Exergaming comes of age: Companies, consumers ready to jump on the bandwagon

So why can't fitness be fun? That's the question of the century. Enter exergaming: Not a new concept, certainly, but one that is gathering steam and development. And perhaps has reached that tipping point where it will gain followers.
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So why can't fitness be fun? That's the question of the century.

Because although everybody uses the excuse that they don't have enough time to be more active, one recent study showed that folks would rather sleep than workout if they were magically granted another hour in the day.

It seems "lack of time" may be one big ruse. Lack of fun (and sleeping can be a lot of fun, don't you think?) could very well be the missing link to not only get people on the workout bandwagon, but to also keep them there.

Enter exergaming: Not a new concept, certainly, but one that is gathering steam and development. And perhaps has reached that tipping point where it will gain followers. The Tectrix VR-Bike (remember that?) offered a fascinating, fun workout that zipped by because users were involved in the video game on the screen (i.e., having fun) and weren't even thinking about the calories they were burning. But, alas, the VR-Bike was far ahead of its time. (See recent SNEWS® stories on exergame concepts at the Club Industry show, Oct. 21, 2004, and at the Health & Fitness Business show, Sept. 1, 2004.)

But the trend of layering exercise onto gaming devices -- or, vice versa, adding games to exercise equipment -- is again picking up steam as witnessed by a stand-alone "Play Zone" dedicated to exergaming at someplace other than a fitness show -- at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. That alone signifies an appeal to mainstream markets, not just exercise nuts. (We don't imagine that the Consumer Electronics Show is packed with fit, active people.) The Play Zone was filled with exergames our industry knows and some it doesn't: Powergrid (by Kilowatt), Konami, and The Electronic Spin Gold Launchpad that simulates playing golf on a PGA course so you can make believe you're a Tiger reincarnate.

Interactivity is inevitable
This week's IHRSA trade show in San Francisco will see a few exhibitors also showing off new exergame equipment (Expresso Fitness) and other exhibitors trying to round up more interest in ones we know but perhaps haven't paid enough attention to (Trazer, licensed by Cybex, and Makoto). Other companies are developing more that they tell us they will show at the Health & Fitness Business show in August…and beyond.

"Interactivity is inevitable in the industry," said Sandra Ballinghoff, head of sales and marketing for Expresso Fitness, which will debut its video-interactive bike at the IHRSA show. "Fitness is following a cultural shift. Look at how people are inclined to live their lives."

Companies that designed their product for the home (Cat Eye Fitness, among others) are branching out into the commercial market as they find that health clubs are jumping on the bandwagon to introduce this new form of fitness. And ones designed for the commercial market are looking to the home market (Makoto, for example). Makes perfect sense. These products combine games and entertainment with fitness with the goal of inspiring youth and sedentary people to exercise, all of which could help the so-called obesity epidemic in the United States.

Marian Shaw, co-founder of Makoto (www.makoto.com), has seen an increase in interest in the company's product in several markets, including schools, special needs and physical therapy facilities. Makoto is a three-sided arena with columns on each corner with lights that illuminate randomly so a user equipped with a baton must constantly move around to hit the lit one as quickly as possible to "win." You think that sounds easy? It's a workout! Fun? You betcha. Co-founder Dave Shaw recently told SNEWS® as he watched a young player in the arena at The Super Show that the company invariably attracts several users at a show that get addicted and just keep coming back. Now, would somebody do that if it were just a workout? Marian added that the product combines speed, sound, sight and agility, so it is a true mind/body workout.

"The fun aspect is what makes it successful," said Shaw. "Brain fitness is the next evolution of fitness. Baby boomers are concerned not just with maintaining their physical health; they are concerned with staying mentally sharp as well."  

Interactivity is addictive
Powergrid, which makes the Kilowatt (www.powergridfitness.com), sells direct to the consumer, but it has plans to branch into health clubs soon. The device, which debuted at The Super Show in January 2004, looks a bit like a bike but instead of a seat there's a pole you sort of lean back on. You control the video game on the screen (any Nintendo-like video game can hook up to it) by leaning and moving with your entire body holding "handlebars" that act a bit like a joystick that guide the game. It's a full-body workout, including torso and abs. Bet you'll crack a sweat in a minute and not want to stop.

"This is an exercise devise that works because of the addictive nature of video games," said Jason Grimm, Powergrid's vice president of marketing. "The Kilowatt provides a full body workout that includes strength training and isometrics."  

BroadcastVision (www.broadcastvision.com) has now brought many of these products together to form what it calls the fitness Arcade Xpress, a "club within a club" exercise entertainment arcade that combines video game technology and exercise equipment. Exercisers compete against themselves or others for the highest score, adding a fun, competitive component to the workout. Look for it at IHRSA.

"Our exercise arcade is a great solution for childhood and adult obesity and will get most of the couch potatoes off the couch and moving," said Kevin Fee, marketing director for Broadcast Vision. "The hottest trend is with the video game exercise products. These new products are creating a new day and a new opportunity for both the exerciser and the facility operator."

Fee said there are benefits to adding an arcade to the suite of club offerings. "These are what potential members may notice the most when shopping for a club membership," he said. "The Fitness Arcade Xpress will increase new membership sales, increase personal training sales, increase member retention, create programs for childhood and adult obesity, create sports performance programs, promote competitive workout contests and promote families working out together."  

Interactivity is the future
Bill Howland of IHRSA has witnessed the increase in interactive technology in clubs first hand. "We do expect to see fitness equipment manufacturers continue to incorporate interactive technology in their products in the future. This technology will certainly include interactive games, but I expect we will also see more fitness equipment that provides users with Internet and web access, as well as integrated fitness equipment systems, which provide the exerciser with feedback and workout information.

"The industry has recognized the value of providing club members with 'Xertainment' options, i.e., entertainment and exercise, for some time," Howland added, "and interactive fitness equipment technology is definitely an expression of this concept from the equipment side of the industry."

With words to describe these activities like "addictive," "fun" and "entertaining" -- and we'll add "distracting" -- it seems that clubs can only win by introducing them to their members. Consumers too will begin to demand them in their homes. That adds up to sales and revenues -- and a win-win situation.

Now if only someone could just invent a machine that helps us exercise while we're sleeping away that extra hour a day.

SNEWS® View: In the last four years, SNEWS® has covered the exergame devices at shows and raved about how much fun we ourselves had playing them. We recently watched a couple of kids, about 10 years old, going non-stop on a Dance Dance Revolution device in a video arcade, having a ball … but dripping with sweat. Sneaky little workout it was. Sure, there are us geeks who like to work out for the workout's sake, but most people -- especially beginners and certainly kids -- don't understand that feeling and would opt instead for the couch. So adding the fun element can help ease them in, and then get them addicted. This interactive element holds especially true with the current generation of youth and, frankly, also for those middle-aged and perhaps beyond who also have gotten used to more interactivity in their lives through the omnipresence of the Internet and other techno-devices. We think this is indeed the wave of the future. Now, if only that wonderful Tectrix VR-Bike could be reincarnated with today's technology.

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