Cardiovascular fitness equipment manufacturers strive to advance technology while simplifying the user experience.

Back in the late 1970s, the introduction of a now-archaic-looking exercise bike with an electronic data storage system jump-started the cardiovascular-equipment industry. During the next 30 years, plenty of technological advancements came (preprogram­med treadmills, skin-sensor heart-rate monitors and integrated entertainment systems) and went (consoles equipped with video games and primitive virtual-reality rowing machines).

Today, equipment manufacturers find themselves at a turning point in the fitness revolution, striving to improve upon existing technology and borrowing advancements from the personal-electronics industry without getting too far ahead of consumer demand.

"The pace of innovative ideas entering the marketplace has slowed, compared to the 1980s and '90s," says Sabrena Newton, an exercise scientist and curriculum development specialist for the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise. "There are only so many movements and training techniques the human body can perform safely. Short of flying, what else can we do?"

Cardio-equipment manufacturers aren't ready to concede so quickly. "It might seem, on the surface, that technology has slowed, but that is due to the fact that nothing as groundbreaking as the elliptical trainer has come along in the last few years," says Eric Weber, national sales and marketing manager for Woodway. "That does not mean that the pace of innovation is slowing, but rather it is becoming more sophisticated and less obvious or mechanical in nature."

The last new major cardio modality, the elliptical, was introduced a decade ago by Precor. And industry insiders admit that another product of that magnitude, with the potential to make sweeping alterations to the industry, isn't likely to appear anytime soon. That's why equipment improvements (at least in the near future) will likely occur in the areas of personal entertainment, user friendliness and aesthetics.

From closed-circuit, console-mounted LCD monitors that allow parents to peek in on their young ones playing in the facility's child-care center to console-integrated fans that emit a user's favorite scent to relocated functionality controls for easier access, new improvements abound on major modalities. Most, but not all, are technologically driven.

"As technology has gotten more cost-effective to manufacture, products are being brought to market faster, helping facilities differentiate themselves from competitors," says Bob Quast, senior director of cardiovascular product management for Life Fitness. "How the user interacts with and engages the technology has become easier, so exercisers now are more comfortable with and accepting of technology, and are embracing it more than ever."

Yet at the same time, many equipment manufacturers grapple with one fundamental question: How much technology is too much? "I believe you will see a simplification of much of the programming that is currently being put into cardio equipment," says Nathan Pyles, president of Matrix Fitness Systems. "So much of the current programming achieves more confusion than real benefit."

Indeed, some manufacturers now claim that if a user is required to press more than three buttons to start any element of his or her cardiovascular workout, he or she may just get off the machine and find something else to do -- perhaps at a different facility.

"Many features are used for selling and not for actual use by the customer," says Tim Porth, executive vice president of product development and marketing for Octane Fitness. "Cell phones are the best example. Most cell phones can do more than personal computers did 15 years ago, but who uses all those features? Many people come into a club for 30 minutes, listen to their iPods and they are out. Those people can be overwhelmed by too much technology, and you stand the chance of losing them. The key is making a product flexible enough that it fits the early adopter as well as the technically challenged."

Ask most fitness equipment manufacturers how technology has impacted the development and use of cardio equipment during the past five years, and they will tell you that personal-entertainment devices, either integrated into the equipment or used as an add-on, are more important than ever -- not only in recruiting and retaining exercisers, but in engineering new equipment. And as LCD screen production capacity continues to boom in Asia, the fitness industry will likely see those products become increasingly more affordable.

Today's cardio equipment also features easier-to-use controls built in to the consoles or handlebars and allows for the use of DVD and MP3 technology -- developments barely even dreamed of five years ago. Some pieces of equipment even feature portals designed for personal digital assistants.

Star Trac's Pro Partner feature, for example, allows treadmill and recumbent and upright bike users to download free software from the manufacturer's web site to their PDAs, create customized workouts and retain their results (including average heart rate and calories burned). Users can also beam workouts between PDAs, allowing friends, colleagues or trainers to share customized workouts.

TechnoGym®, meanwhile, has taken the television concept a step further with Wellness TV, an integrated entertainment system that not only allows users to watch TV, but also view facility-developed workout videos that guide exercisers through a training session with performance-coaching cues. Racecourses can also be videotaped and used as "background" for workouts, the company says. There's even a split-screen option that can display, say, a television program and a training video.

Adhering to the same concept, Life Fitness' latest line of E3 Integrated LCD® systems, powered by an Intel® microprocessor, can be tailored to facilities via a password-protected secure channel that allows for closed-circuit airing of promo segments to announce upcoming programming and promotions.

At least one manufacturer, Expresso Fitness, is taking a different approach to virtual interaction by injecting new technology into an old idea. The Spark incorporates the latest in video gaming advancements into an exercise bike to create an interactive training experience that allows users to choose one of several road courses that the company plans to regularly update via automatic downloads. Pedal resistance corresponds to changes on the course. For example, resistance increases on an uphill climb. Users can also opt to watch TV on the unit's LCD screen and listen to a variety of Internet radio stations. The Spark's computer allows for racers in the same facility to compete against each other, too.

"The idea behind the Spark isn't new," admits Brian Button, Expresso's president and chief executive officer, perhaps referring to the short-lived VR Bike that Tectrix introduced in 1994. "But the time is right to implement the idea in a commercially viable package."

Maybe, and maybe not. "One thing we learned at Tectrix is that people don't want to be so engaged with a screen that it requires a lot of input," says Keith Hankins, national commercial sales manager for True Fitness and a former Tectrix employee. "The other problem is that the more engaging the console/programs are, the less intensely people exercise."

