In a Houston health club, an exercise machine called Laura Arendale a wimp. "I'm doing the best I possibly can," the housewife shot back, her feelings bruised.
At a New York spa with burgundy carpets and antique chandeliers, advertising executive Susie Cabanas responded even more angrily when a fitness machine told her to keep going. "Aw, shut up!" she yelled.
The new, talking Powercise exercise equipment--available at health clubs in Houston, Dallas, New York and Boston, and scheduled to make its Southern California debut in a few days at Oceanside's Fantasy Fitness Center--inspires that kind of a hate-love relationship.
Like 'Star Wars'
"The first time you hear it, you crack up laughing. You're hysterical," Houston real estate broker Toni Pucciarello said. "It's like watching 'Star Wars' for the first time. Then you get to where . . . you're hooked on it. If you go three days without working out, you miss them (the machines) because they're fun and you feel like they know you."
Powercise machines at the Oceanside center will have 1,000-word vocabularies enabling them to scold or encourage exercisers--using a synthesized voice reminiscent of one that warns motorists to fasten their car seat belts--and flash messages on a screen to reinforce the point. A smiling or frowning face will accompany the messages.
Many now using the new technology say the system motivates them and provides personalized coaching for the price of a health club membership.
Others say it removes the human element from coaching.
"I think ultimately the best type of training is (one that includes) the human element," said Woody Cox, associate executive director of the new Stuart M. Ketchum Downtown YMCA.
"When you start pulling that out of it, you're missing a lot of what people work out for. We find people will let themselves down a lot easier than they'll let a staff person down. If you make an appointment to exercise by yourself, you'll cancel it, but if it's with an instructor, you'll keep it."
Cox, who bought about 70 fitness devices for the Downtown Y, said he would rather buy less expensive equipment and pay extra for staff because "that person is the one who really has to motivate. A staff person could take a broomstick and rocks and do weight training if they're really good motivators."
Powercise users get their rewards by visiting separate stations with revealing names.
An exerciser first steps on Wally Weight Scale, which weighs him or her and asks about weight, strength and muscle tone goals. At each subsequent station the user enters a personal code and takes a strength test before the machine designs an individualized workout.
The stations include Pierre Pec Deck, which works the chest and upper back muscles, and Ty the Thigh, which concentrates on the inner and outer thigh.
If the user tires, the machine may advise doing one more repetition because he or she has the most beautiful body in the gym. If that fails, it may adjust the electromagnetic resistance, which replaces traditional weights and valves.
At the end of the workout, Peter Printer gives the exerciser an analysis, which grades performance on a possible scale of 100.
The machines in the eight-station system also send electronic data to each other about the progress of exercisers' workouts and create individual programs by weighing progress reports and asking questions about goals.
Local health club officials caution, however, that the long-term reliability of the equipment, which costs $50,000 and is manufactured in Sacramento, is unknown.
"It's real trendy as far as computerized equipment and it's exciting," said Phil Swain, regional general manager of the Sports Connection. "My only question is, has it been tested in the market? How much maintenance will it take?"
Others have no such reservations. "The mouth on the screen moves. The eyes move. It smiles. It tells you, 'I'm proud of you. You're really doing well,' " New York stock broker Tina Thurston said in a telephone interview.
"When you're lifting something heavy and your arm is about to give out, it just makes you smile to hear it and it gets you through it," added Thurston, who has used the equipment for two months. "It's like having R2D2 as a coach."
The system is the brainchild of Richard Keelor, who heads research and development for LivingWell Inc., a Houston health and fitness corporation, and Carlsbad electrical engineer Rick Dyer, inventor of the highly successful Dragon's Lair video game.
Keelor earned a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from USC in 1974 after a career as a football coach at Beverly Hills High School and as a football player at Cal State Long Beach. He served as a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports for 10 years.