’s harder to be distracted or responsible for something in the moment when your only job right now is to run or use this elliptical or bike for 30 minutes.

With work and two kids, finding that time is challenging, but with work and two kids, finding that time is necessary. Sleep tracking comes into play in a two ways.

First, I find that my own assumptions about how long I slept have about 30% accuracy — not to mention how well I slept. Second, if I don’t sleep well (or if I oversleep), that directly affects showing up to exercise. Being too tired from not resting or even oversleeping for too many days can start an unraveling process: not showing up to exercise, and not having the distraction-free headspace to recuperate the mind.

Lesson learned … through trial and error.

autosleep iphone apple watch

Being more intentional and even strategic about achieving 7 to 8 hours of sleep is important. Even if I only hit those numbers three nights a week, making the effort to improve sleep quality is a step in the right direction.

For me, sleep tracking involves repurposing an older Apple Watch and using the app Auto Sleep as I written about before. I really like this system. My heart is constantly being monitored, and switching watches also automatically puts my iPhone in and out of Do Not Disturb mode. The silent alarm in the morning is the icing on the cake.

For a lot of people, however, charging your Apple Watch at some point in the day and wearing it overnight is just fine. You can even use an app like Auto Sleep (or an under-the-mattress sleep tracker) to collect similar data without an Apple Watch.

Finally, my mental health self-assessment has taught me something that may be the most obvious: maintaining healthy personal relationships is a great defense against valleys of depression.

Spend more time creating and sharing experiences with family. Keep in touch with friends even if it’s just checking in with a text message. And when you’re in person, be present and don’t let yourself get lost in your phone.

The Apple Watch is excellent here, it just requires effort. I still find that bringing my iPhone everywhere feels like the default, but I have to remind myself in plenty of situations that my Apple Watch keeps me connected and I can be more present with my phone away from me for a while. Bad habits are hard to break, but it’s easier if you have a reason or purpose.

In closing, I’ll just say that it frustrates me that my fitness journey even needs an update — but that’s what makes it a journey I suppose: the progression. The Apple Watch was fundamental in helping me reshape my life in 2016. It coached me through a lifestyle change that still affects me positively now.

I just didn’t have a game plan for mental health improvement after feeling like I conquered physical health. I think everyone should though — even if you’ve never experienced depression or never needed to talk to a doctor about managing how you feel — I think it’s just as important as getting in better shape. We should talk about mental health as openly as we talk about physical health too.

For me, I’m finding that the Apple Watch is still a useful partner along this new leg of my journey. My head is most clear when I give myself time to focus my mind, and that time is most available when I’m exercising my body. I’m more likely to show up to exercise if I’m well rested and not oversleeping.

And I’m continuing to strive to invest more time in family and friends through travel when I have the opportunity and regular FaceTime calls when I don’t. And when I’m with the people I love and who love me, the Apple Watch can keep me connected and tell me if the rest of the world needs me right now (even if I have to remind myself of that feature regularly).

The Apple Watch can’t yet detect that your moods have sunk even if you stop closing your rings. Sharing your whole self with friends and family can help though. I’m forever grateful to my own friends and family who helped keep me as steady as possible through emotional turbulence — and to a dream of a boss in Seth, editing 9to5Mac has been the opportunity of a lifetime and he has worked with me like family through very hard days — and I’m better for it.

Going forward, I just want to lose a little weight and run a little faster. That feels a million tons lighter than heavier challenges I’ve faced since the first deep dive entry on my health journey with the Apple Watch.

But it’s an important lesson learned too: mental health is as critical as physical health, if not more. Think of the mind as a muscle, even if the Apple Watch can’t measure its exercise in the same way. For me, I’ve found key areas where the Apple Watch can make a difference in keeping me focused and keeping me connected.

In both areas, it’s simply a tool in a larger toolbox of course, but with a little intentionality, I’ve found the Apple Watch to be a valuable tool used for framing my thoughts and monitoring my overall fitness progress. Closed Activity Rings are good days. Streaks of closed Activity Rings are days that I’ve applied intentionality. And all the time in between workouts feels just a little better spent.

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