Cardio equipment with entertainment options and new technology helps to keep your members motivated.

WHEN MAJOR CARDIO equipment manufacturers were asked about the future of cardio equipment, they all agreed that what they predict for the future has already begun. Two of the areas where the biggest changes will occur are in personalized entertainment and technology upgrades -- both of which can already be seen on many pieces of equipment. Explains Bob Quast, senior director, cardio product management, Life Fitness, Schiller Park, Ill., "Life Fitness sees the increasing rise of workout personalization as a key industry trend over the next five years. We see the concept manifesting itself in ... entertainment [and] workout customization. These categories are reflected in key features that have been incorporated into our cardio products over the last two years."

Terry Woods, director of product management for Star Trac, Irvine, Calif., explains the recent changes to cardio equipment: "Cardio products are at the beginning stages of adopting new technology that, although it has been available for years, has now slowly become affordable for manufacturers."

Manufacturers are making changes and additions to their equipment with the end-user in mind -- your members. "If it is relevant in the never-ending quest to improve the user experience, then we'll investigate integrating it into our products," says Woods. Read on to find out what equipment manufacturers are doing to improve member usage.

Entertaining members

"The days of four TVs on the wall and everyone fighting over the piece [of equipment] in front of ESPN are over," says Quast of Life Fitness. Personalized entertainment on individual pieces of cardio equipment will soon be the norm.

Chuck Alchermes, director of commercial sales, Landice Treadmills, Randolph, N.J., agrees: "There will be more cardio with entertainment on board, utilizing larger screens for display, as well as multi-media compatibility."

And entertainment options will be seen on all types of cardio equipment, according to Bob Palka, president of Jacobs Ladder LLC, North Tonawanda, N.Y.: "In terms of product development, I think you will see an accelerated increase in options on traditional pieces like steppers, bikes, treadmills and ellipticals -- options like increased entertainment and electronics."

Entertainment options for your members will be more than simply television. For instance, members could access local radio stations, says Quast. And games will become more common and more sophisticated. Brett Collins, sales and marketing, VersaClimber, Costa Mesa, Calif., anticipates programs such as racing your neighbor: "see your neighbor's speed and try to beat it."

Personalization will be key. According to Brad Schupp, president of Sportsmith, Tulsa, Okla., "The entertainment aspect will certainly grow -- it will become more personalized, much like a Yahoo homepage where you can choose your interests and categories. ... Moving away from TVs and headphones, users would type in their personal pin number, and their settings would come up. [Information on] interests such as golf, travel or cooking could be displayed." Educational programming could also be an option, says Schupp. Members who travel frequently could learn key phrases in another language, for example.

Susan Bell, senior product manager for Precor, Woodinville, Wash., says that innovations won't stop there: "There is so much farther we can still go. The introduction of products such as the iPod opened things up. People get used to things like that, which makes it easier to introduce new technology. If you think about it, people were using treadmills before everyone had their own computer." This new technology will make cardio equipment more "exciting, interesting and fun," she says.

Keeping the end-user in mind

PROGRAM PERSONALIZATION. While entertainment is a great distraction from exercise, workout feedback can be a great motivator to improve fitness and attain goals. Cardio equipment manufactures are creating new programs to let members customize and track their workouts. Woods of Star Trac says, "I believe that innovating 'just because you can' will be replaced with innovations that truly allow the users to reach their established goals more effectively."

Collins from VersaClimber predicts that equipment will allow users to connect a laptop or PDA to download workout stats. And Palka of Jacobs Ladder thinks "we will also see an increased emphasis on using heart rate to condition properly. Products that make heart rate training easier and more user-friendly will become more popular."

Bill Patton, marketing director for Concept 2, Morrisville, Vt., agrees that we will "see a trend toward more integrated heart rate monitoring." Concept 2 also recently introduced a monitor that can "plot the power curve produced by the rower, providing visual feedback to support an improved rowing motion."

Many advancements can already been seen on equipment, such as personalized programs created by a personal trainer, and workouts that can be tracked via a pin number or some type of scanner.

Alchermes of Landice says that we will "continue to integrate scientific advancements in exercise programming, and pay attention to how the body works."

NICHE MARKETS. This idea of paying attention to how the body works is catching on among cardio manufacturers. Quast of Life Fitness explains that his company has two different types of elliptical cross-trainers that offer different types of motion, since the "feel of a cross-trainer is subjective." Bell of Precor says that manufacturers are keeping the "whole user" in mind when designing products, including experimenting with stride length on elliptical trainers. Collins from VersaClimber says that his company now offers a reduced step height on its products "for a 50 percent easier workout."

These changes are part of the trend toward creating products that fit every user, not just the "usual" fitness center member. "The industry will separate into more specific niches," says Alchermes of Landice. "It will create specific products to satisfy specific markets. [For example,] older adults need products that are simple and easy on the joints; rehab products need separate controls for the therapist and support for the patient; sports conditioning products need higher top speeds, etc. [Manufacturers] will take advancements in computers and manufacturing and apply them to their products to offer more value for the [user and fitness center]." An example of these innovations is a treadmill that Landice created specifically for the older adult and rehab markets. It "has a simple display, low start speed, full handrails for support and soft suspension," says Alchermes. The company also offers programming to address specific markets, such as the military and fire personnel.

Palka of Jacobs Ladder agrees that products will be offered to serve specific markets: "I think we will see product development to service the niche markets. Markets like the deconditioned, kids and anaerobic tools for serious athletes need to be served better than they are today."

NuStep, Ann Arbor, Mich., which already offers a recumbent stepper for a niche market, is further enhancing its product to make it more accessible: "Recently, NuStep introduced a new handle gripping accessory, The WellGrip, which enables users with severe wrist flexion or limited strength to utilize our product more effectively," says Vice President of Sales and Marketing Steve Sarns.

Sarns also explains that cardio equipment is adapting for another market -- users who are pressed for time: "Cardio equipment is trending toward total-body exercise. People are pressed for time, and desire to exercise their entire body in a shorter amount of time."

Options for facility managers

While much of the changes in cardio equipment are designed for the user, fitness center managers will also reap some benefits. Schupp from Sportsmith says that "the changes [in cardio equipment] will deal with the communication of the equipment ... to the manager and to the equipment manufacturer." This means that the equipment could send an email to maintenance personnel, alerting them about a problem, Schupp explains. Or, for preventive maintenance, it could send an email reminding management about replacing parts, etc. This type of information would also help managers with record keeping.

In relation to maintenance, Palka of Jacobs Ladder says that there will be "an increase in reliability of cardio equipment. Gym owners need products that don't break down."

And additional revenue may also be in store for fitness centers. Quast from Life Fitness explains that fitness centers could have a promo channel that runs on every cardio TV screen. When members get on the machine, a short ad for personal training or the pro shop could run.

What this means for retention

Woods of Star Trac sums it up best when he says, "Any of these innovations simply become a tool that clubs and staff will ... manage in order to improve the experience for their members."

Schupp says that changes to equipment will continue to be made because, "we've got to do something more to keep [members] interested." Bored members will be a thing of past, though, according to Quast at Life Fitness: "Boredom and monotony in the facility will be gone."

Quast also says that entertainment and tracking options will increase membership sales. One YMCA that Life Fitness worked with actually increased membership sales by 50 percent after installing cardio equipment with personal entertainment.

Technology is helping to change cardio equipment as we know it, and the category is growing by leaps and bounds in the form of entertainment, workout tracking and communication. These can lead to happier members who keep coming back to your facility, and an improved bottom line.