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Advanced Cardio Consoles Allow for Connected Fitness Community

Brock Fritz Headshot
[Photo courtesy of SportsArt]
[Photo courtesy of SportsArt]

The fitness industry has never been more connected.

Exercisers can hop on a cardio machine — at home or in the gym — and climb a digital mountain, run a simulated Boston Marathon, tune in to a virtual group cycling class or challenge a stranger to a race. While those options stemmed from recent technological advancements, they came at a perfect time in an industry that is looking to bring users all of the information and entertainment they want.

If the COVID-19 pandemic had hit 25 years ago, everyone wishing to work out would have been left on their own — or with whatever workout videos they owned. Now, the fitness world has opened up and people are taking advantage of technology that allows them to create a heightened sense of community even if they are physically separated.

"It's a tough time to be launching products with many gyms and fitness facilities being closed, but as far as technology goes, it's played a pretty big role in shaping what the future of the fitness industry is going to be," says Scott Williams, console technology product manager at Matrix. "With many of these facilities being closed and the public being leery of actually going to a gym if they're open, people are turning to the online, digital, virtual workouts now more so than ever. So, when things do open up, because inevitably I think they will, it's going to be, 'How can we create that holistic experience?'"

"The sky's the limit when you get the technology," says Ryan Simat, senior vice president of sales at Echelon Fitness Multimedia. "We have no shortage of ideas and projects, that's for sure. There's a whole lot of 'What if we did this? What if we do that?'

"It starts with the console, but it can just go so much further as far as being able to be fully interactive with an exerciser."

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Personal touch
The rub with cardio consoles is they aren't, and will never be, one size fits all. Anyone can hop on a treadmill, bike, elliptical or rowing machine, but they enter the task looking for a variety of experiences. Therefore, cardio companies have tried to provide anything a user could be looking for.

"We are seeing cardio consoles trending to more of a personal touch," says Jim Williams, cardio product marketing manager at TRUE Fitness. "The user, whether they are commercial or residential, wants to see their information on the console, phone or device. This is more than just workout data and stats. It is their news feed, their social media, their personal workout choices, their streaming channels and shows. We know most people getting on our products just want to get away for a while and exercise."

The consoles try to answer that call, even if that means their features go unused while individuals just attempt to break a quick sweat.

"Ninety percent of people just get on there and hit quick start, so having that readily available is something that's pretty well accomplished currently but is still something that people are looking for," SportsArt product manager Matt Thorsen says. "As it pertains to more of a touchscreen or a smart console, we're all moving toward just increased technology integration. I have about 15 smart devices in my own home, so just increases in things like that where people want a multitude of preset workouts, they want the ability to watch TV if that's set up at their gym or wherever they're working out, browsing the internet. You can get on there, you can watch YouTube, you can open up your Kindle app and read your book as you're pedaling along and doing your workout."

Technogym's new cardio interface, Technogym LIVE, was created to offer variety and personalization. The virtual training modes and workout options combine with numerous entertainment options to answer users' needs.

"It guides and motivates users to reach their goal with a personalized training experience," a Technogym spokesman says. "Users are looking for motivation and results. We know that, and we want to attract, engage and retain all of them by offering personalized contents, does not matter what makes them move. If you get motivation from an HIIT workout, Technogym LIVE offers the fully automated Routines, if you need the engagement of the music and the guidance of a trainer you can enjoy the Technogym Sessions, if what you want is disconnect and fly away with your mind we offer a wide library of outdoor landscapes."

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Pushing the envelope
While the core function of cardio equipment has remained constant, consoles have seen a lot of innovation over the years. In fact, advancements have come so rapidly that fitness facilities might find themselves owning some relatively new cardio machines that aren't equipped with every technology a user seeks.

"When we launched our first touchscreen platforms back in the day, YouTube existed, but Netflix was not even a thing," Scott Williams says. "And now here we are, those old legacy products that were the first touchscreen consoles, those are still in the field and being used, and it shows how rapidly technology moves. It's the expectation from the end-user — that, 'Oh this is a console, this is basically a computer on a treadmill, this should be able to accommodate and stream Netflix.' I certainly wish that was the case, but technology just moves so fast."

That quick development has created a number of products in a short period of time. Therefore, new cardio consoles are equipped with ports and attachments so that they can be used with smart watches, smartphones, Bluetooth and any other devices people may have in their fitness repertoire.

"We've packed in a lot of these technologies so we can accommodate the devices people are going to bring to the gym anyway," Scott Williams says, noting Matrix has recently released 16-inch and 22-inch touchscreens. "We pack that technology in and we have a lot of workout options — high-intensity interval training workouts — and the features we pack into our products are customer-driven. We just don't come up with these ideas. It's based on feedback from the end-users. So, another feature we've implemented is the ability to create custom workouts."

Jim Williams believes that there is no ceiling on cardio console technology, and that the industry is just starting to scratch the surface with what it can do.

"The workouts have been streamlined, television is easily accessible, but the newest aspect to TRUE's console lineup is the ability to mirror the user's phone — whether they have an iPhone or Android — to the console," he says of TRUE'S latest offering — the Showrunner console. "The Showrunner comes standard with an HDMI port on the front of the console where the user can simply plug in their device and navigate the console to mirror their information. The club or facility has the option to add mirroring cables to the HDMI port. There is one cable for iOS devices, another for Android. We are looking at all our consoles to see if we can integrate these features anywhere else in the product offerings."

