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Take it up a notch

Manufacturers show off improvements to some popular exercise equipment at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. show.

April 05, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

The fit and the flabby are both in luck. Exercise equipment has become more comfortable, more stylish and easier to use, even as it provides greater feedback -- all the more reason to continue an exercise program or start one.

At a recent fitness trade show in Las Vegas, gym owners, exercise instructors and health professionals got the first glimpse of the latest offerings from manufacturers. They may not have found a groundbreaking cardio machine destined to be the new darling of the athletic set, but they did find that plenty of popular existing equipment, costing from $100 to a few thousand, had been tweaked to provide smoother and more varied workouts.

For cardio equipment, display panels are more straightforward, are easier to operate and look less like a NASA control board. Television screens, either integrated into the display panel or attached to the machine, are still the must-have appliance to keep people's minds off the monotony.

Cardio and weight equipment designs are sleek and sophisticated, with cool metallic finishes and aerodynamic styling. And the newest accessories for exercise classes are intended to make workouts more efficient, packing cardio, balance and strength regimens into one 30- to 45-minute session.

The show, sponsored by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn., is considered one of the largest in the industry -- and maybe the loudest. The trade show floor, booming with deafening high-energy workout music, is where new equipment -- some still in the prototype stage -- is road-tested for bumps, knocks or pings.

The new gear will undoubtedly appeal to health club fans who love having the latest and greatest. But equipment companies are also courting the overweight and out of shape who are often intimidated by complicated machines. The theory is that more user-friendly equipment might help them to stick to an exercise program.

"I think the sea change in our industry was the realization that our industry has a very important role to play in" treating obesity and aiding weight loss, said John McCarthy, executive director of Boston-based association. To that end, he said, "there's an attempt to provide more comfortable fitness equipment and more easy-to-use fitness equipment."

Technology that gives members more information about their workouts, McCarthy said, "can be helpful in determining where they stand right now and where they need to be."

Elliptical trainers continue to lead the cardio popularity contest, and StairMaster has introduced a prototype with a variable stride, due out in November. Users can lengthen their strides simply by pedaling faster and harder or shorten them by easing up. "Not everyone walks with the same stride," said Pat Warner, vice president of product development, "so a fixed path isn't as comfortable, and you're not getting the stretch that you would if you were walking or running. This allows the body to go into the position it wants."

A new line of upright and recumbent bikes from True Fitness Technology Inc. features padded armrests on the upright model and a new LCD panel that displays a users' heart rate readout similar to an electrocardiogram when they grip handlebar sensors.

The pedaling action on the bikes is ultra smooth, "to mimic the natural movement of an actual bike," said Scott Eyler, vice president of sales and marketing.

Eyler also pointed out the bikes' sleek racer look: "We live in a society that's aesthetically connected, and if it looks good, that helps in getting me to the gym. We also spent a lot of time researching the seat and making sure it was comfortable for a lot of people.

"Especially on the recumbent bike, it's got to be comfortable for a long period of time," he said, because some people spend up to 45 minutes on that machine alone.

Other companies have made their machines smarter and easier to navigate. Technogym's new weight machines have an integrated computerized Wellness System similar to FitLinxx, allowing users to keep track of their workouts after having an exercise program set up for them by a trainer or member of the club's staff.

Cardio machines such as bikes and treadmills have controls on handlebars, eliminating the need to even reach for the display panel to change speed or intensity.

High-tech bells and whistles may be the leading edge for fitness equipment these days, but not everyone is convinced they're the only way to go. Getting accurate information is one concern. April Morgan, vice president of sports and fitness for Sports Club Co., isn't sure that machines with advanced capabilities are what members want or need.

"With computer tracking, the member gets the information," she said, "but that takes the human element out. The member needs to look on the Internet to check their program, and we're not sure if they're going to do that extra work. A trainer can keep track of that information and give them feedback."

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