By Stephen Pate – Apple watchOS 3 will have special routines and features to encourage people who use wheelchairs to stay fit.

At WWDC 2016 in June Apple demonstrated the new features that will make the Apple Watch more useful to wheelchair users.

Instead of steps, the Apple Watch will track “rolls” for people in wheelchairs. Yeah!

The new Watch routines will track exercise levels while in a wheelchair. The September 2016 free update to the watchOS 3 will also add a suggestion to “wheel” when you’ve been stationary for too long.

Check out the brief demonstration from Apple WWDC 2016. The video starts automatically at 21:40 and ends about 23:39. For the hearing impaired, click on CC for captions except where some browsers do not support captions.

WatchOS 3 will track distance, calories and speed. Hopefully it also reads the wheelchair user’s heart rate more accurately, something that has defied everyone making fitness devices.

Apart from the general irritation of dealing with a fitness device for runners etc., Apple realized that the bio-mechanics of wheelchair exercise is not the same as running or lifting weights.

3 different wheelchair techniques Apple Watch OS3 update (screen shot from Apple video)

3 different wheelchair techniques Apple Watch OS3 update (screen shot from Apple video)

Apple used two organizations with expertise in wheelchair physical fitness to develop new wheelchair specific routines.  Apple partnered with the Lakeshore Foundation (Birmingham, Alabama), and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (San Diego, California).

300 wheelchair users took part in more than 3,000 hours of activity research for the project from Lakeshore Foundation (Birmingham, Alabama), and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (San Diego, California) (screen shot from Apple WWDC 2016 video)

“300 wheelchair users took part in more than 3,000 hours of activity research for the project from Lakeshore Foundation (Birmingham, Alabama), and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (San Diego, California)”  New Mobility Magazine (screen shot from Apple WWDC 2016 video)

Along with new wheelchair user routines, the Optimize rings are specific to wheelchair pushes and activities.

Like many wheelchair users, I’ve learned to ignore the results from my fitness device since they are not accurate. If Apple designs the wheelchair routines and features correctly it will be a huge improvement for wheelchair users.

I use a Microsoft Band 2 for my exercise routines. It was $199 and more accurate that FitBit HR. It suggests I stand-up from time to time which is dumb at best. It also exaggerates my heart rate and calorie burn when I am exercising in a wheelchair.

Time to roll suggestion for wheelchair users on Apple Watch 3.0 (screen shot from Apple video)

Time to roll suggestion for wheelchair users on Apple Watch 3.0 (screen shot from Apple video)

Exercise is a vital part of living with wheelchairs.  We need to push (pun) ourselves to stay active and not become sedentary.

Not everyone exercises to become a star athlete. That sort of exercise is often wrong for people in wheelchairs. Excessive or extreme wheelchair exercise can result in permanent damage to your shoulders.

Wheelchair users often experience pain in the arms, shoulder and back. Sometimes the damage is permanent and requires rotator cuff operations that are only partially successful.

“Around 75% of individuals with SCI have shoulder pain at some time during their lives,” reports the University of Washington. “and the rate increases with the number of years since spinal cord injury. Shoulder pain can be very debilitating, decreasing a person’s independence and lowering quality of life.”

The key to a long and successful life in a wheelchair is balance balance and moderation. Not exercising is a deadly lifestyle but too much can result in pain and suffering.

Routines that accurately report on effort, heart rate and calories will help people who use wheelchairs to develop personalized workouts, maintaining and possibly improving their health.

Personally, I am very excited that Apple has seen the need and developed features for us.  Along with the new emergency 911 feature and Apple Health app integration, it looks like we will have new tools to help us stay healthy.

The only downside to this announcement is that you need an Apple Watch, which can cost $400 or more and an iPhone.  There are rumors that the next version of the Apple Watch will not require the connection to an iPhone.  Two things – don’t count on it and a watch with 4G capability will require its own telecom data plan at some additional monthly cost.

For more on the watchOS 3 update, check out this preview from Apple.

For more detail on how Apple designed these changes for people in wheelchairs, read How Apple Made The Watch Work For Wheelchairs Users.