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Health & Fitness Business '07: Personalization, adjustability of cardio paving future path

The cardio machine buzz at this year's Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver, Aug. 2-4, was truly one based on the ellipsis. Treadmills seemed to be a bit of an aside, although there were some new ones and cool ones out there. What companies really wanted to talk about were their ellipticals, what they'd changed, how they were adjustable and what new colors and shapes they had.

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The cardio machine buzz at this year’s Health & Fitness Business Expo in Denver, Aug. 2-4, was truly one based on the ellipsis. Treadmills seemed to be a bit of an aside, although there were many new ones and cool ones out there. What companies really wanted to talk about were their ellipticals, what they’d changed, how they were adjustable and what new colors and shapes they had.

Fitness, like other active industries, continues to obsess about how to get new participants, as well as over ways to earn dollars in bringing those new customers into the fold so this elliptical buzz was in part a good one. The ellipsis has a popular and comfortable movement for many, including newbies.

Aside from that, however, we also saw higher prices all over the floor. Reasons came in triplicate: One, the consumer knows fitness is not a fad and is ready to pay more to get more so companies are complying; two, manufacturers realize higher prices mean higher margins and higher profit for specialty retailers making for happy specialty dealers; and, three, higher prices usually mean more features (as we detail below) and that allows specialty retailers more differentiation from sporting goods and mass since we think they have finally heard you can’t compete with ’em so offer something more and better.

“Fitness is not just a fad,” said FreeMotion Fitness CEO Patrick Hald. “It’s become part of our lifestyle.”

We, of course, hope that this trend doesn’t leave out the entry-level customers the industry so desperately needs and seeks. With the current national agenda, indeed, more could be willing to step up to specialty products, trends, features and prices to better fit their needs, preferences and customization desires, as well as an increased comfort with technology.

In brief, these were the major trends SNEWS® saw coming to fruition in the new equipment on the show floor:

It was an elliptical kind of show
Despite some concern expressed by a few about the biomechanical deficiencies of ellipticals, the machines are slowly and surely elbowing treadmills out of the cardio limelight, especially for female users. The full-body workout is part of the machine’s popularity as is a growing trend toward more adjustable machines. Almost all manufacturers showed their new ellipticals as the highlight piece, with the most advanced technology and marketing buzz.

Personalize, personalize, personalize
It is not enough anymore to just have an elliptical trainer — or for that matter any training piece. The machine needs to be multi-faceted to adapt to the personal needs and preference of users. The big news here were ellipticals with adjustable everything, from stride length and console tilt, to foot tilt, Q angle (foot width) and handle placement. We saw everything from manual adjustment like SportsArt’s E83 to on-the-fly electronic adjustment such as Life Fitness’ X-7 or Octane’s Q47, or even BH’s adjustable width X-5. Just about any aspect of the machine that could be manipulated to suit personal body types and muscle-group workouts was being rolled out.

Make special more special (a.k.a what’s wrong with higher prices?)
While low price-point machines sell well and bring new folks into the fold, they don’t necessarily ring up high margins for retailers looking to stay in business. Manufacturers have responded to retailer demand for bigger ticket machines by producing more units at the top end ($3,000-$5,000) that can serve as double duty for high-end home use or light commercial a.k.a vertical. But that is not the whole story. As HFB keynote speaker Paul Zane Pilzer noted, there are more and more wealthy, older Americans who want to spend their cash on wellness. This segment is looking to spend top dollar on a machine that provides more of an experience than low-end units.

Entertain me please
When it comes to the evolution of cardio-machine consoles, entertainment is key and is finally maturing in the retail arena. Machines such as Life Fitness’ Platinum Club Series featured upgrades in iPod compatibility. Numerous machines calculated personalized or muscle-group-focused workouts. Landice featured a virtual pacer who walks along with you on your workout. And at the high-end of the trend, a few companies like FitNex and X-Bike introduced Wii-type machines with video game capability — to compete in the game you have to work out on the machine. Perhaps these Gen-Next innovations will actually bring in a new group of consumers where frightening numbers of obese and overweight video-game-loving children in the United States still exist.

Simple still sells too

Alongside the trend to higher-end technical machines we saw a parallel rise in the number of machines with very simple-to-understand and read consoles on the low end of the price point. Diamondback, for instance, offers the 400Tm, a treadmill with a big LED screen with little else that appeals to older customers who want the workout but don’t care for or understand a panel full of techy features. Lifespan still focuses on that area, too, finding a niche among niches.