The Cybex Trazer™, a full-body, participant-as-joystick experience, could be an exception. The product, acquired by Cybex in 2004 after an independent manufacturer introduced the concept a few years earlier, requires a larger dedicated space than traditional cardio equipment. It targets muscle improvement and mental agility while launching users into an interactive virtual world where reaction time, acceleration, speed, power and balance drive on-screen activities. An infrared beacon on a belt worn by users tracks movements (displayed on a computer monitor or television screen) and relays data to the Trazer's computer system. Cybex is promoting the product to users of all ages and abilities, including those with physical disabilities and the mentally challenged.

Personal entertainment isn't the only area in which technological advancements are taking place these days. Manufacturers have introduced many recent innovations -- some major, others subtle -- that strive to make an individual's cardiovascular workout a more positive experience overall. Some manufacturers, for example, have engineered their latest ellipticals with a rear-access design that uses less space and gives a facility's cardio environment a less-cluttered look.

On a larger scale, Nautilus has developed a treadmill that combines the science of walking and climbing into one piece of equipment that requires from the user movements demanded by a treadmill, a step machine and an elliptical. The TreadClimber® builds on a concept Nautilus introduced to the home-fitness market in 2003 that the company says allows for a quicker, more effective workout. Precor's new EFX®576i elliptical, meanwhile, uses CrossRamp®technology that attaches the footpads to two ramps that can be angled between 13 and 40 degrees for variable stride motions that increase intensity.

Similarly, SportsArt Fitness has combined elements of the exercise bike and the elliptical into the X-Trainer. With the appearance of a recumbent cycle, the X-Trainer provides a full-body workout from a seated position via upper- and lower-body resistance. Rotational handles provide both positive and negative resistance as users pedal. The machine is outfitted with CardioAdvisor™, a heart-rate monitoring system that shows users their high, low and mid-range target heart rates, as well as their actual heart rate during a workout. HeartLogic™ Intelligence, available on Octane's ellipticals, strives to take heart-rate monitoring to a new level by providing interval heart-rate programs.

Some companies have opted to enlarge the controls for such functions as LCD operation, resistance levels and stride lengths to increase readability, while others have moved them from consoles to handlebars. In the case of True Fitness, larger controls on the new Z Series of treadmills are now augmented by built-in testing protocols used by three branches of the U.S Armed Forces. By incorporating age and mileage data, the units provide users a score, based on timed runs, that helps determine their fitness profile. The Z Series, like machines produced by other manufacturers, also include Gerkin protocol, which is often used by firefighters to monitor their fitness levels. Because the protocols are installed on all Z Series treadmill models, any user can test him or herself against the standards. True Fitness officials expect the practice of building in such protocols to become more widespread.

Other recent innovations include equipment that lets facility operators know electronically when a machine is due for routine and high-priority maintenance. Precor's wireless InSite™technology provides automated alerts that inform facility management about maintenance and repair issues, offering detailed diagnostic information. Preventive maintenance schedules can also be entered into the system to send alerts when a machine reaches a specific usage level prior to regularly scheduled maintenance. Precor officials introduced the technology to major club chains in 2003, and are in the process of extending the program this year. At least one other manufacturer, SportsArt, has a similar function on many of its cardio machines.

Considering all of the advances, both large and small, made in cardiovascular fitness equipment during the past 30 years, it's an exercise in futility to predict the next major developments. Not that fitness equipment companies would tell you, anyway. "Give me 18 months," one manufacturer says. "It's top secret, ya know?" jokes another.

Some insiders speculate that a new modality could be on the horizon, while others expect advances in holography and three-dimensional graphics to boost interactive technology and customization options to new levels. There's even a segment of the market that sees a trend toward machines that vibrate to enhance stretching, strength, power and endurance -- thus improving upon a concept pioneered in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Studies claim that vibration exercise increases bone density, enhances motor skills, raises resting metabolic rates and reduces blood pressure. Still other manufacturers foresee cardio equipment being designed to better fit the bodies of children and adolescents, as well as options for athletes involved in high-performance and sport-specific training.

A few years ago, Woodway introduced the Force, a treadmill-training concept that is still in its infancy. The system tethers the athlete, who becomes the unit's drive mechanism -- a human motor, if you will. The output forces generated by the athlete become the limiting factor in the system, not the top speed of the treadmill itself.

Woodway also recently introduced the iMett, a metabolic testing system that evaluates and monitors aerobic fitness by determining each user's anaerobic threshold. By using the test results, trainers can create custom programs for users. Similarly, the New Leaf Active Metabolic Training™System from Angeion Corp. assesses an individual's metabolic response while he or she exercises for 10 minutes on any piece of cardio equipment, continually monitors the user's heart rate and takes a snapshot of the person's aerobic activity that includes caloric burn rate, fat utilization, anaerobic threshold and peak oxygen capacity. Both technologies can be used in high-end training environments or as part of a facility's standard fitness offerings.

In the end, the forces that drive advances should come down to marketplace demands, experts say. "There are always two customers to satisfy: the exerciser and the business owner," says Brian Davidson, national sales manager for SportsArt's commercial division. "The facility operators need real solutions, not just bells and whistles. They need solutions to help users get more out of their workout experience, and they need products that are durable, easy to use and attractive."

Terry Woods, senior product manager for Star Trac, agrees. "The number-one thing we need to avoid is developing technology just to say we did," he says. "Technology with no direction is dangerous, and it will lead to expensive, unused products that will create a poor image of our industry. It is vital that we understand the needs of the users, and if there is an opportunity to meet these needs with technology, then we can take the appropriate steps."