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High-Tech Sweat : Personal health: Many believe exercising can be fun, if it involves enough electronic gadgets that light up and make noises.

December 26, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Mott, an Orange County-based free-lancer, writes frequently for View.

OK, so now we can admit it: Exercising is one gigantic, thunderous, crashing bore.

All that stuff about "runner's high" and the Zenlike pleasure of feeling "the burn" and the purity of spirit achieved through sheer aerobic depletion--well, we're all big boys and girls now, and we know it's a bunch of snake oil. Exercise is not fun. But because many of us believe that anything can be fun--if it involves enough high-tech gadgets that light up and make noises--we have not abandoned the quest for granitic pecs, glutes, delts and abs. We've simply turned it into Pac-Man with sweat.

Increasingly, would-be hard bodies, many with more money than motivation, are shoving the furniture aside and filling their dens and guest rooms with the latest in fitness devices, all fitted with enough lights, buzzers, screens, readouts and sophisticated computer circuitry to clog the cockpit of an F-14.

They then strap themselves in and sweat and puff as much or more than they always did in their less palmy days, when a pair of $50 jogging shoes was considered a fairly complete investment in fitness. And, having unwrapped their newest fitness/torture toy yesterday, they likely are in the middle of a veritable frenzy of newly inspired exercise.

The difference is that now they are being entertained, provided with diversions such as heart-rate readouts, calorie counters, distance measurers, video screens that flash pictures of hills and valleys, race courses and tracks, and little glowing reminders to slow down, speed up, keep the back straight--even electronic cheers at the finish line.

It's a way, say equipment manufacturers, retailers and exercise professionals, of bringing people back one more time to the bike, the rowing machine or the stair climber. It's a way of banishing boredom.

In a word, it's motivation.

"Most of these electronic things are really motivational things," says Robert Girandola, an associate professor of exercise science at USC.

"They give the person a lot of bells and whistles and stuff. If you need that motivation, and these things help, that's great. The funny thing is, if you put it (a stair-climbing machine) in a building with stairs, people will take the elevator to get to it when they could get the same workout climbing the stairs.

"Personally, I like to see people who are self-motivated, but that's not the society we're living in right now."

Jody Dean, a psychologist who has practices in Mission Viejo and Fullerton and specializes in sports psychology, says that "a $100 stationary bike is going to give you the same cardiovascular workout as a Lifecycle. The heart doesn't know the difference."

"But," Dean adds, "when people are paying more and getting something more sophisticated, they possibly may feel like they're getting a better workout. The gadgets do decrease boredom and give you feedback, and with any kind of exercise program, people like immediate feedback. Gadgets are very seductive."

They're seductive enough to induce thousands nationwide to turn from health clubs to exercise machine retailers, plunk down a few thousand dollars--and possibly much more--and outfit their homes with the latest in NASA-like fitness gear.

Everybody's current darling, exercise professionals say, appears to be the stair-climbing machine, which comes in several incarnations.

Probably the most popular model is the 4000 Personal Trainer, manufactured by Tulsa-based StairMaster Exercise Systems. It features two foot pads upon which the exerciser stands and presses alternately, as if climbing stairs. The machine can be programmed depending on a person's level of fitness, says Ralph Cissne, a company spokesman.

A screen in front of the exerciser's face displays, among other things, distance traveled and calories burned, and there is an optional heart-rate monitor. The same model is used in commercial gyms and homes and retails for $2,195.

"We're selling about 20% of them to people who want them for their homes," Cissne says. "The lines to use them in clubs are so long now that if people have the money, they'll buy one for their home. They're affluent people who have been exposed to the product. And the electronics are as essential as they would be on an automobile. People have gotten accustomed to that kind of thing, and they've become sophisticated about it. They want as many bells and whistles as possible. A pretty good analogy would be a luxury automobile."

The staff of the YMCA in downtown Los Angeles knows this well. A haven for before- and after-work fitness buffs, as well as lunch exercisers, the facility has 15 StairMaster machines and 16 Lifecycles, which, says associate director of physical education Jay Petty, are usually all in use.

The Lifecycle--which has nearly become a generic name for all electronically enhanced stationary exercise cycles--is the machine that pioneered the computer-chip revolution in exercise equipment.

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