Gyms: The Next Generation : Exercise: Ready for spinning? Obstacle courses? A holistic approach? Be prepared, fitness fans. These innovations may be coming soon to a club near you.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are 8 million ways to exercise in the naked city.

High-impact aerobics, low-impact aerobics, high-/low-impact aerobics, step, step circuit, power step, power walking, power dance, aqua aerobics, country-Western dance aerobics, hip-hop aerobics, cardio-funk, power-funk, strength training, stair-climbing machines, exercise bicycles, treadmills, kick-boxing, in-line skating, yoga, Pilates and spinning.

It's become a calorie-burning exercise just contemplating all the fitness options available now.

But that's nothing compared with what's due on the Next Wave: Obstacle courses, a la "American Gladiators," designed to be assembled inside health clubs; the slide, which mimics the side-to-side movements of speed skaters; classes in which cardiovascular and strength training are combined; workouts that borrow yoga techniques to emphasize stress reduction; aerobics classes infused with multicultural dance and music, and workouts that incorporate motivational and visualization techniques to maximize the benefits of exercise.

"Our industry is similar to the computer industry, in that changes happen so fast now, because the interest in fitness is so high," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA, the San Diego-based International Assn. of Fitness Professionals.

"Consumers are also so much more educated than they were 10 years ago. Coupled with the fact that consumers are always wanting something new and different, that puts pressure on the industry."

Probably nowhere is that pressure felt more than in Los Angeles, where gyms scurry to keep up with the latest things. When mambo aerobics and ski boarding are already considered passe, you know you're in a serious trend zone.

So what might be coming to a gym near you? Here are some of the innovations:

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* Step Reebok Athletic Circuit: From Gin Miller, the woman who gave us step aerobics, comes a new " 'American Gladiators'-style obstacle course" for use in health clubs.

The 21-station circuit includes a crawl-through tunnel, push-up station, supine chin-ups, jump rope, lateral maze, squat thrusts, abdominal crunches, stair-climbing and monkey bars.

Events are timed, and participants are encouraged to race against the clock as well as against other students.

Miller has designed small, medium and large ready-to-install courses for health clubs.

* The slide: This contraption's been around for a couple of years but hasn't gained wide acceptance. That could change this year, with more companies introducing a variety of versions for at-home and gym use.

Sliding--also called lateral movement training--uses a rectangular piece of plastic with bumpers on both ends. Participants wear booties over their athletic shoes and do choreographed moves from side to side, somewhat like speed skaters. The slide primarily works the outer thigh muscles.

* Other gadgets that may soon be making their debuts are steps with built-in pulleys for resistance training, weighted steps for use in pools, and weighted balls to be used for stretching and resistance training.

* Nike is introducing a "Total Body Conditioning" class that incorporates strength exercises and lateral movement with dance aerobics. Reebok's version is called the "Step Circuit Training Program," which combines step, strength training and flexibility in one session. Instructors will be trained.

* We may see elements of boxing and martial arts incorporated into cardiovascular workouts. Women are just discovering that boxing is great for increasing upper-body strength, and they don't have to get in the ring with Oscar De La Hoya to get a good workout.

* Spinning: Not to be confused with the Teacup ride at Disneyland, spinning was developed by Johnny G. (for "Goldberg"), a competitive cyclist and personal trainer who invented a special stationary bike for this classroom program. In the class, students pedal the bike while an instructor uses motivational and visualization techniques to simulate courses that include hills and sprints. Available at the Voight Fitness Center in Los Angeles, spinning is about to make its debut at other clubs.

Spinning taps into techniques--self-motivation, visualization--used by Olympic and professional athletes for years. Some call spinning an example of a "mind-body connection," which are the hot--if vague--buzzwords in the industry today.

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The people and forces behind the changing face of fitness are as numerous as the trends themselves. Fitness instructors, personal trainers, bodybuilders, inventors and physical therapists--in addition to changing lifestyles--will all influence how people exercise.

Retail giants such as Nike and Reebok spend extensive time and money surveying professional athletes, coaches, sports-medicine specialists, fitness instructors and students to find the good, the bad and the ugly about exercise, as well as what's missing from their training programs.

