Diary of an Apple Watch-wearing wheelchair tennis player (retired)

"At first, I was skeptical. Another expensive, overhyped Apple gadget, right?" — Joel Dembe

From an e-mail that came in over the transom and landed on my desktop earlier this week:

Like many others, COVID-19 disrupted my entire fitness regimen. Gyms were closed. Recreational wheelchair sports were off-limits. And for some reason, I wasn’t motivated to use my handcycle or push my chair outdoors as much as I thought.

Essentially, I stopped moving. I lost my edge.

However, once I got my hands (or should I say wrist?) on the Apple Watch and activated “wheelchair mode” everything changed. Here’s my two-week journey:

Day 1: I’m getting hourly reminders to move my wheelchair. “Time to roll!” displays the watch. I go outside. I push my chair for a few minutes. I hear a ‘chime’ sound. It’s a virtual reward for completing a task. Another notification pops-up that I’m 260 active calories from obtaining my daily goal. This is interesting.

Day 3: I arrive home after a 5-minute outdoor push. The watch tells me to wash my hands. That’s a good reminder! But I do it for precisely twenty-seconds until the automatic countdown timer chimes ‘complete’. I get another reward.

Day 6: I open the watch “workout” app and select “outdoor push, running pace.”  I listen to a workout playlist synced from the watch to my AirPods. I wheel around my neighborhood. The watch tells me I’ve burned off 20 calories. I keep going. I push harder. 50 calories, then 75. After 30-minutes, an animated ring ‘closes’ on the watch. I still have to close two more rings to reach my daily activity goal. Now, I’m motivated to get that reward.

Day 8: Another workout. Another reward. A text message pops-up on the watch. I ask Siri (the watch’s virtual assistant) to say the message out-loud. It’s my wife. I respond using only my voice. I haven’t stopped wheeling and yet my message to her is completely accurate. No fumbling around with a phone while pushing anymore. It’s seamless. So I keep going. But now, I feel like the wheelchair-version of Dick Tracy.

Day 9: I’m stressed. Apple Watch already knows this. It notifies me that my resting heart rate is high and tells me to breathe. It begins displaying an animated breathing exercise. I inhale slowly, then exhale as the animation shrinks. A minute later, I feel better. I hear a ‘chime’. A reward for breathing. Then, I use the Blood Oxygen app on the watch for the first time. I’m at ninety-eight per cent. What about the remaining two-percent, I ask myself? My heart races again. I panic. Am I okay? I ask Siri. Siri says I’m fine. I should do that breathing exercise again, I tell myself. I hear a chime. I’m once again rewarded.

Day 11: It’s getting late. The watch vibrates, displaying “time for bed!” I keep the watch on while sleeping. It’s monitoring me throughout the night. It’s now the morning. Instead of a noisy alarm, I receive a gentle ‘tap’ on my wrist, waking me up at 6:30 am. That was pleasant. The watch tells me I slept just under seven hours -  three of which were in a state of deep-sleep. Apple Watch says I need more sleep.

Day 13: My wife and I have finished converting our garage into a gym. My handcycle is now mounted on an indoor trainer. In tandem with the Apple Watch, I’ve created an accessible version of the Peloton. I’m now tracking multiple workouts. I’m synced into the Nike Training Club. I’m now participating in online fitness classes. I’m completing challenges against other Apple Watch users - some of whom also use a wheelchair. I’m beyond motivated.

Day 14: I look at a summary of the data Apple Watch has collected. It’s tracking everything from forced expiratory volume to the total movement distance of my wheelchair. I’m using my phone less. I’m relying on Siri more. Apple has me hooked. I’m obsessed with progress. Obsessed with the daily and stretch rewards. Obsessed with closing those activity rings. Obsessed with competing against my friends.

I want to type much, much more. But then I hear a chime.

“It’s time to roll!”

My take: Good stuff. Thanks for sharing, Joel

UPDATE: Thanks to Handicap Help for reposting.


  1. Gregg Thurman said:
    Good stuff. Of course it works so well because Joel is easily motivated to over achievement. Good for him and Apple Watch.

    October 24, 2020
  2. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    Had to look up Canadian Paralympic athlete & wheelchair tennis champion Joel Dembe. WOW!!

    A great story!
    Keep on rock’n’rolling, Mr. Dembe, what an inspiration!

