New fitness equipment plugs into the digital revolution

Nothing like running in the privacy of your own home, especially during the winter months  Credit: Courtesy <a href=""></a>
The newest fitness tools allow you to stretch and swing exercise cables to the beat of music in a structured class; tap into the Internet, where a fitness instructor guides you through a pictorial mountain range; and bike a simulated rocky off-road course.

"People are constantly looking for the next hot gadget that will help them get off their butts and move their muscles," says Tracy Morgan, executive director of the Cybex Institute.

Fitness consumers are changing as the population ages, according to Morgan. A decade ago, people spent hours in the gym lifting weights and doing power aerobics. Today, the target market wants functional training that will help them get in and out of chairs, lift groceries and swing a golf club.

But it takes more than a simple machine that contracts and releases muscles to make it into health clubs ? a lucrative $565 million equipment market in the year 2000, according to the trade magazine Club Industry.

Clubs look to new equipment and exercise courses to attract and retain members, says Rick Romeo, director of licensing for Powerhouse Gym International. Powerhouse clubs are independently owned and operated, but Romeo recommends equipment to each franchise.

How do they select equipment? Romeo scans magazines, such as Men's Health, Men's Journal, Self and Popular Science to see what is hot with consumers. He also attends trade shows, such as the Club Industry conference and exposition held every fall in Chicago.

Several trends were evident at the last show. A variety of strength-training machines improve day-to-day muscle fluidity; other machines work the core muscles, such as the abdomen and buttocks; while an update to the treadmill includes a recumbent stair stepper and hiking simulator.

Manufacturers are eager for the equipment to catch on in gyms because it will help determine whether consumers take them home.

Schwinn's research has found that when equipment catches on in gyms, similar equipment will be a hit at home, too, says Tracey Harvey, Schwinn spokeswoman.

And home is where the money is. The home fitness market now exceeds $5 billion annually, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association.

Computers are hot, hot, hot
What's coming next in the world of fitness equipment? Expect a wave of computer-integrated exercise equipment, says Tony Roderick, spokesman for Icon Health & Fitness, a company with $1.5 billion annual sales through its NordicTrack, ProForm, Reebok, Ground Zero and Weider equipment.

NordicTrack integrates personal computers, live fitness trainers, videos and music with workouts on treadmills, ellipticals and recumbent bikes, with price tags from $5,000 to $9,000.

"The younger crowd don't want Plain Jane treadmills, they want a virtual experience of running in the Grand Tetons, bicycling in Hawaii. They want a coach that will keep them on target with their fitness goals," says Roderick. "Gyms that want to stay competitive will have to have the latest equipment, or the crowds will go elsewhere."

Be a smart consumer when you shop for equipment
When shopping for an exercise machine, don't depend on advertisements to provide the information you need.

"You'll see some very appealing advertisements on the Internet and on televised infomercials, but you could find half-truths and major obstacles in these products," warns fitness equipment analyst Charles Kuntzleman, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

Some equipment comes with instructions so difficult to read, buyers assemble it incorrectly. Other equipment is so difficult to use or so cheaply made, it ends up forgotten in a closet because returning it would cost too much.

Kuntzleman recommends the following steps before purchase:

  • Test your options: Go to a fitness specialty store that sells a variety of exercise equipment. Wear workout clothes and test different products, assessing the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, an elliptical machine might be nice, but most models take up a great deal of space.

  • Query the clerks: Ask what works best to tighten the abdomen, strengthen upper body or build cardiovascular strength. Discuss any health challenges you have. If you suffer from bursitis in your hips, for example, a stairstepper might further aggravate the problem.

  • Try it out: Make sure equipment is designed for someone your size. Many pieces of equipment are designed for people 5-feet-8 or taller. The best equipment has accommodating seats and levers for shorter individuals. It's easy to overlook the inability to adjust a machine, when ordering Internet or infomercial machines.

  • Grow with the product: Weightlifting machines with cables, stretchbands or pulleys should have resistance on both the lifting and relaxing motion to build real muscle mass.

  • Evaluate claims: The average person burns 5 to 7 calories a minute during cardiovascular exercise. In a half hour, one would burn 150 to 225 calories. If a manufacturer says the product burns 300 or 400 calories in 10 minutes, it wouldn't serve anyone but fitness fanatics.

  • Try out the same equipment at a gym: You can get a 30-day membership and try out a variety of products several times, making sure this purchase is fun and practical.

  • Watch the bells and whistles: As equipment manufacturers add fancy heart rate monitors, complex workout programs and Internet connections to their products, ask yourself if you need all this additional hardware to meet your exercise goals. A simple machine often has fewer moving parts to break down.

  • Seek a returnable clause: Most fitness specialty stores offer a 30-day return policy. What seems exciting in a short store tryout could be complicated or boring at home. No one needs a $2,000 coat hanger.

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