Jay Blahnik wants to help you feel fit and healthy. That’s probably not surprising, given that he’s Apple’s vice president of wellness technologies. But what might be a little more unexpected is that he doesn’t really care how you do it.
It doesn’t matter if you work out in classes or on your own: if you want to join people virtually then you can use Apple’s Fitness+, but if not then you can still track your exercise on your Apple Watch. It doesn’t matter if you work out at home or at the gym: the Fitness+ streaming service includes classes designed to be done in both. It doesn’t even matter if you’re ready to work out on another fitness service. He just wants to work you out.
That spirit of positivity and inclusiveness probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen Blahnik at work, including at Apple events, where he appeared on stage to introduce new fitness technologies. It also won’t be new to anyone who’s used Fitness+, the streaming service that Blahnik helped build, and which was built from the ground up to be as welcoming as possible.
“The launch of Fitness+, three or more years ago, was completely rooted in one simple idea. That North Star was: can we provide the most welcoming and comprehensive fitness service in the world? Everything we do is based on that idea,” he says The Independent.
In addition to Fitness+, Blahnik’s team also takes care of the Activity app on the iPhone and the fitness app on the Apple Watch, as well as other fitness technologies built into those two products. One of the guiding principles for building those is to “build great features that meet people where they are, and then encourage them to build healthy habits”. It’s about “really making sure that everything we do is welcomed and inspired”, he says; “In the area of health and fitness, it can be really intimidating for people.
That starts with pushing people to be a little more active than they are now: the “move” target in the Apple Watch measures everything, even a brisk walk, so it can encourage people to move around a little more . A few years ago, Apple launched the Watch Ultra, for the complete opposite end of the spectrum: it is built for “ocean explorers and people who want to push the limits even further”, and it came with the biggest redesign of the Workout . app since its launch, in part to highlight those pressure-limited exercises.
That spectrum may not be as clear as it seems. We associate the idea of the beginner with someone who might want to be active, but also those who want to take up something else: runners who want to take up yoga, for example, or fans hardcore spin who want to take care of them. their mental well-being through mindfulness, too.
There is, of course, a danger of being too broad; you run the risk of offering something to everyone but everything to no one. Fitness+ is now huge – the world’s largest library of ultra-high-definition health and fitness content, says Blahnik – meaning you can easily be spoiled for choice. How does Apple ensure that the service remains integrated and coherent even with so many options?
“We’ve always said that it has to be very easy to get where you need to go.” He points for example to the filtering system, which allows people to quickly reduce the number of options: you can choose duration, speed, instructor and much more to quickly get rid of anything you don’t want. “If you know a little bit about what you’re looking for, it’s actually easier to narrow down the library with the filter.”
“But if you’re new, we’re always working with the editors in the service to make sure the most interesting things appear on the right shelves for you,” he says. “Give more of what you do; give you a chance to try something new that balances out what you’ve already done.” Apple seeks to highlight topical moments that can be particularly interesting: it focuses on the recent walk by Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, launched for Black History Month, and Apple is rolling out some new videos with Joe Wicks too.
“We’re always adding the human touch and the digital touch,” he says. And you’ll still see that it’s a big theme for us to make sure that it stays personalized as it grows even more, so that it’s very easy to open it and you feel like you’re seeing yourself in the service and that you can get what you want.”
Fitness+ was launched in December 2020, at a time when people were working and working from home. It seemed like perfect timing, but it was more luck than choice: “it takes more than 10 months or so to build something like that – we’ve been working on it for years long”, says Blahnik. Apple wanted to make sure Fitness+ wasn’t just for home workouts – it was useful anywhere, anytime.
“We really wanted to push beyond just home fitness. We felt strongly that the service should complement what you do in the gym or when you are on your trip. We always had all those things in mind.” A third of the exercises use equipment that most people don’t have at home, for example – treadmills, rowing machines, bicycles.
That also meant that, as the world emerged from the pandemic, the service was ready to “complete you where you are”, says Blahnik. “If you’re a beginner, you might be too intimidated to go to the gym, so you might be doing the whole experience at home. But often you get a step there and suddenly you’re feeling stronger and fitter. And you might decide to join the gym – and we want to join you on that journey.”
What if you want to go further on that journey? What if you’ve, say, started with Fitness+ but find you need something a little more structured, like the graphs and numbers of the more direct cycling apps? Blahnik is not going to hold you back.
“We obviously continue to push our features in both the watch and Fitness+,” he says. “But if someone is ready to graduate to something that inspires them more – we’re really glad we got to be there on the journey.”
It highlights the wide range of fitness and mindfulness experiences available in the App Store, for example. And he notes that Apple just announced it’s working with Joe Wicks to film some new content for Fitness+, but he continues to run his own app and appear on YouTube.
“I think for us, we want people to see that there are hardware, software and services that can help them be healthy,” he says. “And we certainly build experiences that we think could really add to that for people. But we’re not really hyper-focused on whether or not they’d choose something else – we feel that’s great, because it raises the tide for everyone.
If people graduate to other services, then “we all benefit”, he says. “So from that point of view we don’t spend a lot of time on it. Even Fitness+, we are very welcoming, but we may not be for everyone. Maybe there is someone who really enjoys another experience they use. So we work hard to make sure our hardware is compatible,” he says, pointing out that Apple’s GymKit platform means Apple Watches can tap into fitness equipment and exchange data.
“Early on, we were focused on saying: we’re going to develop these activity experiences, these fitness experiences and these awareness experiences. We didn’t know early on that we were going to serve. But then when we added that, we’ve always said: let’s just make the Watch feel like a device where you can get credit for everything you do, no matter where you do it.
“We know we can’t be everything to everyone, but we will try very hard to invite as many people as we can. And if there’s something else you’d prefer, we just want to be there to make sure it gets better.”
Recently, Apple has focused on mental as well as physical well-being. This included mental health features such as the Journal app and the option to track one’s mood. But it also meant bringing similar options to Fitness+, including guided meditations in various forms.
But every so often people will be using at least some of those mindful moments to take a break from their devices. Is there a danger that we are trying to escape from stress using the same tools that brought it to us in the first place?
Blahnik points to features like Screen Time, which makes it easy to track how much you’re using a device, as well as offering ways to try to improve habits. Others may be less obvious: the Apple Watch provides an hourly alert if its owner hasn’t stood up, for example, which can provide a useful opportunity to take a mental and physical break.
We are speaking just before the launch of the Vision Pro, Apple’s new headset; technology so personal it’s literally attached to your face. Is it fitness technology too?
Blahnik begins to express his appreciation of the product: it is “unbelievable”, he says, and contains “the most innovative technology we have ever put into a hardware product”. But his team also worked specifically on the mindfulness app built into the hardware.
That was part of the demonstrations that Apple showed to the press last year. In it, sweeping petals of the kind familiar from the Apple Watch’s Mindfulness app take over the screen, and users can go through meditation under the guidance of Fitness+ trainers Jessica and Christian. (When Good Morning America presenter Robin Roberts tried this last summer, she seemed visibly moved: “I’m a meditator, and I found something new in that moment,” said she.)
“What I love about it being so immersive – spatial computing at its best – is that a lot of people are taking the challenging part of thinking and being mindful just for a moment without being distracted. And what you’ll see in the experience is the way it’s put together, it gives you something to focus on.”
Is that where Vision Pro’s fitness uses end? It’s easy to imagine working out in virtual spaces, for example, although that can be a bit difficult given the headset’s height.
“I think what I would say is that we’re very excited to see what’s to come. Because we think there’s a lot of opportunity for great health and maybe even wellness experiences. And we’ll always do what we think makes sense for the products we’re designing.”