    October 24, 2020
  3. Fred Stein said:
    Jan 8, 2019, Tim Cook:

    “If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ It will be about health,”

    October 24, 2020
  4. Steven Philips said:
    Oh, Spit!
    I thought it said “forced EXPECTORY volume!
    At least he doesn’t have to contend with the one issue I have with Apple Watch Rings. The STAND ring sucks!
    I can get up, walk from my LR, around the kitchen making a sandwich, eat it, back to LR and sit. 10-15 min. Oops! didn’t DANGLE my arm. Didn’t record a “stand”! And they want me to think they can differentiate “dance”?
    The rest of his comments about getting sucked in to the ring motivations are right on.

    October 24, 2020
    • Bart Yee said:
      @Steven to get stand credit, stand up and walk around for over one minute. It isn’t just standing (still) it’s being upright and active. And yes, your arms should be down while walking.

      My Apple Watch 4 really works for
      my cycling exercise via Cyclemeter App, tracking heart rate, calories burned, speed, elevation, incline, splits, mapping and comparing with previous trips on same route. Great way to close all 3 rings within 2-3 hours of 25-50 miles of riding.

      October 25, 2020
    • Jerry Doyle said:
      @Steven Philips: Bart Y is correct on the “Stand Ring.” Sitting for prolong periods is the “new smoking.” Whether one works at a computer desk, is a long haul airline pilot (or transcontinental passenger) or a ride-sharing driver working for Uber or Lyft, the idea of Stand is to get the blood flowing.

      A suggestion for you to consider is to “walk-in-place,” a low impact activity picking up your feet and swinging your arms. Another suggestion is to do one minute of lunges, or deep knee bends bringing your arms up and out as you drop your waist toward the floor while simultaneously bringing your arms down as your rise. This way you actually are getting a mild form of physical exercise for one minute meeting your stand goal and causing the blood to flow.

      The concept behind Stand is to increase blood flow for one minute.

      October 25, 2020
  5. Gregg Thurman said:
    Is it me, or do major Apple product enhancements come in cycles, as though their release is choreographed on a long term road map?

    If that is true then the emphasis for FY 2022 will be A Series Macs and the implementation of AR for Apple TV+ viewing on Apple TV, Macs, iPhones and iPads (major hardware upgrade cycle) followed in FY2023 with something I can’t imagine health related. Or vice versa.

    Within 10 years most all major motion picture studios (in democratically governed countries) will owe a significant part of their success to Apple.

    In the same time frame hospital systems will lose their grip on the patient, with the patient taking their medical records anywhere for secondary diagnosis, AND COMPETING COST ESTIMATES. Insurance companies and governments will grease the rails for this to happen.

    October 24, 2020
  6. Steven Philips said:
    Jerry and Bart: you miss the point. I DO stand. REGULARLY. But UNLESS you dangle your arm uselessly at your side it doesn’t get counted. I stand and walk around. Get dog food for my raccoons (!) go to the fridge, make meals etc. If it don’t dangle it don’t count. How can you MOVE a hundred paces but not stand? Does their algorithm think I’m racing office chairs? It’s just a bad algorithm that needs to be fixed.

    October 25, 2020
    • Jerry Doyle said:
      @Steven Philips: I believe that I understand what you are saying. I experience the issue periodically myself and you also will notice it at times in the hand washing feature. I believe the Watch’s movement algorithm is based on the level of “intensity” detected in the swing (or movement) of your wrist on which the Watch is strapped. I can move to a point, do something as you describe, move around a little and not get credit. In these situations I believe it was because of the lack of movement intensity in my wrist on which the Watch is strapped. The more you swing your wrist with intensity, then the more likely you receive credit. I notice the same in hand washing. If I wash my hands vigorously, I definitely get credit 100 percent of the time. If I go about the procedure nonchalantly, where I am not truly focusing on hand washing but doing it with indifference while thinking about other matters, I notice I sometimes do not get credit for hand washing.

      Try swinging your arms more forward and backward, moving your wrist as you go about your tasks. The Watch’s algorithm is geared more to the level of movement intensity for detection. I believe your complaint has “merit.” The Apple Watch Engineers are expecting a higher level of movement intensity, then what we often do, perfunctorily.

      October 25, 2020

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