How does Apple health calculate distance?

In this guide, we will talk about “How does Apple health calculate distance”, share the results from a recent study, how can you use the cycling distance on the app, if shaking will also add to your step count and some additional things to consider in terms of settings.

How does Apple health calculate distance?

If you wonder, ‘How does Apple Health calculate distance?’, you need to consider that your iPhone is capable of measuring both steps and distance separately. The distance is measured using GPS tracking and the step count uses the accelerometer, so it doesn’t need step length to find the distance. 

As you may know already, the iPhone Health app collects data on activities for health purposes. When you walk, it records the number of steps taken and the distance you have travelled, storing it in a database together with the timestamps with a couple of minutes of difference. However, a study on the iPhone’s step tracker suggested it was pretty accurate but the distance measurement was shown to be less reliable.

As indicated by, “The smartphone’s distance measurement algorithm does not appear to account for the length of an individual’s strides, making it difficult to recommend for health applications”. Moreover, the recent study published in npc Digital Medicine suggests that the iPhone’s step count capabilities are sufficient enough to measure and monitor patients’ activity remotely. However, the device’s walking distance measurement algorithm seems inconsistent.

Results from the study showed…

“… the iPhone’s CoreMotion Pedometer to underestimate users’ steps by a mean of just 7.2 percent (± 13.8 percent), and demonstrated a mean percent difference of 5.7 percent (± 20.5 percent) when compared to an ActiGraph GT9X Activity Monitor. On the other hand, the iPhone pedometer’s algorithm to estimate distance walked overestimated user’s travel by 43 percent (± 42 percent), which the researchers attributed to its inaccurate application of users’ stride length”. But how did they measure it?

The researchers wanted to investigate if the Iphone’s pedometer was reliable enough to measure the blood flow of PAD patients and their ability to walk. A team of researchers at Stanford built a ResearchKit app that uses the iPhone’s pedometer to conduct six-minute walk tests. The sample consisted of 114 participants with PAD and they were asked to perform a monitored walking test while they used the app and carried the ActiGraph monitor. 

As you may know, pedometers have been used by Apple’s devices for a while now and some prior studies have suggested that it and other smartphone’s tools are sometimes more accurate than other fitness trackers. However, the feature in question was used in this study to investigate if it is viable to be used as a screening tool where precision is mandatory, but we know step count has been widely used by the fitness industry for wellness and health-related purposes. If you would like to know more details about the study, click here.

How can I track steps and distance with my iPhone?

The Health app is pre-loaded into your iPhone and you will find it on the home screen so you can start using it right away. The app can help track your steps, floors or steps climbed and your walking/running distance. However, for the app to start tracking your activity, you will need to enable the functions and then add them, to the Health app dashboard. 

“This is all done through the Health app itself, but again, it requires a newer iPhone, as older models do not have a motion-tracking chip used to function as a pedometer, or the ability to detect elevation (”. Newer iPhone models will allow getting the best results and we are talking about anything newer than iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. 

How can I turn my iPhone into a pedometer and distance tracker?

To turn your iPhone into a pedometer and distance tracker, follow these instructions:

  • Open Health app and go to the “Health Data” tab
  • Tap on “Fitness” and enable the three currently functional sections:
  • Select “Walking + Running Distance” and flip the switch for “Show On Dashboard” to the ON position
  • Choose “Steps” and toggle “Show On Dashboard” to ON
  • Go to “Flights Climbed” and flip the same “Show On Dashboard” to ON
  • Tap back to the “Dashboard” tab in Health app to see the three functions and their respective charts

As soon as the pedometer and distance movement tracker is enabled, you just need to start moving to see how the information gets updated. The steps feature is believed to be quite accurate as long as you always have your phone with you, in your pocket, hand or a backpack. However, the mileage walking + running distance tracker is also apparently accurate but the experience of many users under certain circumstances seem to indicate the opposite.

Step count, walking distance and flights climbed

To view the step count, walking distance and flights climbed, open the app and scroll past the first few sections. Next, tap on the ‘Health’ option and open the settings menu. Then, tap on ‘Data Access and Devices’ and find your iPhone under ‘Devices’. If you have other Apple devices, such as an iPod or Apple Watch, or you may have had them in the past, they will appear in this list.

Select your device by tapping on it and you will see all the Health activity data your device has recorded such as Walking, Running distance, flights climbed, steps and Headphone Audio Levels. If you tap on any of the, you will find more about the activity, date, time, source, etc. 

But, How can this recorded data be deleted if you need to? While viewing the data is important for many users, it is also important to remove any data you may not need. For instance, if someone else is using your phone and they are climbing some stairs or going for a walk, your phone will record this data but it wouldn’t end up being valuable to you so you can easily delete it.

Subsequently, go to the ‘All Recorded Data’ section and for any of the activities tap on ‘Edit’ at the top-right corner and then on the red circle next to the data you want to delete tap on it and the data will be removed. 

Why is this blog about How does Apple health calculate distance important?

For many users, knowing how Apple Health calculates the distance. However, remember that your iPhone is capable of measuring both steps and distance separately. The distance is measured using GPS tracking and the step count uses the accelerometer, so it doesn’t need step length to find the distance. But even if it is tracked and recorded, it has been suggested that the distance measurements may not be as accurate as of the step count.

Additionally, you can delete the information you don’t need or don’t see useful in case someone else has been using your phone.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about How does Apple health calculate distance

How does Apple Health App track distance?

The Apple Health app uses the accelerometer from the iPhone to count your steps. The Health app will also use the accelerometer to measure distance travelled, so long as you keep your iPhone with you to get accurate figures. That is, you don’t need to wear a tracker to get the step or distance count.

Is the iPhone health app accurate for distance?

Steps registered by the iPhone Health App agree very closely to those measured manually with an averaged error of about 2%. The reliability of the registered distances, however, depends on several factors, including walking speed and walking style of the subject and can deviate up to 30–40% from the true value.

How does the iPhone track distance walked?

To track distance walked on your iPhone, follow these steps if you have an iPhone 5s or above:
Open the Health app, and tap Health Data.
Tap Fitness. Click to view the larger image.
Tap Walking + Running Distance. …
Tap Show on Dashboard to the On position. …
Tap Dashboard to view your Walking + Running data on the main screen, and then start running or walking.

How do you use the cycling distance on the Health app?

To use the cycling distance on the Health app Tap Health Data in the bottom menu. Go to Fitness and open Active Calories, Cycling Distance, or Running + Walking Distance. Enable the Show on Dashboard option in the detail screen to show this metric on your Dashboard.

Does shaking iPhone count steps?

Shaking your iPhone might make the built-in sensor hardware recognize this movement as walking. Pacer and other movement tracking apps use the sensor to count steps we can’t say for sure it is 100% accurate so it might add some extra steps to the count when it shouldn’t but researchers have suggested it is pretty accurate during step count.