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Health & Fitness Business ’11: Latest cardio goes high-tech, multi-function, but also back-to-basics

SNEWS continues its post HFB 2011 coverage with a look at the latest cardio products and trends.

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SNEWS continues its post HFB 2011 coverage with a look at the latest cardio products and trends. For our previous recap on new strength equipment at the show, click here.

The basic mechanics of most cardio equipment from treadmills to bikes aren’t changing a lot these days. Still, consumers who are still shopping for equipment have higher standards reinforced by their day-to-day high-tech gear, plus style demands to boot.

At the 2011 Health + Fitness Business Expo, Sept. 14-16, in Las Vegas, SNEWS spotted the latest equipment looking to spice up the tried-and-true basics with virtual reality, more technical attachments, and a nod to outdoor workouts and multi-functional demands – anything to keep the high-end customer interested while attracting back the more price-conscious one too.

There may not be The Next New Thing that the industry is still awaiting, but there was high-definition virtual reality video, low-tech nods to VR, exercise bikes looking and acting more (and sometimes less) like their outdoor counterparts, and a trend to introduce lower price point models to reach new consumers in a down economy. There were also some innovative standouts, like a kid’s elliptical, an elliptical rower and stationary bike with a stability ball as its seat.

VR of all kinds

Interactive technology continues to push its way into the latest equipment – many companies with similar features of touch screens and Internet connectivity – but all with a different tune of how it interacts with the user.

At the Johnson Health Tech booth, parent to Vision, AFG and Horizon (and commercial brand Matrix), company officials announced their expanded partnership with Virtual Active (already present in Matrix) to provide high definition video of outdoor runs through natural and urban landscapes that syncs to a treadmill or elliptical in both speed and incline.

To bring the technology into the home (photo, right) the company’s new Passport media player will debut with the new AFG 7.1 AT treadmill (MSRP $2,999) in mid-October and then be carried throughout Vison’s higher-end products in the first quarter 2012. Eventually, the Passport will be sold separately in the $150-$200 MSRP range with the ability to work with most of Vision’s and AFG’s equipment built since 2006. And a new website will go live this winter, offering additional video runs for consumer purchase and download – a way for the company to stay engaged with the consumer, said Johnson retail marketing manager Kelly Colwin.

PaceMaster launched a new series of three treadmills in its pared-back line with more fitness data collection via a wireless receiver and touch heart rate monitor on the ProPacer (MSRP $1,999) and virtual reality courses available on the ProTouch VR (MSRP $2,499) and ProTouch Elite (MSRP $2,999). The running courses, at six different distances, automatically vary the treadmill angle from a 3 percent decline to a 12 percent incline throughout the workout. The VR and Elite are controlled by capacitive touch screens (such as on some newer iPhones or iPads, but new to the fitness world), which respond to natural electrical charges from a finger’s touch. The virtual buttons don’t need to be pushed or clicked to function – nor can they wear out as easily.

The ProTouch VR applies the VR concept differently with six courses replicating places we know like Lombard Street in San Francisco or the Appalachian Trail. Normally, explained President Tom Staub, treadmill users just trot along on smooth flat surfaces, but the VR adds minute changes every six seconds in speed and incline – perhaps +/- 0.1 mph or 0.5 percent – to better replicate outdoor workouts that require you to adjust your body and gait constantly. Plus, for another dash of VR, PaceMaster’s programmed workouts are based on distance; if you go slower up a hill, your workout will last longer.

Tablet compatible

Evident almost everywhere you looked in cardio equipment this year at HFB were manufacturers’ acknowledgments that more consumers are toting around iPads and other tablets. iPod and iPhone compatibility just isn’t enough anymore, despite it being THE call-out feature just a few years ago. And SNEWS suspects by next year it will be nearly de rigueur to be iOS compatible. Some companies already had the larger racks and adapters needed to hold a tablet versus a phone, such as Diamondback and Spinning bikes by Mad Dogg. (Click here to see Diamondback’s and Spinning’stechnology on SNEWS TV.) Or, in some cases, like Landice, the company was introducing the adjustable stands separately (MSRP $300).

“It isn’t long before manufacturers will ask themselves: ‘If most people have their own tablet, do we really need to include a touch screen?’ said Carissa Saalfelder, director of sales at Landice. “What will be most important is the connection and integration between the tablet and equipment.”

That’s exactly the theory for Taiwanese fitness equipment brand Proteus, being distributed in North America by HealthCare International. The brand’s ProMaster series will include the option on its bikes, ellipticals and treadmills (MSRPs $2,200-$3,900) for a console that will hold a tablet (photo, left from SNEWS TV) and give the user a full plate of equipment controls via his or her tablet with an app provided by Proteus, is both Apple- and Android-compatible.

“With the (tablet app) platform, upgrades will be unlimited. Clubs and others will be able to develop their own apps,” said HealthCare International director of sales and marketing Heidi Safadago. “It won’t be overnight, but this will be the future trend.” Proteus commercial products are expected to be available in the first quarter 2012 with retail models close behind at a slightly lower price point. (Click here to see SNEWS TV coverage on Proteus at the show.)

