Cardio Equipment for Special Populations

You may think of cardio equipment as a one-size-fits-all type of product. However, manufacturers have made changes and upgrades to their cardio products so that they can be used effectively and safely by older adults, people with disabilities and elite athletes.

WHEN YOU HEAR "special populations," you think of people who aren't "typical" members of a fitness center - people who aren't within the 18- to 34-year age range and already pretty fit. However, these "typical" members aren't so typical anymore. Older adults are now a large part of the fitness center scene, as well as people with disabilities and elite athletes. While a fitness facility from 20 years ago maybe wasn't a place for these "other" types of members, fitness centers today cater to a wide range of members: young and old, novice and athlete, able-bodied and disabled. This change is reflected in the programs and equipment that is offered. Cardio equipment that was once designed for the "typical" exerciser's height, weight and fitness goals has been modified to fit these newer types of members. Leading cardio equipment manufacturers give you some ideas about what is available for all of your members.

Older and/or disabled members

Many cardio products are promoted as "suitable for people of all fitness levels." However, some exercisers need some specialization. What type of cardio equipment is available for older members and those with disabilities? That obviously depends on the ability level of each individual member, but equipment manufacturers have made some adjustments to their equipment to make it usable by almost everyone. Says Bob Quast, senior director, cardiovascular product management for Life Fitness, Schiller Park, Ill., "Life Fitness designs its products based on extensive biomechanical research that is conducted with numerous users varying in height, weight, age, sex and ability." This type of research is common among manufacturers, and signals a change in the way products are developed for all types of users. Treadmills. Once thought of as the cardio piece of choice for only serious exercisers and athletes, treadmills now offer many features that make them accessible and easy to use for almost every member. Slower start speeds, smaller speed and incline increments, and shorter step-up heights make exercising on a treadmill easier. Says Eric Weber, national sales manager for Woodway, Waukesha, Wis., "With a zero slip belt, a true 0 miles-per-hour (MPH) start and 0.1 MPH speed increments, Woodway treadmills allow users to safely and comfortably select the perfect [workout] speed, . . . while maintaining a natural gait pattern. [Also,] . . . Woodway treadmills . . . minimize the impact of foot strike at the point of contact, allowing users with arthritis or other degenerative concerns to work out when conventional treadmills would be too painful." Life Fitness also offers a shock-absorbing deck, "which reduces impact to lower-body muscles, joints and bones by up to 30 percent more than noncushioned surfaces," Quast says. Plus, Life Fitness treadmill models feature wide widths and long lengths that make it easy to get on and off the treadmills, side handrails for assistance and low step-up heights. True Fitness, O'Fallon, Mo., also offers these key features. Keith Hankins, vice president, dealer sales, says that True's treadmills offer a low step-up height and a 23- inch-wide running surface, "making it a very safe/stable surface." Slow starting speeds are common for most manufacturers. Says Scott Logan, director of marketing for SportsArt Fitness, Woodinville, Wash., "Our 6320 treadmill features a very low start speed of 0.1 MPH to accommodate all abilities." Life Fitness treadmills also have a low starting speed of 0.5 MPH. Unique features are available on some treadmills for certain populations. "The 6320 treadmill features a motor that runs -3 MPH in reverse, and declines by 3 percent to aid patients in rehab settings," Logan of SportsArt says. And, Woodway treadmills can be outfitted with Braille, custom arm supports, harnesses and an optional easy access step. Woodway also offers custom treadmills to accommodate wheelchairs, and treadmills can accommodate users up to 800 pounds, says Weber. Some True treadmills offer a large 2-inch digital readout for easy viewing. Elliptical trainers. "Ellipticals are the fastest growing piece of cardio equipment, partly because they can meet the needs of all types of exercisers - from the deconditioned to the elite athlete," says Tim Porth, executive vice president of product development and marketing for Octane Fitness, Brooklyn Park, Minn. "They are low-impact, which is super for seniors and people with disabilities, and they have virtually no learning curve, so they tend to be less intimidating than some other machines," he says. The popularity of elliptical trainers may, indeed, be due to their ease of use and low-impact workout. For some people, even getting onto a cardio machine is a challenge, and manufacturers are dealing with that issue. Says Star Trac, Irvine, Calif., Director of Product Management Terry Woods, "One of Star Trac's main design principles is 'approachable.' This means the product must allow for easy access and adjustments, just to get started. Many elliptical-type machines force the user to 'climb' onto foot pads or pedals that are unstable, and begin moving as soon as weight is placed on them. Star Trac's new CrossTrainers are specifically designed to allow users a less-than 7-inch step up to a flat platform to get their bearings." Life Fitness' elliptical trainers offer "roomy pedals that allow users to comfortably position their feet and easily enter and exit the machine. [And] close, 2.8-inch pedal spacing . . . reduces lowerback stress by minimizing lateral shifting of the hips," explains Quast. Also, an optional plug-in function is available on Life Fitness ellipticals to reduce start-up resistance. The True Strider offers a rear entry design to allow users to safely enter/exit the unit, explains Hankins. And, "soft orthopedic foot inserts make for a comfortable ride," he says. A unique feature of the True Strider that makes it great for people of varying abilities is that it allows users to work out with their total body, lower-body only or upper-body only. Octane's ellipticals also have a low step-up height, and offer access from the rear, "making it simple to get on and off," says Porth. They also feature close pedal spacing (2 inches), and adjustable stride length. On Octane's Pro450 model, users can adjust the stride from 18 to 23 inches, which accommodates various preferences and user heights. Cycles. Cycles, especially recumbent cycles, have been a mainstay for older adults and people with disabilities for years. They offer comfort and ease of use, and many recent improvements have made them even more popular with members. Life Fitness' Lifecycle recumbent bike offers back support with "built-in contours [to] provide maximum comfort," says Quast. And, their low start-up resistance and an optional plug-in feature to reduce start-up resistance allows users of all fitness levels to easily start using the machine. True features a reclining seat back on one of its recumbent models.
Ease of entry is addressed for cycles, too. Star Trac eliminated the shroud on its Pro Recumbent Bike to allow users to get on to the product easier, explains Woods. This design also allows users to transition easily from wheelchairs, he says. SportsArt Fitness recumbent cycles also feature an easy access step-through design, says Logan, and are "easy to access from a wheelchair." Once on the cycle, the Star Trac Pro Recumbent Bike features a wrap-around seat adjustment bar that allows users to change their positioning from a variety of angles. "Instead of reaching for one knob that could be anywhere, this bar is accessible from the left, right or middle when in the seated position," Woods explains. SportsArt Fitness recumbent cycles feature remote controls that make in-workout adjustments "easy and safe," Logan says.

