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Apple Watch 3 (newly purchased) and iPhone XR

I rarely enable Location Services on my phone. When I go for an ‘Outdoor Walk’ the ‘Activity’ app tells me my step count and the distance covered. If Location Services are turned off how does it determine distance covered?

It seems to be using a step length of 83cm, which sounds about right, but I’ve no idea where it gets that from.

Any ideas?

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The Apple Watch Series 3 and later comes with a built-in GPS chip. It uses a combination of GPS readings and arm movement which can be detected with the help of built-in accelerometer and give you an estimate of number of steps and distance walked.

Allowing the movement of the arm on which you are wearing the watch can lead the watch to give more accurate readings.

Apple also recommends you calibrate the watch to obtain better readings. Refer to this Apple Support document, Calibrating your Apple Watch for improved Workout and Activity accuracy to learn more.

A related discussion on Apple Community Forum post, How does apple watch count steps?, sheds some more light on what calibration does to improve the readings:

Calibrating your watch can improve the accuracy of estimations made by Activity app and Workout app. Calibration teaches your Apple Watch how your arm movements relate to your stride lengths at different speeds when you are walking and/or running. It does this - during outdoor walks and/or outdoor runs recorded via the Workout app - by comparing data from the accelerometer with GPS (Location Services) data.

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The accelerometer in the watch is enough to get from an iPhone via Bluetooth calibration to your watch to baseline your step length. From there it can get very good results for both run and walk gaits by detecting the bumps and steps as you walk, even with location services disabled on the watch.

This how any inertial navigation system works and due to miniaturization and computational advances, this all fits in your watch.

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