Aside from the key trends noted, the SNEWS® team saw some highlights worth pointing out among equipment introduced and how some companies interpreted or responded to the trends. Note that we at SNEWS® do not consider equipment debuted or shown in private, invite-only convention center rooms (a.k.a “the catacombs”) or off-site as part of the show and, as such, do not include them in our show reports, although highlights may appear in separate stories. If you have any feedback on these private showings, pro or con, please email us at since we will work on a separate story about that growing trend.

(Several weeks of show coverage began Aug. 2, so don’t miss any of the reports, podcasts or the two SNEWS® live daily HotSheet newsletters. We are covering, will cover, or have covered everything from general attendee information to education reviews to equipment category reports. As always, SNEWS® gives you the best and most accurate and detailed show coverage anywhere. If your product or company wasn’t mentioned here, that’s either because it didn’t strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it — anything’s possible! But don’t fret: Coming still in the next few weeks are articles and more SNEWS® Live podcasts on strength, cardio, education, SNEWS® fundraising for Augie’s Quest, celebrity athlete appearances and parties, and you never know what else! So stay tuned, this is just the beginning.)

Formerly known as Horizon, the company debuted its new specialty brand, adding back bikes to the line and inching retails upward into a “more special” realm to keep its retailers from feeling as if they are competing with sporting goods. For an in-depth look at the company’s debut, click here to see a July 9, 2007, SNEWS® story, “Horizon Fitness multi-brand strategy unveils specialty-exclusive Advanced Fitness Group.”

BH Fitness
The company formerly known as Bladez used the financial backing of its new BH ownership to create a machine like its X-5 elliptical. While many manufacturers provided adjustable stride length on their new machines at the show, the X-5 offered Adjustable Width Technology (AWT), allowing for two to six inches of width play on the foot pedals on the 20-inch stride machine. Like many other exhibitors, BH looks to play in the high-end home/light commercial arena with this new elliptical.

The Canadian company has given all of its machines a long-needed and anticipated aesthetic upgrade so that they fit in with home furnishings and hardwood floors instead of looking like gym pieces. In addition, it finally debuted a range of ellipticals, far too long missing from its lineup. Another technical innovator starting to focus more on the high-end home segment, Bodyguard continues to integrate its X-Card software into treadmills and ellipticals, allowing for personalized workouts to be programmed on cards that insert into the machines and allowing home-computer or personal-trainer, post-workout analysis. The new E250X (MSRP $2,700) and E230X ($2,200) feature adjustable three-position-tilt foot pedals and a tilting console, as well as an adjustable stride length but that last features is only adjustable by the retailer upon order since the shroud needs to be disengaged and the mechanics fiddled with to adjust. We bet a user-friendlier mechanism will be next!

Kids (and parents) spend too much time in front of the PlayStation? FitNex created an interface between its recumbent bike trainer and a PlayStation 2 or X-Box so a modified version of a FitNex’s standard R40 recumbent bike controls the game. If you don’t pedal, you can’t play. It was a busy station during the show!

FreeMotion Fitness
FreeMotion introduced its retail line of equipment, hitting higher prices and features geared for both the high-end home and light commercial markets, but the company also presented one of the best concepts in programmable console features we saw at the show — an SD card that plugs into the console of the company’s new machines and provides a complete workout program. Furthermore, FreeMotion was one of the very few companies on the floor to show vision in rethinking the fitness niche — the company showed machines at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, the week after HFB, leading a trend we have seen in some future-thinking specialty retailers who are combining fitness with outdoor or bike to expand the health experience they give customers. For a pre-show look at this company’s debut, click here to access a July 23, 2007, SNEWS® story, “FreeMotion Fitness set to debut specialty retail line at HFB show, seeks retailers.”

European brand Kettler is one of the few exhibitors not made in Asia. The German manufacturer attempted to use its technical know-how to answer criticism on the physical impact of ellipticals with the Syncross V3, an impressive high-end machine that uses a super smooth ergonomic system with adjustable stride and treads and a flat ellipse. Another clever machine was the Alpine Trainer Nordic trainer with independent motion for the upper and lower body, which should provide for better coordinated muscle use and better imitate the actual motion of skiing.

Being a leader in equipment that straddles upper-end home use and light-commercial with personal-use cardio machines that retail between $3,000-$5,000, Landice plans a big step in the first quarter of 2008 on the heels of its 40th anniversary this year: The company will launch its so-called ElliptiMill, a piece that took an elliptical with a center-drive build and “grafted” it onto the company’s treadmill console so all the information is translated into treadmill programs (e.g. RPMs convert into MPH). And following the trend of hi-tech, customizable control evolutions, the ElliptiMill is programmable with a range of full-body workouts including military protocols. Best of all, a video-game-style pacer will walk alongside a digital representation of the user, making for an entertaining way to keep up to preset pacing goals.