Directory of Suppliers

Biodex: 800 224-6339; Body Cycle: 888 CLUB GYM; Cateye: 800 872-1105; Concept2: 800 245-5676; Cybex: 508 533-4300; FreeMotion Fitness: 877 363-8449; Healthcare International: 206 285-5219; Jacobs Ladder: 866 697-4100; LeMond: 425 482-6773; Life Fitness: 800 634-8637; Matrix: 866 693-4863; Motus: 866 MOTUS NOW; NuStep: 800 322-2209; Octane Fitness: 888 OCTANE 4; Precor: 800 786-8404; SportsArt Fitness: 800 709-1400; Star Trac: 800 228-6635; True Fitness: 800 426-6570; VersaClimber: 800 237-2271; Woodway: 800 WOODWAY;
Other equipment. In addition to treadmills, ellipticals and cycles, a variety of other cardio products are available for your older members and those with disabilities to use. The XTrainer from SportsArt Fitness is like a cycle with moving arms. It features a step-through design, adjustable seat back and rotational handles on the moving arms, Logan explains. Fingertip resistance control buttons allow users to make mid-workout resistance changes without letting go of the handles. In addition, says Logan, "The XTrainer is a breakthrough piece of equipment for disabled or rehab users because of the independent upper- and lowerbody resistance. This feature . . . allows the user to work arms and legs at different resistance levels, or even work each arm separately." Rowing is a full-body, low-impact workout that can be performed by older adults and people with disabilities. Concept2, Morrisville, Vt., Co-Owner Judy Geer, explains that Concept2's newest indoor rower, Model E, sits higher off the ground for easier accessibility. "With the seat 6 inches off the ground, it positions people at a comfortable height, and makes getting on and off the rower easy for older adults and those with tight joints." Concept2 has also made rowing accessible to "people with many varied gifts and abilities," says Geer. "There are many ways to adapt the Indoor Rower to meet the needs of [people] with paralysis or amputation," plus vision loss and hearing loss, she says. For people with vision loss, Concept2 offers ErgChatter, a free software tool that gives a voice to the Performance Monitor. As users row, ErgChatter announces performance data at regular intervals. Concept2 also works with an organization that offers physical fitness programs for mentally impaired people. Says Geer, "The Concept2 rower has been a huge success in the program, and has proven to be an easy and effective workout for this group." A popular product in hospital-based fitness centers, or any fitness facility that caters to older adults or the deconditioned is the NuStep, Ann Arbor, Mich. NuStep is a recumbent stepping machine with an upper-body component. The machine is designed so that users' hands stay in a neutral position during use. In addition, the NuStep offers a swivel seat that allows users easy accessibility. Recently, NuStep developed a handle gripping accessory called the WellGrip. Says Marketing Coordinator Valencia Johnson, "Stroke, head injury and limited strength patients can grip the NuStep handlebars [using the WellGrip]." Consoles and programs. Options such as oversized buttons, easy-to-read screens and programs designed for beginners are available on many types and brands of cardio equipment. Heart rate monitoring also helps users not go overboard when starting out. For example, many Life Fitness cardio machines come standard with Lifepulse digital heart rate monitoring, wireless telemetry or both, explains Quast. When used in conjunction with Zone Training workouts, the machine automatically adjusts resistance (on elliptical trainers, cycles and the Summit Trainer) or incline level (treadmills) to help the user maintain a specific target heart rate.


