New fitness technologies look to educate and network users

Today’s fitness technology is moving in a new direction -- beyond the simple distraction of a TV – by creating value for the retailer and consumer with technology that educates and networks. Share, tweet, friend and compete while you sweat.
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Ever since the first TVs were mounted on treadmills, bikes and ellipticals more than a decade ago, technology’s relationship with fitness equipment has centered on creating a distraction – something for users to pass the time while getting in their quota of sweat and raised heart beats.

Today’s fitness technology is moving in a new direction – looking past simple distractions by creating value for the retailer and consumer with technology that educates and networks users. The latest technology is attempting to foster interaction that brings people back for more, while they also achieve their fitness goals.

The shift challenges manufacturers on how best to incorporate the latest technologies into their products, while keeping prices reasonable despite the advancing technology. Retailers can expect increased prevalence of touch screens, Internet connections and, yes, technical questions from tech-savvy consumers , all of which in the end should draw in more business.

“Retailers are always looking for what’s new and fresh – something fun to demonstrate and advertise in their stores,” said Colleen Logan of Icon Health & Fitness.

Since the first days of clunky add-on TVs with mediocre resolution that could still double prices, technology has shown it’s here to stay this round. SNEWS takes a look at the latest technologies showing up on fitness equipment and the strategies behind their development and marketing.

New philosophy for fitness technology

In the eyes of Dave Flynt, director of user experience at Precor Inc. (www.precor.com), most of the media technology added to fitness equipment this past decade has been counter-productive.

“It’s centered around watching TV,” he said. “You’re bringing in the behavior, that for many people, partially caused the problem that leads you to the gym to solve the problem."

The latest fitness equipment on show floors have all the makings of an entertainment hub -- touch-screen consoles with Internet, mobile phone and even iPad connectivity -- but capability for so much more.

"What we have to do now is find ways to expand content – not just to distract, but to educate,” Flynt said.

Part of the goal is to educate users on the big picture of their fitness regimen by creating a virtual trainer that can be synced among fitness machines, mobile phones and online accounts, including Facebook. The new technologies allow for “the continuation of the fitness journey over time,” Flynt told SNEWS. “So you’re not just starting over the same workout every time you step on the machine.”

That strategy can been seen in products like Life Fitness’ (www.lifefitness.com) new Virtual Trainer app, which offers guided regimens and automatically records workout stats from compatible machines. Users can also manually enter data from their outdoor pursuits to track their overall activity, not just indoors. With subsequent visits, users plug-in their smartphone into the machine, and a workout is tailored to keep them on track, no matter where they are working out – at home, in the club, or on the road in a hotel gym.

To best benefit the user, Flynt said the fitness industry will have to come together to create technology, standards and data that is universal across brands -- something he and others are working on through the new Fitness Industry Technology Council, reported by SNEWS on May 2, 2011.

More than just numbers

Putting an individual workout into a larger context helps users “find meaning to the numbers,” Flynt said. In developing the latest technology at Precor, including its new P80 touch screen consoles introduced at the 2011 IHRSA show, Flynt said he focuses more on story behind the numbers than the technology itself. Every manufacturer tells the tale little differently, he said, but it’s all the same trend.

At Free Motion Fitness (www.freemotionfitness.com) and others, one new strategy to illustrate the mundane miles being run on a treadmill is to link the workout – both physically and visually – to marathon courses or running routes in the real world. Android-based touch screens on the company’s treadmills link Google map, satellite or street views of the route to the exercise, and continuously shifts the incline of treadmill based on the change in the real-world terrain (photo, right).

“So if you want to experience the Boston Marathon and really feel what its like to hit Heartbreak Hill, you can,” said Colleen Logan, vice president of marketing. “It mimics the road.” Users can also create their own routes on the map, and all the workout stats are tracked and wirelessly uploaded to Free Motion’s online virtual trainer program at www.ifit.com.

Matrix (www.matrixfitness.com) employs a similar technique with its latest Virtual Active technology on the screens -- displaying first-person video of moving through scenic outdoor areas (photo, right), while automatically altering the speed of the video and incline of the treadmill or bike to match the terrain being viewed. Others specializing in home fitness equipment have launched or will debut similar interactive programming, such as Kettler Fitness did in 2009 at the ispo show in Germany (click here to see a February 2009 SNEWS story).

"It's a virtual world," Christian Langa, Kettler product manager, told SNEWS at that 2009 debut. "You don't just have to stare at a wall."

Network fitness

The recent trend of suspension training, boot camps and the like have reminded the fitness world of the power of peer group motivation and community activity. And with many of the latest touch screens being Internet connected, there’s a new term popping up: network fitness.

“Network fitness” means users can complete a workout and then post it on Facebook or challenge friends to beat their time. When Life Fitness recently debuted its Facebook addition to its app – allowing users to share their workouts and progress with friends – the company’s site traffic doubled by the next day, officials said.

Facebook connectivity is a particular perk to health clubs ordering the machines, said Yuko Tanaka, director of marketing at Interactive Fitness Holdings (www.ifholdings.com), which recently debuted the technology on its Expresso cardio bikes. Each Facebook post can be tailored to include the facility’s name, providing extra advertisement.

The trend is community, Flynt emphasized, and while he admitted Facebook is currently the center of the Internet’s community, he hopes the fitness industry will also think outside the box on how to foster community with technology.

Retailers gear up

For retailers, the new technologies are another way to draw in the consumer.

“Here’s a fresh opportunity,” said Logan, “to bring in a new consumer who thinks working out is boring.”

At Colorado Home Fitness (www.coloradohomefintess.com), owner Chip Hunnings said some of the first equipment with the latest touch screens from Precor will arrive in his store sometime late in the fourth quarter 2011.

“So I can’t tell you how consumers will react yet, but in general, I think a key selling point will be the ability for them to upgrade the software and download new programs,” Hunnings told SNEWS. “I get a lot of people telling me they get bored with the same programs after awhile.”

Hunnings said he’s also looking for strong support form manufacturers to help educate retailers on the new technology (Precor lab, right).

“In order for it to have value to the consumer, we on the sales floor need to have the knowledge to show the ease of use of the technology,” he said. “That includes resources on the floor, so we can show how it will work with your mobile phone.”

Cost of the new technology might be the biggest factor of whether home users latch onto the trend now, said Tom Woodman, regional manager of the Fitness Shop in Bellevue, Wash. He said he’s seen two previous attempts to bring high-tech to fitness, both failing partly on high costs.

“This time, costs are coming down,” he said. “There are some new touch screens out there that add only $200 to the product. I think that’s reasonable.” But with others, the technology can add more than $1,000 to the pricetag -- illustrating the reality that a powerful, modern computer now sits a top the equipment.

The new wave of technology hitting the fitness industry doesn’t mean the end of watching TV while working out. For some distraction will still be king. With the help of the newer technologies and Internet connectivity, however, users will be able to upload the TV programs they actually want to watch, rather than just distract themselves with whatever happens to be on.

Whether for entertainment, education or networking, manufacturers are just now scratching the surface with the latest technologies on today's fintess equipment. And if prices continue to drop, the fitness industry is ready to join the high-tech world.

--David Clucas

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