Apple Watch made me feel like Superman for a week.

Apple Watch made me feel like Superman for a week.

Goodbye Fitness Rings: The Saga of My Super Zero Apple Watch

Some are born great, some strive for greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – or in my case, one day my Apple Watch decided I was a fitness god. By noon, I’d surpassed all my fitness goals with thousands of move points, hundreds of workout minutes, and a dozen hours of standing – all without getting up from my desk.

Obviously, something was very wrong with my Apple Watch Series 5, which I’d had since shortly after its release in September 2019. But after nearly four years of working hard to meet my modest fitness goals (especially challenging during the pandemic), it was intoxicating to see those rings get filled without effort.

In practice, I’d start an outdoor run and discover my watch said I’d run tenths of a mile before I took my first step, then finish what I knew to be a two-mile run with nearly another mile tacked on. Combined with way too high a movement score and somehow reaching 18 hours of standing by sunset, all this unearned extra credit wasn’t clueing me in on my actual health.

This was too good to be true – or too good to be false, really – and things completely changed when I decided to download the public beta for iOS 17 on my iPhone (to get a head start on the update coming alongside the iPhone 15 launch on Sept. 12). My hopes that the fitness overcounting would get magically corrected were dashed: Instead, shortly after the update, my Apple Watch stopped tracking my fitness entirely.

It was time for some detective work.

Fixing my Super Zero Watch… or trying to

First things first: I searched online for people who had similar problems on Apple support forums and found an official suggestion to fix the problem. The first step was to recalibrate my watch’s fitness tracking by walking or running for 20 minutes, and if that didn’t do the trick, resetting the watch’s personal calibration data. Neither worked.

I wondered if the watch was simply not meshing well with the iOS 17 update, so I upgraded to the WatchOS 10 beta too. That didn’t fix the issue – and as I learned, you can’t easily return to older versions of WatchOS. You also can’t use WatchOS 9 with an iPhone that had been rolled back to iOS 16.

My personal diagnosis options exhausted, I went to the source: Apple itself.

Give it to me straight, Doc: Is my watch doomed?

I fully intended to go into an Apple Store and visit the local experts at the Genius Bar, but Apple’s online support suggestion tree kept routing me to call its toll-free service advice number first. OK, I’m game.

I plugged in my request, and within two minutes, Apple support called me. I told my tragic tale, and the support representative did something unexpected: diagnosed my Apple Watch remotely. As in, I went into the settings and allowed him to run a remote diagnostic. Within a minute, he told me exactly what was wrong with my watch.

First, the battery was far below healthy capacity. I went and checked myself (on the watch: Settings > Health > Battery Health) to find that it was down to 75% and there was a warning on the device to get my battery replaced. Turns out that Apple recommends you replace your battery when it dips below 80% capacity.

What if you don’t replace a low-capacity battery? You could suffer what happened to me: My Apple support person told me that the accelerometer and gyroscope on my watch were damaged, according to that Apple Watch diagnostic. No wonder my smartwatch was taking me from hero to zero on tracked fitness activity. The support person theorized that “battery expansion” had occurred. As my battery degraded, it swelled in size within the watch’s metal case and damaged other sensors.

Unfortunately, the damaged sensors mean I can no longer send my Apple Watch in to replace the battery, which is relatively affordable at around $80. Instead, the whole internal assembly would have to be replaced, and for my larger 44mm Apple Watch Series 5, that would cost around $390 with taxes and fees. With the just-launched Apple Watch Series 9 starting at $429 for a similarly sized 45mm model (without cellular connectivity), it would be silly to pay nearly the same amount to get my old watch fixed.

As far as I know, my Apple Watch will never be able to track a workout or fill a fitness ring again.

Living with a ‘fitnessless’ Apple Watch so you don’t have to

It’s not the end of the world. My Apple Watch still sends me notifications, can act as a remote shutter, and does other neat tricks. I can still make searches and give voice commands to Siri, get turn-by-turn directions when I travel, and get woken up with gentle vibrations when my alarm goes off. But my fitness calendar has turned into a graveyard.

Don’t be like me and let your wearable battery degrade! Unlike iPhones, which notify you when your battery capacity is low, Apple Watch batteries will silently diminish until they reach a danger zone. Apple recommends changing your smartwatch’s battery when its capacity falls below 80% (check by going to Settings > Battery > Battery Health). This should happen two to three years after buying your Apple Watch, the support person told me – heavier usage will burn through it faster.

For the record, I got my Apple Watch Series 5 toward the end of 2019, and daily workouts over nearly four years eventually took their toll. I may have noticed something wonky going on with my watch a few weeks ago, but by then the damage had been done. If I’d swapped the battery out maybe six months ago at around 3.5 years of life, the Apple support person told me, my Apple Watch likely would have been fine – and gone on to serve another 3.5 years on my wrist, perhaps.

Given the exorbitant cost to refit my Apple Watch Series 5, the Apple support person recommended simply getting a new one – and with all the cool features that have come in Apple Watches since (like the Double Tap gesture in the new Series 9), there’s a lot to look forward to whenever I pony up for a new watch. Now that I’ve had a brief ego-inflating moment as a workout superman, it’ll soon be time to come back down to earth and see how I’m actually doing on my fitness goals.