You may think that athletes could use any type of cardio piece, since they usually don't have any physical limitations. However, they, too, have special needs when it comes to exercising. Some athletes are very tall or large, and need bigger equipment. Some need faster speeds or benefit from special workout programs. Treadmills. The main feature for athletes on treadmills is speed. Woodway treadmills offer speed options up to 25 MPH, and elevation options up to 35 percent to meet the unique demands of athletes, says Weber. A unique feature to Woodway treadmills is that they have no front motor hood, so "athletes are able to train with a natural gait pattern," according to Weber. Logan says that SportsArt Fitness' treadmills all have a top speed of 12 MPH. One True Fitness treadmill reaches 15 MPH, and the Life Fitness 97Ti and 97Te treadmills have a maximum speed of 16 MPH. These Life Fitness treadmills also offer a negative decline (-3 percent), "for simulating terrain variety and exercising different muscle groups," says Quast. Programming is the next feature that can be specialized for athletes. Heart rate programs come standard on almost all brands of commercial treadmills. And programs such as interval training can help athletes improve their fitness levels. Ellipticals. For athletes, ellipticals offer a cross-training option that is easier on the joints than running, and can engage the entire body (on certain models). Octane Fitness offers its Pro350XL and Pro3500XL models, which have a stride length of 24 inches, "which our research and ongoing feedback shows is preferred by athletes, runners and taller individuals," says Porth. SportsArt Fitness ellipticals feature electronically adjustable stride length, which, says Logan, "allows the user to customize their stride length to fit their size and workout goals." Higher resistance levels also cater to athletes: Octane machines have 25 to 30 intensity levels to meet the needs of athletes, and True elliptical trainers offer up to 600 Watts of resistance. Finally, programming, such as Octane's ArmBlaster, X-Mode (cross training) and GluteKicker programs, and heart rate programs on most machines, allow athletes to customize their workouts to meet their training goals. Cycles. Cycles can offer athletes cross-training options, or indoor training for outdoor cyclists. Life Fitness offers Lifecycles (95Ce, 95Ci and 95CiXXL) with the ability to train up to 500 Watts, and True cycles have 30 to 600 Watts of resistance. Life Fitness' 95CiXXL was specifically designed for athletes ranging in height from 5 feet 6 inches to 7 feet tall, since many tall athletes won't fit on typical cycles. And, programming, such as Speed training on certain cycles and heart rate training, help athletes push themselves to work harder. Rowers. Concept2 rowers allow athletes to cross-train for any sport: skiing, snowboarding, swimming, running, rock climbing, golf and more, says Geer. Among the unique features on Concept2 rowers is the ability to compete online with top-level athletes, and train online with U.S. Rowing Team coaches, Geer says.

Current and future trends

With the changing demographics of fitness center members comes a new type of fitness center, and a new way of doing business. No longer can you just cater to the young "hard bodies"; you now have to attract and keep older members, children, people with disabilities and more. According to the equipment manufactures, that change is being embraced by facility owners, who see a whole new set of potential members. Woods of Star Trac says, "We are finding that clubs are very interested in purchasing product that meets the needs of a wide variety of their potential customers. . . . With the trend of prospects coming into centers and getting a 'feel' for the place before purchasing a membership, facilit[ies] are forced to have equipment on the floor that meets their specific needs, whether it be easy to access, the right programming or a design that does not intimidate users right from the start." Logan of SportsArt Fitness agrees that the equipment needs to fit the needs of a variety of members: "Growing trends are the senior, novice, deconditioned and bariatric (obese) markets [joining fitness centers]. When a manufacturer can develop products that serve the core club customer (18 to 34 years), but that can also serve these other growing market segments, it makes life easier for the club owner, since it allows them to use the same equipment for a wide variety of user types." Bob Palka, president of Jacobs Ladder, North Tonawanda, N.Y., sees this change to serving new markets as "evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Each of the cardio companies is now tweaking the basic design of treadmills, ellipticals and bikes to address the needs of niche markets. [I think] the industry will continue to become more specialized as it matures."
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