The future of exercise is here — and it’s heavy on the techno.

The future of exercise is here — and it’s heavy on the techno.

Fitness equipment is catching up with tech-savvy, gadget-loving exercisers who are downloading workouts onto their iPods, wearing heart-rate monitors and logging the miles they’ve run to continually fine-tune their workouts.

For gym rats, the latest cardio and strength machines will do much of the work for them, allowing users to customize workouts and compile their fitness data on home computers so they can keep a close watch on their progress. For example, someone could plug a USB stick into an elliptical trainer, work out, save the information to the USB and download that into a home computer. From there, a new workout can be designed with specific time and intensity, then downloaded into the elliptical next time, programming the machine to go at that pace. By tracking workouts, exercisers can see whether they’re progressing, or need to work harder to achieve their goals.

Some of the machines work directly with iPod Nanos, which can track workouts with the help of a sensor built into a shoe. Easy-to-navigate touch screens are replacing boring, old-school LED readouts. One company introduced a weight machine equipped with an instructive video to demonstrate proper form and speed for various exercises, perfect for those who need strength-training tutorials.

This growing technology in the fitness world may be a boon to exercisers, says Randy Drake, senior vice president of community and corporate development for 24 Hour Fitness.

“Exercise and how you take care of yourself has to extend beyond the four walls of a gym. This is a great way to reinforce that.” He also noted that, years from now, computer-driven fitness will be inevitable: “This is going to be completely natural — taking your workout with you, customizing it on your terms, setting goals and having that portability.”

The latest in fitness equipment debuted at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association’s annual International Trade Show held recently in San Diego, where shiny, sleek, state-of-the-art machines enticed health-club owners looking for the latest gear. The computer-savvy crowd and tech types who love new tools probably will be the most enthusiastic early users. Other exercisers may come to appreciate the possibilities more gradually.

“When your friend says he’s getting a great workout because he’s using his iPod and it interfaces with a piece of equipment, more and more people are going to start using that type of technology,” says Joe Moore, the association’s president and chief executive. “It makes sense. It’s a natural progression.”

And for some — say those who simply want to exercise without knowing how many steps they climbed — touch screens can morph into television screens. If there’s nothing good on TV, members can plug in iPods and download their own music or video content.

Because watching a bank of communal televisions is so five minutes ago.

Although the show didn’t unveil the Next Great Thing in big cardio machines, ellipticals at least will become more appealing. Their repetitive, if easy-on-the-joint, motions allow for varying strides. One machine allows exercisers to just move the handles back and forth, creating an upper body workout, and help stave off boredom.

A glimpse of what might be coming to a gym near you:
u Computers are an exerciser’s new best friend. Life Fitness’ Elevation series of cardio equipment allows users to save their workouts to a USB stick, then download that information into a special Web site where they can monitor the workout length, distance and intensity. They also can customize workouts by pre-programming the same variables on a computer, then downloading those into a machine. Music and videos from iPods can be downloaded into the machines as well.

Star Trac offers software with a series of pre-designed cardio and strength programs that allows users to track their progress. Gyms will sell the software-loaded USB sticks to members, who can plug them into Star Trac’s E Series cardio equipment and its new Koko strength-training machines, then download the information at home on their computers. Those Koko machines also contain video screens that show users how to do exercises with proper form and speed.

The Nike Plus system is being expanded to include indoor exercisers. Nike already has footwear containing a sensor that relays information to the exerciser’s iPod Nano, which can then be downloaded into a computer to track progress. Until recently it was used outdoors only. Now Life Fitness, Star Trac, Precor and Technogym have incorporated the technology into select machines so that workouts can be monitored in the gym as well.

u Elliptical trainers have long been one of the favorite pieces of cardio equipment among gym rats — so popular that veteran users are getting bored doing the same rotating movements over and over again. A few years ago some machines were engineered to allow changes in stride length, but transitions were jerky and uncomfortable. Now kinks have been worked out, and machines run as smooth as butter.

They can do other things as well. True’s new CSX elliptical allows users to step off the pedals and onto fixed side panels, then move just the handles back and forth to get a better upper-body workout.

It joins Precor’s Adaptive Motion Trainer, which features variable pedals that can go from a traditional elliptical rotation to more of a marching motion.

Johnny G, the father of Spinning, has come back into the gym with the Krank cycle. It looks like a Spin cycle but — instead of pedals — has hand cranks that can be turned together or independently. Kranking, says Jim Karanas, who led classes at the show, provides a great cardio workout while toning the upper body and working core muscles. He says it’s also useful for the extremely obese and people with lower-body injuries.

Veteran gymgoers such as Drake can’t help but notice the popularity of iPods and other techno-gadgets becoming as much a fixture in gyms as dumbbells. “We’ve felt a certain critical mass happening over the last 18 months,” he says, “and we love the evolution of it.”