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GAME ON! Interactive Fitness & Exergaming Options for Today's Club Owners

January 10, 2009
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Interactive Fitness & Exergaming Options for Today’s Club Owners

In today’s world, it has become almost impossible to ignore the impact that technology has on our lives. Software has improved to the point that it often seems to read your mind, and the fitness industry is not exempt from these developments. Here, we examine some of the innovative fitness options that have begun to use technological advances to personalize the member experience while reaching out to a new demographic, surely setting the standard for decades to come.

INTERactive fitness: At the basic level, the term ‘interactive fitness’ can be used to describe cardio equipment that features integrated personal viewing screens and is compatible with digital players like the iPod. Jeff Dilts, Product Manager for Star Trac, says the company has focused on bringing innovative entertainment options to users that will have a significant appeal to a broad audience. The company’s newest offering, the eSpinner bike, is the first of many innovative new Star Trac products that will engage the user not only with audio and video entertainment options, but also with guidance and user feedback. Using new touch screen technology, the eSpinner provides customized video coaching and real-time performance metrics that take members through individualized goal-specific workouts that are designed to bring the Spinning class experience onto the cardio floor. “The eSpinner by Star Trac is great because it allows people to do a spinning workout on their own time and on their own terms,” says Ed  Trainor, Vice President of Fitness Services and Product Development for TSI.

“In weighing the options, it is important to start with buying products from a trusted brand that really understands the club market,” says Adam Hubbard, Director of Entertainment and Technology for Precor, a company that offers a number of different entertainment solutions. Is the company you’re buying from equipped to service the product? Are the technicians certified? Do they have parts readily available? You can deliver a progressive and leading edge experience to members without risking your reputation by offering an unproven product. Also, be sure to discuss your plans with an audio/visual specialist before spending too much money. This will help you determine what will be required to make any new products work seamlessly.

Expresso Fitness offers a revolutionary line of interactive, commercial-grade bikes that incorporate virtual reality “courses” to ride with a product that actually steers and shifts. Expresso Bikes are also networked using the Internet, which allows for real-time racing, along with the ability to download former rides (known as Ghost Rides) – either from your own past history or someone else’s. According to Trainor, this element of competition is key to the appeal of the bike, “Since you can race one another, members love it, especially performance athletes and competitive friends. People need a challenge, and with these bikes there is internal competition built in,” he says. Another attractive aspect of the Expresso Bike is its similarity in appearance to many bikes already on the cardio floor, so members are not afraid to try it out. “The promise of exergaming and interactive fitness is that it is more fun and motivating than some other forms of exercise, so workouts become more intense and more frequent,” says Brian Button, CEO of Expresso Fitness.

Companies like RA Fitness have recognized the appeal of interactive and competitive technologies for fitness equipment and are focused on web racing software. Bruce Winkler, Principal of RA Fitness, says the company has also expanded their product line to offer turn-key packages that promise to turn any bike, rowing machine or treadmill into an interactive workout experience. All of this interest is driven by the knowledge that members have responded well to engaging and interactive technology-driven workouts that are coupled with data analysis and motivational coaching tools. Trainor agrees, stating “Equipment with an entertainment system always fills up first in the gyms – people like the interaction.”

Exergaming: Long viewed as something that keeps people from being active, video games are starting to clean up their bad rep by playing a part in turning some couch potatoes into avid exercisers through video games that require activity to play. According to a recent market research survey, the average age of a “gamer” (someone who enjoys playing video games) is now around 35 years old. The same survey found that women now make up 40% of video game players, which means that more people than many of us realized are probably open to the idea of incorporating a gaming element into their workout. Add to this the fact that the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation has committed over 10 million dollars to the study of exergaming (also known as active gaming), and that the Universities of Massachusetts and South Florida are allocating resources to study the topic, and it’s easy to see why Phil Lawler, PE4Life Academy Director and Physical Education instructor, is confident that this phenomenon will eventually filter into health clubs in a big way.

Lawler knew the industry was on to something when he first introduced gaming bikes to his PE students, “I saw kids who had never been comfortable playing traditional sports in class suddenly work harder than they ever had,” he says. PE4Life is a Kansas City based non-profit that is dedicated to inspiring active, healthy living by advancing the development of physical education programs for all children. Lawler is an avid exergaming enthusiast who lives and teaches in Chicago and has trained schools in 40 states and eight countries on exergaming and how to incorporate fitness into their daily program. Dr. Ernie Medina, a Preventive Care Specialist and Co-Founder of the XRTainment Zone in Redlands, California, is also very interested in the benefits of exergaming. He says having fun plays a large role in the appeal of this activity for many enthusiasts, “We provide families and kids of all ages with a fitness club of their own where ‘working out is all play’ and exercise is billed as ‘fun’,” he says. Medina is also working to develop programming that will make it easier for club owners to integrate exergaming into their club’s offerings.

There’s no doubt that exergaming is a new, fun thing for consumers – just look at the overwhelming success of the Wii and the Wii fit, for example. But the logical next question for most health club owners is, “How do you incorporate it into a commercial health club environment?” Tommy Seilheimer is Vice President of Operations for Exergame Fitness USA, a company that specializes in exergaming and helps existing facilities incorporate a gaming area. The company is also involved in a testing and research facility at the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center in Peoria, Illinois, where monthly workshops are held for fitness clubs, YMCA’s, JCC’s, park districts, schools and hospitals. He says the workshops are free and open to anyone who would like to learn more about exergaming and the health benefits it can offer. Seilheimer says introducing these products for club owners is the fun part of his business, “Our goal is to enhance fitness clubs with exergaming products that people will be attracted to and are not intimidating,” he says.

Some basic rules of thumb for club owners who are interested in exergaming include: dedicating a space that is strictly for exergaming, developing member-friendly programming, getting the word out to members, and choosing equipment that is designed for a commercial environment. Some popular options include the GameBike, Konami’s Dance, Dance Revolution (also known as DDR), the Exerbike and the Skywall, but many other options exist, some of which could be viable for club owners, depending on the scale of the exergaming program they envision. Club owners interested in exergaming should take their time, do their due diligence, and choose products that suit their circumstances and member demographic.

No matter what equipment options you decide to go with, there’s little doubt that technology will continue to change the landscape of fitness. “Over the next three to five years, we’re going to be looking at all sorts of web-based platforms and will most likely see a huge leap forward, not just with interactive elements, but also with manufacturers using the web for diagnostics and upgrades to make things easier and faster,” says Jo Rockett, Director of Fitness Services for Town Sports International. As with most things in the club market, the key to success with interactive fitness and exergaming lies in education and training. By making sure that all floor staff, trainers and front desk personnel know how to use and understand the new products, you will ensure that they can answer any questions members might have.

INDUSTRY RESOURCES:

Exergame Fitness USA
www.exergamefitness.com/clubsource.htm

Expresso Fitness
www.expresso.com

Precor
www.precor.com

RA Sports
www.riderunrow.com

Source Brands
www.gamebike.com

Star Trac
www.startrac.com

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