Advances in technology can lead to new revenue opportunities for fitness centers.

Move over, heart rate monitors -- new technological advances are hitting the market. While I'm not a technological guru, I do recognize significant technology advancements when I see them -- especially in the fitness industry.

I've spent 20 years advising fitness centers, and especially fitness departments, about how to become more productive and more profitable with new programs and services, especially those geared toward members who want specific answers to their concerns or challenges. And, here's what I've learned: Technology has to accomplish three "big picture" goals for fitness club owners. Technology must make a manager's or fitness director's job easier, help members get more from their workouts, and generate financial opportunities for fitness centers and the fitness professional. If new technology implementation fails on any one of those fronts, you have a problem.

Technology levels the playing field

Technology can help smaller fitness centers compete with larger ones. And, technology used well can make your facility more productive and profitable, and make your customers happier. But only those technologies that don't impede on the relationship your members have with your organization and your staff are worthy of consideration. Applied correctly, technology can enhance the service you provide, and create a point of differentiation and a competitive advantage.

What's really new?

The best technological advance I have seen is a new category of devices called gas exchange analyzers, or oxygen intake analysis. Oxygen intake (also called VO2) devices satisfy the criteria for all of the three key goals that any good fitness technology implementation should have: It makes fitness staff more productive, makes your clients happy and makes your fitness center more money.

Gas exchange technology has been around for 40 years. However, the machines of the past (called metabolic carts) were the size of large file cabinets and cost up to $50,000. Today, these same devices can fit in the palm of your hand, cost a fraction of what the older units did and work much better.

Inside gas exchange technology

What isoxygen intake analysis? When people exercise, they need to breathe oxygen to feed the muscle requirements of increasing intensities. The harder they work, the more oxygen they need. In addition, the more they work, the more lactic acid their muscles produce. Lactic acid is, in part, released from the body in expired air in the form of carbon dioxide. Therefore, if it is possible to analyze the level of carbon dioxide being expired, it is possible to measure what's going on physiologically in the body.

Gas exchange technology allows fitness professionals to analyze what is going on at the muscular level in terms of efficiency. It makes it possible to find out just how fit members are, instead of categorizing them into groups based on age and gender. With this technology, fitness professionals can prescribe exercise more accurately.

How to use it

Here are some specific ideas how to use this new technology.For members who want to lose weight, a gas exchange device can measure resting metabolic rate (RMR). Resting metabolism accounts for up to 70 percent of total daily caloric expenditure, and varies widely between individuals. You can estimate RMR without a device, but the best estimation of RMR is 50 percent accurate. For members who want to know how hard they should train, a gas exchange device can identify the precise heart rate needed for exercisers to meet their particular needs. Using the standard heart rate charts, you can only estimate the correct training zone within 20 beats per minute (plus or minus). This makes heart rate prescription a difficult task even for the best fitness professionals. And, for members want to use a specific amount of calories with each workout, gas exchange technology allows fitness professionals to identify which energy source (fats, proteins, carbohydrates) are being used during rest, moderate activity and strenuous exercise.

These are just a few of the possible uses of gas exchange technology. Simply stated, gas exchange technology provides information about the energy requirements of the body during rest and exercise. It can be used to determine the level of training needed for healthy subjects, and to design programs for those with medical limitations, such as cardiopulmonary disease.

The information obtained from gas exchange testing is useless by itself. The value of the numbers is that they can be used to solve problems. For example, in a weight-management program, recommending daily caloric intake is difficult without knowing RMR. And, using gas exchange technology to determine the aerobic capacity of a member is pointless unless that number is used as part of an exercise prescription.

Even with this technology, you still need a trained exercise professional to guide members through five essential questions: What shape am I in? What shape should I be in? How do I get there? How do I know when I'm there? What do I do after I get there?

Shop around

Gas exchange products weigh less than 2 pounds, are convenient to use and can be transported comfortably in a briefcase. Most of the available gas exchange devices offer a variety of options, such as summary reports printed directly from the unit and the ability to connect to a printer for detailed,multi-colored reports.

Are all machines and manufacturers the same? No, so shop wisely. (See Gas Exchange Technology Resources for a list of manufacturers.) Devices that simply offer a single number with no other support or documentation should be suspect, because you have no way of knowing whether that number is correct. And, how do you know if it's still accurate six months after you purchased the unit? Gas exchange technology works using sensitive analyzers that have a life expectancy of three months for single-use machines, and about two years for more sophisticated devices.

Be sure to ask lots of questions when purchasing a gas exchange device, and try it out. One manufacturer requires that the unit be returned every three months for recalibration. Other devices provide hundreds of numbers for barometric pressure, fraction of inspired oxygen and expired carbon dioxide, etc.

New VO2 technologies enable fitness centers to fulfill three mandates: making them more productive and more profitable, and making their members more comfortable. Imagine a new technology that could offer -- in real time -- functional health evaluations for members. Imagine your members getting clear and comprehensive feedback. That's the promise of gas exchange. If you can stay ahead of the competition via new technologies, then you're way ahead of the game.

Cosmed Fitmate, Chicago, Ill., 773-528-8113, www.cosmed.net, www.fitmate.net
HealtheTech MedGem Indirect Calorimeter, Golden, Colo., 800 345-4207, www.healthetech.com
New Leaf Personal Metabolic Profiler, St. Paul, Minn., 888 826-2751, www.newleaf-online.com
Korr Medical Technologies' CardioCoach V02 System, Salt Lake City, Utah, 801 483-2080, www.korr.com
Polar S710 Xtrainer Plus, Albuquerque,N.M., 800 841-8333, www.polarusa.com
Microfit Health Wizard, Mountain View, Calif., 800 822-0405, www.microfit.com

MedGraphics VO2000 Portable Metabolic Testing System, St. Paul, Minn., 651 484-4874, www.medgraphics.com