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HFB 2013: Say goodbye to the fitness equipment console — Apple/Android to take over

Industry reaching a point where it's more cost-effective to build an app and include a tablet versus having to come up with a console of their own.

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We’re here to make a prediction.

Within three to five years, not only will every elliptical, treadmill and indoor bike have the ability to connect and interact with a smartphone or tablet, a majority of them will solely rely on the Apple, Android and Windows devices as their main consoles.

“It’s the logical next step,” said Bodyguard’s Director of Sales and Marketing Justin Richardson, echoing many others at the 2013 Heath and Fitness Business Expo in Las Vegas.

“You see some equipment out there with their own touchscreens and technology, but they already they look outdated. Users are disappointed because they’ve gotten used to the quality of their iPad,” he said. “Apple is really good at what it does. Why not let them handle the screens and we’ll handle the treadmill.”

Indeed it’s getting close to the point where it would be more cost-effective for fitness equipment manufacturers to build an app and include a third-party tablet versus developing a console of their own.

“I could see a day where you buy a treadmill with or without a tablet,” said Dan Allred, specialty fitness account manager at LifeSpan Fitness. “It would be less costly than continuously trying to stay ahead of the technological curve … and many users already have their own device at home or bring it with them to the gym.”

The shift stands to bring more fitness equipment into the technological age, and, perhaps more importantly, make leaps and bounds in instantly personalizing every machine —no matter where they are — the moment users connect their smartphone or tablet. Workouts regimens will seamlessly go from the club to the home to the hotel gym, helping keep users on task and committed.

It will also set up new lines of competition and business within the industry. People will not only develop allegiances to hardware, but to software too. The race is on to who can make the best fitness apps that tailor to the machine’s workouts, plus communicate with the users’ digital calendars, social media and favorite third-party apps like RunKeeper or Endomondo.

Gone will be the days of equipment with a couple of modes and pre-determined workouts. The incoming rush of app-driven machines will allow for countless regimen options tailored to the user’s goals for today, tomorrow, next week and next year. Manufacturers can push app updates at any time or there’s the potential for add-on sales with new digital workouts as we saw at Peloton Cycle.

The possibilities to personalize the equipment and workouts are tremendous, said Tim Porth, president of marketing and product development at Octane.

The brand best known for its ellipticals has come up with hundreds of workouts on its new app tailored from everything to “feeling better” to “toning up” to “losing weight.” There’s also an “athletic performance” option, which can be dialed down to best fit the sport people are training for, such as cycling, marathons or even golf. And since each workout result can be stored, the programming can automatically and accordingly adjust future workouts based on the user’s previous performance to promote long-term gains.

Apps allow workouts to get more complex and varied, too — helping maintain user engagement. With Octane’s Cross-Circuit training regimens, the programs instruct users when to get off the elliptical and do a weight-lifting session. The screen shows a video demonstration of the workout about 10 seconds before the switch as a visual reminder.

“It’s an emotional and cultural shift,” Porth said, adding that he realized the potential after buying a Garmin fitness watch for his run training. “When you run and you know your information is going to be stored [or by choice, posted to Facebook or Twitter], you run harder,” he said. “That’s what drives me — I look down and see 5.9 miles, but I want to go 6. It’s like having a coach there to push you through to the end.”

Different apps will target different user segments. At BH Fitness, the company showed off its new line of apps it developed with app-maker Pafers. They allow users to run real-world routes on BH’s treadmills, bikes and ellipticals while the screen displays Google Maps from the satellite or street view and adjusts incline or resistance accordingly to the terrain.

“Runners can run the exact marathon route before the race,” said BH Director of Marketing Julie Creed. Another new BH app is called “Burn My Meal” for those more interested in weight loss. Users enter what they ate for lunch or dinner and then exercise until they burn off the calories from the meal.

While the flood of technology, touchscreens and apps are bound to bring many benefits and new marketing angles, they may also lead to more troubleshooting. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t see app demonstrations at numerous HFB exhibitor booths crash, freeze or fail to respond to a tap or swipe. And most brands were unable to show off their new wireless Bluetooth connections due to the flood of signals and interference on the show floor.

Some worry that the screens create too much distraction — especially if users flip over to Facebook or mindless TV shows during workouts.

“One of my fitness goals is to get away from all the screens that we stare at all day,” one observer at the show said. “If the brain isn’t engaged on the task, it’s like putting a lot of junk on a healthy sandwich.”

Chip Kennedy at Incline Strider agreed, debuting a product that purposely bucked the technological trend — a self-powered inclined treadmill that uses an 11.88 percent incline and a weighted flywheel for resistance training.

“If you look at the popularity of Cross-Fit, there’s no technology or even electricity involved — it’s all old-school working out,” said Kennedy, a former steel worker from Pittsburgh. He wanted to bring that human-powered resistance training the treadmill, so he built the Incline Strider, producing a calf-burning workout — a lot like hiking up a hill. (Stay tuned to SNEWS for more coverage on this new and cool product, plus more on the cardio category).

Manufacturers acknowledge that the technology rush might be distracting or daunting for some users, especially those in the active-aging group. Many brands going the tablet route are compensating with “easy mode” options, usually a green button on the screen that will let users “just go.”

Brands also will have to step up their education efforts with specialty fitness retailers.

“We’re making the rounds in the stores with training,” Porth said.

There’s a lot of new things to learn.

–David Clucas