LeMond Fitness
SNEWS® editors who spend even some time in the saddle (both on the road and on a spin bike) were immediately impressed by the seat on LeMond Fitness’ new G-Force upright bike. We were not surprised to learn that co-founder and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond was extremely particular about the development of that seat. Conceivably better than that was the bike’s WKO Training system, which allows for intuitive interface with a home computer for workout analysis using software developed by TrainingPeaks. This prototype that allowed you to literally ride mountain trails — sans the ouch of a crash — will debut first as a commercial version next year. Lay down your money now that a retail one will follow.

Life Fitness
Life Fitness brought some of the most innovative new machines to the show, chief among them the X7. With a stride that can shift from 18 to 24 inches, the smooth elliptical trainer helps isolate muscle-groups for focused workouts, showing the muscles used on the display, as well as personalize a machine for comfort. Life Fitness made savvy upgrades in allowing for personal customization in its new Platinum Club Series treadmills, home versions of its commercial machines introduced in March, which use a Mac-like drag and drop system and interface extremely well with iPod and video iPod (and even charge the iPod). The track, mountain and cross-country trail make for some fun running and walking workouts with control system superior to most.

In a word, the story at LifeCore was comfort. The 1000RB is just an easy recumbent bike to sit on and spin, thanks to a mesh seat and five-inch pedal spacing that keeps legs from banging against the machine during workouts. The company also garnered a lot of attention with its simple, crowd-pleasing custom mats, that retail for $79. Who says simple doesn’t sell? Knock one of these out the door with a piece of equipment and watch the bottom line inch up with it.

One way to take advantage of the rise of ellipticals while still paying homage to the traditional treadmill is to combine the two. Houston-based manufacturer MultiSports did exactly that with its motorized elliptical trainer, which functions like an elliptical but like a treadmill is powered by a 3 HP motor. MultiSports is looking to appeal to older customers as well as users rehabbing injuries who want the chance to rest provided by the motor.

Octane Fitness

The poster child for the shift away from treadmills, Octane has rocketed to the top of SNEWS®’s best supplier reader surveys by focusing only on ellipticals, as well as working on sales and service and dealer relationships. Octane’s new Q47 follows all the best trends we saw at the show. Its electronically adjustable SmartStride stride length (from 18 to 26 inches in half-inch increments) and inward-angled Converging Path handlebars made for an extremely smooth, natural machine — proof that niche focus works when it comes to developing a user-friendly machine.

Quantum’s center-drive elliptical was not brand new, but it still offers the smallest footprint in the industry at just 43 inches. New on Quantum’s treadmills, however, were customized decor flourishes — including carbon fiber and wood core — on the console, making the machines an easier sell to wealthy segments looking to make their fitness equipment an integrated aspect of their home and life — there’s that life-integration theme again.

Although officially on the floor, Precor showed nothing publicly except a few pieces of its already introduced commercial pieces, including its new AMT (adaptive motion trainer).

With a focus on home users and a recent revitalization of its equipment line, Spirit has revamped its specialty line in ellipticals, treadmills and bike trainers. But this year, as with others, the story was ellipticals as it saw them begin to outsell the venerable treadmill. Where did Spirit head? Down the adjustability path, of course! Its new XE 600 and 700 machines offer both incline adjustment and manual angle adjustments on the foot pedals. Personalize it, baby!

Launching a couple of dozen long-awaited new pieces of equipment, SportsArt was another manufacturer that responded to the demand for more ellipticals, showing six brand new models, four of them with adjustable stride capability. The entry-level E83 came in at $2,560 retail and offered manual stride adjustment between 18 and 25 inches. The company also developed a new cushioning system in the footpads after learning that “consumers still like to feel something tactile” on the showroom floor, according to marketing director Scott Logan. Its E825 offered excellent on-screen monitoring with a cardio advisor program that calculates heart rate goals to keep the user in control of a workout.

The hottest cardio toy at the X-Bike booth is still in the beta version, but it certainly got competitive SNEWS® editors sweaty. The X-Dream combines an upright X-Bike with a mountain bike video game, racing along real-world courses on-screen. The best aspect is that the other racers pace you, passing when you fall behind. Among other features that translate the game into a training tool, X-Dream works progressively, too; you can’t advance to more difficult levels until you “win” at a lower level. For machines launching now, X-bike offered the 800, a fixed wheel system that can be converted to a flywheel and features the X-Bar, an active handlebar system that provides an upper body workout along with the spin.

Remember, if your product or company wasn’t mentioned here, that’s either because it didn’t strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it. SNEWS® started detailed show reports on Aug. 2 and we will continue to cover categories in separate reports ongoing for the next few weeks. Among them are, of course, the strength and cardio equipment reports, as well as others on education, fun and all that other stuff at the show.