Welcome to the future, in which you can zap calories using electronics-laden cardio equipment that sends boredom to the locker room. A new generation of machines--from treadmills and elliptical trainers to stationary bikes and stair steppers--is taking exercise to higher levels while offering entertainment options such as iPod ports, games and built-in TVs.
"Interaction is everything," says Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. "It's where the future of industry is headed. People like to be entertained, they like a little enlightenment and they want exercise."
Your own personal trainer
The NordicTrack Viewpoint 3000 treadmill exemplifies this trend. The machine has an MP3 player port and a flat-screen TV built into its console. While the user churns along, the console also displays the time, distance and calories burned.
The machine is outfitted with Ifit technology, which enters a user's workout by reading data on a small plastic card. Ifit's "personal trainer" coaches throughout the workout, giving tips on such things as breathing and posture while offering encouragement. The program offers 24 workouts, all based on an eight-week program that builds toward the exerciser's goal.
Cardio technology has come a long way since the first electric treadmills appeared in health clubs decades ago. The pace picked up as electronics made possible programmable controls, a selection of workouts and ramps that inclined at the push of a button. Innovations quickly jumped to other cardio machines.
Nautilus club equipment, for instance, offers things such as programmed workouts, fitness tests, LCD displays and heart-rate monitoring with a belt or via the machine's grips, says Dale Griffin, sales manager of Precision Fitness Equipment in Altamonte Springs.
It's all about the gadgets
"People want all the bells and whistles," says Tony Tamules, fitness manager at the RDV Sportsplex in Maitland, who notes that his upscale club's new Technogym treadmills, which have built-in televisions, are tremendously popular with members. "The ones with the TVs are the ones that are used the most when we look at the usage report."
Among the most recent innovative products for club and home are:
ProForm's 20.0 CrossTrainer elliptical machine, which integrates fitness and two games, which are controlled by buttons built into the trainer's handles. The more quickly a user pedals while playing "Fat Blocker," the slower blocks "fall" on the console screen and the easier the game becomes. Pedal faster while playing "Calorie Destroyer" and a man on the screen runs faster, which allows him to better avoid bullets coming at him.
Horizon Fitness' WT950 Wireless Pedometer treadmill, which lets you count your steps during the day, then transmit them to the machine for workout credit.
The Nautilus TreadClimber, a hybrid stair stepper/elliptical machine that gives users a running workout from a walk, which saves wear and tear on the back, feet, ankles, hips and knees. It can convert to either an elliptical trainer or a treadmill.
HealthRider's 8.5 EX CrossTrainer elliptical, which has a multi-layer monitor that allows users to watch TV while tracking workout information.
Newfangled equipment does come at a cost. A club-quality TreadClimber, for instance, is $7,000 at Precision Fitness Equipment. A home-use HealthRider elliptical is $899 at healthrider.com.
Helpful or harmful?
Equipment manufacturers say games, programs and other diversions keep users motivated and engaged. They also allow users to multi-task, says Tamules -- whether it's catching up on world events via TV or listening to a radio sportscast. "You kill two birds with one stone. Days are getting busier. The more people can multi-task, the more they can get things done."
During a recent afternoon at the downtown Orlando YMCA, almost every piece of cardio equipment was in use by an exerciser wearing headphones who was watching TV or listening to music. As she walked, Lee Middle School teacher Diane Fisher was watching a sitcom on a flat-screen TV bolted to the treadmill she used. "It occupies my time," she says. "It makes it pass more quickly."
Such features may get you through a workout, "but it's very distracting," Tamules says. "They're not really paying attention to things they need to be," such as keeping an optimum pace or paying attention to feedback from their bodies.
"It also can be a little dangerous," he says, adding that exercisers have been known to stumble or fall off machines when distracted. Such incidents might be caused by what psychologists call "dissociation effect." That occurs when the mind is split in at least two directions, says Dr. Alan Keck, of the Center for Positive Psychology in Altamonte Springs. It's like daydreaming while driving. "It's pretty profound," he says. "We're trusting our subconscious mind to drive the car while we do something else.
"To the average person, it's not a big deal." But for those looking to maintain a certain speed or calorie output, "then it might distract them from their performance," Keck says.
You can't replace the personal touch
To some, high-tech machines matter little. Though new YMCA members are versed by staff on using each machine's programs, many prefer to simply press the "quick start" button, says Kelly Greeno, executive director of the Avalon Park YMCA, set to open soon in East Orange County. "It's push, touch and go."
Though the Y is committed to offering members the latest technology, it prefers to urge members to join exercise classes, which builds accountability along with relationships with other members and trainers, she says.
It's that human touch that makes the difference. "You can have as many bells and whistles and pretty things as you want, but it's always going to be a machine."
Lisa Roberts can be reached at 407-420-5598 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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