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  • Cardio equipment gets smarter with TV, Internet

    In age of information, cardio machines greet by name, connect you
  • You swipe your gym membership card or sign in, and the screen on the cardio equipment welcomes you by name.
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  • You swipe your gym membership card or sign in, and the screen on the cardio equipment welcomes you by name.
    Your sites and bookmarked TV shows and the workouts you tracked — data stored in the cloud — load onto the 10- to 19-inch tablet attached to the bike, elliptical or treadmill. While you work up a sweat, you can read the book you started the night before, check the latest Facebook posts or tweet about the miles you're clocking in real time.
    The fitness industry is in an era of TVs on treadmills, but two industry leaders — Life Fitness, a division of Illinois-based Brunswick Corp., and Washington, D.C.-based Precor — have kicked up competition with the release of personalized Internet-capable products. Life Fitness unveiled its new product line in October and recently opened its application programming interface so developers can create apps for the equipment.
    Some of Precor's cardio equipment — its P80 Console series — has 15-inch LCD touch screens that can connect to the Internet, said Doug Johns, the company's vice president for global marketing and product management. The machines, sold since 2010, are priced at nearly $11,000 for home use.
    "I think it's fair to say that the industry is heading in this direction," Johns said.
    Life Fitness, the industry leader, with sales last year of $635 million, has jumped in with touch screens that allow users to surf the Web.
    "Technology is moving really quick," Life Fitness President Chris Clawson said at a recent presentation to prospective clients, mostly health and fitness clubs that can afford its $10,000 treadmills. "People have a desire to get what's in their purse connected with everything else."
    Still, some equipment-makers and those who work at fitness clubs are skeptical.
    Lisa Juris, vice president of marketing for Cybex International, a competitor, said some people drape towels over the TVs on cardio equipment because they don't want to be distracted. "Some people want an escape, some people want facts, some people want entertainment," Juris said. "People are complex."
    Cybex still is looking into whether being able to connect with the Internet would help exercisers to stay fit or be too much of a distraction.
    Jodi Sullivan, senior director of global fitness for Hilton Worldwide, said customers are eager for the latest technology. Hilton replaces equipment in phases every five years, she said.
    "We want to offer our clients the latest and greatest," Sullivan said. "This is certainly a game-changer."
    Don Hanna, vice president at YMCA of San Francisco, doesn't want to be left behind. "I don't want my members to have this experience (elsewhere) and come back and say, 'Why don't we have that?' " he said.
    Hanna said he'll slowly phase in the machines because of cost.
    Sullivan said among her favorite features were the new tracking capabilities offered by both Life Fitness and Precor. With a few clicks, business owners and managers can determine how often each machine is used and whether a unit needs maintenance. Welcome messages and logos can be customized; Life Fitness said its clients can create their own promotional channels to advertise exercise classes and products.
    Still, Gretchen Collins, director of fitness for Chicago's high-end East Bank Club, said she's not sold — not yet, anyway.
    "The feedback we get from our members hasn't been overwhelming that they want Internet on their personal viewing screen," Collins said. "I just don't think it's worth the money quite yet. We'll have to see."
    Collins said the majority of her cardio equipment is Life Fitness. Only half of her cardio equipment has screens for TV watching, because not all her members want it, she said. She also prefers not to buy first-generation products.
    "Our theory is we don't want to be the first to do anything, because a lot of times with that first generation there are some kinks," Collins said, "and we're buying such large quantities."
    The cost to gym owners also is larger than just purchasing the expensive machines — sometimes in order to connect machines to the Internet, infrastructure has to be altered.
    About one-third of Precor's P80 Console clients choose to activate a club-wide network so their exercisers can access the Internet on the touch screens. None of its Illinois buyers of the Internet-capable machines have chosen to enable Internet.
    Scott Lewandowski, Chicago's regional director for Fitness Formula Clubs, was impressed with Life Fitness' new product line but said it would be difficult for him to retrofit an existing gym. He does see possibilities, though. "I like that it mirrors technology being used outside of the industry," Lewandowski said. "We'd definitely look for this for a new club."
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