Extras for the gym crowd

Times Staff Writer

As the woman began pedaling her stationary bike, her console came to life with a video game called "The Maze." She pedaled faster as the ladybug on the screen methodically gobbled up rows of little dots; when she slowed down, so did the bug, which eventually got annihilated by an animated spider.

This is exercise-related technology, circa 2003, as fitness equipment manufacturers and gyms look for new ways to get people moving. At the recent International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. trade show, one thing was apparent: People who exercise need something to keep their minds occupied.

The annual fitness equipment trade show, which drew about 15,000 gym owners and executives, personal trainers, fitness instructors, retailers and spa owners, is a chance for manufacturers to roll out their latest products, from treadmills that provide a grueling 50% incline to wing-like apparatus used in aerobics programs. The gear slated to hit gyms this year ranges from the bizarre (a futuristic-looking machine that supposedly helps build core strength) to the innovative (a cardio machine that makes users swing their legs in a wide, arcing stride).

But noticeable among these hundreds of machines and inventions were booths dedicated to entertainment, from the DVD-, MP3- and CD-compatible video screens attached to bikes and treadmills to the cardio machines with screens embedded in the console. The TVs are capable of receiving local channels, cable or custom programming, such as in-house material devoted to wellness or health club news. Despite innovations in cardio equipment, at the end of the day a treadmill is a treadmill, and even the most exquisitely built machines can't do much about the mind-numbing boredom that regular exercisers often endure.

"It's distraction," said Eric Spiegel, executive vice president of marketing for Agoura Hills-based Broadcast Vision, which distributes the Exertris bikes, which have embedded interactive video games. "When we're kids, we play. But as adults, we have to find ways to immerse ourselves in our exercise. If I want to go to the gym Monday night, I might not go because I want to watch the Steelers, but if I can watch them and do the treadmill, I'm more apt to go."

Although most gyms now have some form of entertainment -- usually one or more TVs in front of rows of cardio machines -- more are realizing that people want what they have at home: their own TVs. Sports Club/Beverly Hills, due to open this fall, promises individual screens with each piece of cardio equipment. The stuff is pricey -- a treadmill with embedded entertainment can run up to $8,000, and it can cost thousands to add individual screens to existing equipment.

"Americans want everything, and we're the kings of multi-tasking," Spiegel said. "So when you go to the gym, you'd better be able to watch TV and make your cell phone calls and get your mocha and a tan."

The health club association's executive director acknowledges there's some merit to the idea. When he gets caught up in watching CNN, he finds himself jamming on the treadmill without even realizing it.

"This is sort of painful to admit," says John McCarthy, "but exercise can be boring and a drudgery. And what clubs are trying to do is make exercise less like drudgery and more enjoyable. That's one of the missing links in the fitness movement -- for most people, exercise still doesn't feel good. They'd rather relax or go to McDonald's."

Gear manufacturer TechnoGym rolled out its new line of Excite treadmills and bikes at the show, each with a personal entertainment system that gives users the option of changing the screen size, display speed, intensity and distance. Some of the treadmills, which have built-in TVs, can also emit fragrances. "If you look at cars and homes and entertainment, you've got much development there," said Tony Majakas, the Italian company's managing director, "but the fitness industry in the past has lagged behind."

Enercize was offering TVs with optional DVD and CD players ready to be mounted on existing equipment. Ralph Cissne, the Westlake Village-based company's marketing director, said gyms that want to stay competitive need to offer members some form of entertainment.

"Years ago you had to have a StairMaster or you weren't in the fitness business. But now people want to disengage when they exercise, and TV is a good thing. One of my yoga teachers said TV is kind of like meditation, and for Americans meditation is watching sitcoms."

The future, said Cissne, is in interactive programs that allow clubs to stream information about classes and member specials, and members to call up information about diet and exercise. "It's about giving people choices," he said.

Other interesting offerings at the show included:

* Cybex Arc Trainer: This new cardio machine is a cross between an elliptical trainer and a stair climber powered by impact-free, scissors-like leg movements that give the user a feeling of gliding. Not to be confused with an at-home version touted on infomercials, this one has adjustable speed, incline and difficulty levels.

* Hoist fitness conditioning equipment for children: There's not much out there when it comes to muscle conditioning machines made just for kids, but this nine-piece set focuses on resistance training, rather than strength training, and is designed to allow children 9 to 14 to work muscle groups without straining joints. Marketed to schools, YMCAs and commercial gyms, the system is designed to help sports-minded kids prevent injuries and get others interested in fitness.

* Windjector: From T. Dosho Shifferaw, the man who brought you the Bowflex, comes the Windjector, a unique aerobics device that uses air resistance to provide a cardio-vascular workout plus core strengthening. Users strap on lightweight, wing-like devices to each arm and do a series of choreographed movements.

* The Ramp: Gin Miller, who created Step aerobics, has come back with a new program called the Ramp, promising a kinder, gentler workout targeting the legs. The Ramp is a half-circle piece of heavy-duty plastic that comes off the floor at an angle. A cousin to Step, routines are built around stepping on and off the Ramp.

* Tuff Stuff: People who use heavy dumbbells for bench and shoulder presses often have trouble lifting them off the floor and putting them back down. Not a problem if you have a strong spotter, but when exercising solo it can be dangerous. This machine holds the dumbbells and allows the user to lift and rotate them in any direction. The new, patented device was designed by Santa Monica-based product developer Darrell Greenland, who came up with the idea when his downstairs neighbor didn't enjoy the sound of him dropping dumbbells on the floor.

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