Of course, their bottom line is sales, and any new gadgets or programs are also tied to shoe and clothing promotions.

Whether health clubs will start buying all this new equipment will depend on consumer interest--and their budgets.

What everyone is discovering is that exercise ruts are discouraging people from returning to health clubs, says Miller, the Georgia-based fitness instructor. Routine frequently means no new challenges for the body, and that's when boredom sets in.

"Think of the people you've seen at your gym for a year," she says. "Maybe they work out every day, really hard, but have their bodies changed that much? There's an overuse syndrome. They do the same old repetition of the same activity, and when you get used to it, it doesn't do any good. Here (the industry) is saying, 'Come in and train every day.' But where are they going with it? What's the real goal here?"

That's what led Miller to design her obstacle course.

She got the idea from a run she took one day--off the beaten track. "My assistant and I were running the same route we always did, and I saw this old, overgrown path through the woods."

They took it, jumping over fallen trees and streams and into a spider's web and realized they found something missing from their other routines: fun.

"Play is a big missing link," says Miller, who plans to debut her obstacle course in January. "I thought, 'This is stuff I remember from when I was a kid.' The course is tough; you're using your body, as many muscles as you can, to complete a task."

Will health clubs really go for an obstacle course that will take time to set up and take down? And in these cash-strapped times, will they want to pay about $850 for a medium-sized course?

Miller, naturally, says yes: "The aerobics room of the future will be full of props."

One prop that may be taking its place beside the step is the slide board, so beneficial to skiers, skaters and tennis players. According to Eric Sternlicht, lecturer in UCLA's department of physiological science and adjunct professor in Occidental College's department of exercise, Scandinavian skaters and cross-country skiers used to wax down an old door and use it as an off-season workout tool.

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The slide will be just one of the fitness tools pushed at the annual IDEA convention in New Orleans this month.

The convention, which backers estimate will draw 4,500 people this year, will feature seminars and product booths geared to the newest trends in fitness.

David Dinerman, IDEA's director of corporate member services, says the convention has a 50% increase in booth space this year.

Some of those booths will feature products developed by physical therapists, who, says Dinerman, are making sizable contributions in the gadgets market. "They're just now starting to recognize the applicability of their products to the industry."

What kinds of gadgets? Everything from resistance bands used for upper- and lower-body strength training to an exercise bike for the disabled.

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Time--or lack of it--is a factor that many fitness enthusiasts are taking into consideration.

"People want something they can do on their lunch hour," says Sternlicht. "They want to get a workout quicker. If you look at training rooms now, classes are combining step with toning exercises. It's different than it used to be."

Yet another fitness trend has nothing to do with machines, gadgets or even sweating. The mind-body connection, also referred to as the mind-body-spirit connection or the mind-body-soul connection, takes a holistic approach to exercise.

Those serious about increasing the benefits from their workouts are no longer pooh-poohing motivational techniques once thought of as weird.

What else is on the fitness horizon? Expect to see multicultural influences affecting aerobic workouts.

"In major cities, we're seeing such amazing salsa, Caribbean and African themes in music, downbeats, Earth-centered rhythms," says Peg Jordan, editor-at-large of American Fitness magazine. "It's leaving white cheerleader-land, which is how aerobics was launched 15, 20 years ago. Now a streetwise beat has entered the picture."

But for all the gadgets, the new classes, the new music and the new philosophies, there are those people who believe a workout that concentrates simply on simply doing movements correctly and safely may be best.

"Sometimes the best thing is using your body to move it through space in the right way," says Karen Voight, co-owner of the Voight Fitness Center. "I think it's all going to come back to keeping it simple and just doing a good workout on your own, without anything (equipment or gadgets)."

And that workout doesn't have to consist of intensive training five days a week.

If we could raise people's fitness level to persuade "typical couch potatoes (to go) for a walk once a day," says Dr. David Leaf, director of cardiac rehabilitation at the UCLA Medical Center, "that would do more for our nation's health than any piece of equipment or running shoe.

"The message sent out over the years comes from athleticism and has suggested that people need to be in training. But it's more important to do any physical activity--like walking, playing with the kids, raking the leaves--and find things we like to do."

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