Squeezed in the middle

On the high end, many manufacturers and retailers told SNEWS business was still good, and the increase of technology on higher-priced models – in some cases driving the price further up – was a testament that the wealthy continued to spend on fitness equipment.

BH North America introduced its new commercial (and high-end residential, said John Kipper, BH’s chief operating officer) LK790 treadmill (MSRP $5,499; photo, right), which has a 62-inch by 22-inch running surface, several pre-set programs and jacks for iPods or other MP3 players.

Despite the sucess at the high end, many retailers are losing business at middle price points, $2,500 to $4,000, we were told, so hence the introduction of several lower-priced lines and models, built with the same quality materials and on a smaller footprint, but without all the bells and whistles.

True debuted its M-Series – two treadmills and two ellipticals at an M50 level (MSRP $2,499) and a M30 level (MSRP $2,099) available Oct. 1, 2011, to address the call from retailers, said director of marketing Beth Norviel.

Spirit Fitness
showed its new XBR55 recumbent bike and XBU55 upright bike (both MSRP $999), hitting a key lower price point for retailers, available Oct. 20, 2011, said President Chris Cox. “We are clearly hearing this call from retailers,” Cox told us. “They’re doing everything they can to compete with the big-box stores.”

LifeCore Fitness launched two “little brothers” of its V8 Variable Stride Trainer at HFB – the V6 (MSRP $2,299) and the V4 (MSRP $1,799) to hit additional price points said western regional sales rep Garrett Reder.

Stamina Products has developed a back-to-basics line under the name Avari, which includes one manual treadmill (MSRP $199), with a maximum user weight of 250 pounds. A wide speed range of 0-10 mph means it can be used for both walking and running.

Stationary bikes

With HFB sharing the show floor with Interbike for the second year in a row, the inroads being made by companies that cross-over between bike and fitness were on display at the LeMond Fitness and Diamondback Fitness – with booths on both floors – and FreeMotion’s Foundation Fitness with a booth on the Interbike floor.

“The incredible growth of cycling on the outdoor side, has definitely helped us on the indoor side,” LeMond Fitness director of commercial sales Kurt Kenny told SNEWS. The outdoor/indoor companies like LeMond and Diamondback continue to focus on correct fit for the user to allow riders to duplicate their outdoor fit on an indoor bike.

Diamondback continues to leverage its bicycle part orders from the outdoor division to reduce the prices on the company’s indoor bikes, director of sales Brian Davidson said. New this year is the company’s first front-drive ellipticals, the 510EF at 910EF at $1,299 and $1,699 MSRP, respectively.

But not everyone is trying to duplicate the full outdoor cycle experience – think narrow, perhaps uncomfortable seat with a forward-leaning racing position.

The Evo IX Pivot (MSRP $1,199; photo left) by the newly launched Relay Fitness Group, which was formed by a group of former Star Trac employees, is an attempt to create a stationary bike that mimics the motion of an outdoor bicycle, yet is comfortable, director of sales Kevin Farley told SNEWS. The bike has a wide cushy seat, what the company calls a RAMP (Rolling, Articulating, Mounted Pivot) frame which leans subtly to either side like an outdoor bicycle (only a tiny bit for a hint at VR, if you will). The non-slip handlebars can be raised so users can sit nearly upright to get away from the (for some) back-breaking forward tuck.

“If you look at group cycles in general, they’re all designed to be like road cycles,” Farley said. “The majority of the people who take (indoor cycling) classes today are not road cyclists, they’re fitness people … and they don’t necessarily like aggressive road cycling, triathlon positions. They’re not comfortable.”

Aaron Huber, the inventor of the BallBike Pro (MSRP $1,599-$1,899; photo right) said he thought he’d kill two birds with one stone with his product, which is a recumbent bike that uses a stability ball as a seat. The stability ball is there to not only provide a level of comfort but also to allow the bike to move with the users’ body, giving them both a cardio and core workout, he said. (Click here to see BallBike Pro on SNEWS TV)

And now for something completely different…

There couldn’t be a fitness show where a couple of cardio products catch our eyes for their innovation.

At Fitness Master, President Eric Dick followed the introduction of the company’s X5 Bike sized for kids (MSRP $799) earlier in the year at IHRSA with the XE5 Elliptical (MSRP $1,399; photo left) for kids at HFB. The items are mostly selling to schools, Dick told us, but some retail consumers are also showing interest. Children seem to want to workout alongside their parents, he said. The products are brightly colored and have simple electronic control panels to record time, distance and speed. And, at the show, any number of adults or alleged adults (SNEWS included) had to get on the bike and the elliptical for a little romp.

Last but not least, Jeff Laborde, Inspire Fitness’ marketing and sales manager, described the company’s new E-Row prototype as an elliptical rower. HFB show attendees lined up to try out the piece, which was buried in the center of the company’s booth in a forest of other stuff. It has a seat and handlebars that move in an elliptical motion, and it did take some a couple of tries to get the hang of it– like the first time someone rides a bike as a kid – to produce the continuous motion.

“Normally with a rower, you only get resistance in the pull. With this, you’re getting the push and pull,” Laborde said. The product is expected to debut sometime in the second quarter 2012 for about $1,499 MSRP.

David Clucas and Ana Trujillo