By Stephen Pate –  Wheelchair users can improve their physical fitness using the Apple Watch.

There are 2.2 million Americans and 250,000 Canadians who use wheelchairs for mobility. We tend to be less fit than the regular population since we can’t run or walk for exercise.  Apple recognized this need and designed features to motivate and track fitness activity for people who use wheelchairs.

The Apple Watch wheelchair fitness has three major sections: 1. setup with the iPhone, 2.  Tracking daily Activity and 3. Tracking Fitness Workouts. I will cover all three.

Last year the Apple Watch OS 3 introduced features for people who use wheelchairs.  See Apple Watch Will Have Routines For Wheelchair Fitness

“We’ve optimized the Activity app for wheelchair users,” says Apple “taking into account different pushing techniques for varying speeds and terrain. There are also two wheelchair-specific workouts and a new Time to Roll notification.” Apple Watch Accessibility

Other than Apple’s write-up and a few articles, I couldn’t find any first-person experiences, reviews or comments on whether these features worked or not. With a healthy dose of skepticism, I waited a year for the 2nd iteration of the wheelchair features and bought an Apple Watch 3. Here’s what I discovered.

The Apple Watch is a cool and awesome solution for people who use manual wheelchairs and want to increase their physical fitness, with a few changes needed to complete the picture. The addition of LTE cellphone calling on the Series 3 Apple Watch makes this year’s watch a huge improvement over Series 2.

Apple Watch and iPhone integration

The Apple Watch is part of an integrated system and requires an iPhone for use. Watch setup is mainly on your iPhone. The Watch uses the phone for music, data storage, contacts, messaging, phone calls, and integration with the Apple Health App. The Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE can handle phone calls and messaging without your iPhone nearby but you still need and iPhone for most functions.

Tracking your Activities and Workout however do not need the iPhone nearby if your Apple Watch has GPS (Series 2 and 3). So you can leave the iPhone at home for workouts. However, wheelchair users are used to things going wrong. I never leave home without my phone for emergencies.  I did not get cell service set up yet for the Watch  but I’m looking forward to it.

The Apple Watch tracks your heart rate including current, “resting, walking, breathe, workout, and recovery rates.”  The Apple Watch does not track your blood pressure; however, you can accurately track blood pressure with Consumers Reports highly rated and iPhone integrated blood pressure devices like the Omron 10 Series BP786N 

Apple iPhone companion app for the Apple Watch

Apple iPhone companion app for the Apple Watch

The Omron BP786N connects by Bluetooth to the iPhone (and Android) and you can link that automatically to the Health App to give you a good snapshot of your heart health.

Integration between the Watch and iPhone make the Apple Watch a slick combination.

I’m not going to discuss general features of the Apple Watch which are covered in many other places.

Apple Watch Wheelchair Setup

Apple Watch App setup for wheelchair users, from Apple iPhone iOS11 (illustration NJN Network)

Apple Watch App setup for wheelchair users, from Apple iPhone iOS11 (illustration NJN Network)

Setting up Wheelchair use on the Apple Watch is easily done on your iPhone with the Watch App (above) at Health…Wheelchair. 

Set to Yes which converts steps to pushes.

From now on, the Watch encourages you to roll in your wheelchair versus stand, walk or run.

This is the first smartwatch or fitness wearable that understands the difference between walking/running and pushing in a wheelchair. For a wheelchair user, that’s amazing and awesome.

Apple did extensive research to understand the difference between running, walking and wheelchair pushing.  For more details on how Apple designed these features see How Apple Made The Watch Work For Wheelchair Users from Co.Design.

Other Setup – Help Apple Improve Wheelchair Mode

Help Apple improve the Apple Watch Wheelchair mode with automatic analytics

Help Apple improve the Apple Watch Wheelchair mode with automatic analytics

The Apple Watch Wheelchair mode is a fantastic feature for wheelchair users but it needs improvement.  As the Co.Design article said “Apple collected more than 3,500 hours of data from more than 700 wheelchair users across all walks of life” to design the first version.”

I found a few things in a week that could be better. You will perhaps observe different flaws from me. Apple gives all wheelie’s a chance to automatically improve it by turning on an obscure setting in Settings at PrivacyAnalyticsShare iPhone and Watch AnalyticsImprove Wheelchair Mode.

The data you send is anonymized if that worries you. I know some people are spooked by sending Apple or any developer their personal use data. Then we go on Twitter and Facebook and say all kinds of stuff.

Jokes aside, it’s important we share this data to make the Apple Watch work even better. Imagine if wheelchair manufacturers wanted to know how we use their chair and what they need to improve. Read the link at About Improve Wheelchair Mode and Privacy to learn how Apple uses the wheelchair activity and workout data.

Next – using the Activity App to track your physical fitness.

PS – I’ve been using manual and power wheelchairs since 2001 and now have a TiLite TR and a Panthera X wheelchairs.

Apple Watch is available from and other resellers.