The goal of any fitness equipment is to offer a variety of workouts for any type of individual. In an industry that sees frequent trends come and go, fitness professionals expect that there will always need to be a balance of offerings.

"I think it needs to be this hybrid," Simat says, noting the technology can't overtake ease of use. "There are some people who don't need to be entertained. They just want to get on and go, or they want to bring their own device.

"And then there are fitness products where the console technology can really bring the product to life from a workout standpoint. It's giving you feedback that makes it more motivating to be working out. You can see that even in a product as simple and longstanding as a treadmill, you can deliver some content where now you're running the Boston Marathon and you're seeing courses. That interactive connective fitness is actually motivating for that exercise. And then there's that third piece of the hybrid, which is now class content. You're rowing, riding, running with other people in a virtual world. I think there's a place for all of that. Any way that a health club can bridge with their member and stay connected with their member outside the four walls of the gym is considered a win."

Class attendance
Cardio workouts are no longer just about finding a way to distract yourself while burning calories. Recent technological advancements have involved creating virtual classes with the goal of getting users more focused on the workout. Peloton, and its at-home cycling classes, brought attention to this movement, while the entire industry has shifted some focus on delivering class content directly to individuals.

"Where I see kind of the next trend is literal fitness class content, and that's what we do at Echelon," Simat says. "Where we see a lot of opportunities is connected fitness, meaning I can now show up at the health club or the fitness center, and if it's a fitness center that doesn't have a spin studio, I can now join a class 24/7. It could be a live class that's streamed from Echelon, or one of thousands of on-demand classes that are available every minute of every day. And you get a sense of riding with other people — not just riding with an instructor but riding with hundreds if not thousands of other people from around the world. Some people would say riding with, others would call it riding against. If they're competitive, they might be racing, but it's a great way to stay motivated and have classes motivated 24/7."

Thorsen says that competing against someone, or being able to virtually high-five somebody undergoing the same workout as you, can take any at-home workout to the next level. But will such rapidly advancing technology ultimately replace live, in-person classes?

"Without being able to predict the future, I think both will be prevalent," Jim Williams says. "Ease of access may push users to more of an on-demand experience than live, but I think there will remain a market for both."

A shared environment
The future of fitness involves allowing exercisers to get their workout in wherever they're located.

As technology continues to advance and the regular exerciser is equipped with more devices, the goal is to create products that offer a seamless transition from the workout facility to the home.

"I call it the bridge," Simat says. "The health club can stay connected with their member outside of the four walls when they go home and still have that stickiness, that connection with the client and the member through that interactivity. We're not just looking to be the home solution. We're looking to be a solution in the commercial facility, too, that can be a partner with the commercial facilities and not an enemy."

That last part has been a challenge posed by companies such as Peloton. While at-home products have been treated like a competitor to brick-and-mortar facilities in the past, some fitness professionals believe that a facility's ultimate goal should be to integrate those virtual content platforms. Health clubs are starting to weigh how their in-person classes can mesh with virtual offerings. Do they want to offer at-home options when they pay instructors to run group cycling classes or boot camps? And if so, what's the best way to do that while ensuring members still come through their doors?

Simat says that in-facility virtual classes can help beginners feel comfortable in an environment that otherwise might be intimidating to newcomers. If they can go to the gym, hop on a machine and successfully take a class virtually, they might feel more comfortable attending an in-person class where they are working out directly in front of a group of people.

Furthermore, in-person classes naturally have space and resource limitations that don't exist virtually.

"Even if you're a fitness center that has a great group cycling studio, most health clubs are only doing three to four classes per day in that studio," Simat says. "What if I can only work out at a certain time of day and there isn't a spin class that works for me? Having those interactive, connected pieces that will allow me to do a spin class over in the cardio area is a great solution. It seems to be a great opportunity for health clubs to engage with the members that want that type of connected fitness.

"We've got to find that balance. We need to have personal training and interactive benefits of real live training, but we also need to give people that simplicity and that low-intimidation scenario of joining an interactive class right here in the health club.

"We can partner with the health club and use their trainers, their experts. They have great programming, content development and instructors that have been doing this for decades. Maybe we leverage that and then that reduces their guard — now it's their programming, their branding — so now their members are getting access to more of their health club content in a digital realm."

The trend of connected fitness was coming for years, with Technogym embedding personal television screens in cardio machines way back in 2002.

"We believe in the ecosystem approach: giving users the possibility to connect to their personal training experience both at home, at the club and on-the-go," a Technogym spokesman says. "This is a great opportunity also for fitness clubs to be able to offer members their programs and services both inside and outside the facility."

While the process has been ongoing, the COVID-19 pandemic — and the corresponding temporary closure of gyms everywhere — brought those developments to the fore.

"I think it's really accelerated the conversation. It's now a necessity, whereas in the past, health clubs maybe were, 'Yeah, we want to have the conversation, we want to look into it,' " Simat says. "They saw it as an opportunity. Now, it's a necessity."

Others agree. Thorsen says that exercisers want the same experiences whether they're working out at home or in the gym. Scott Williams doesn't believe that online classes are a trend, and that the industry is just starting to see how their existence will shape the future of the commercial and residential fitness markets.

"With COVID reshaping what this industry will be when we do open up, I think we're going to see a lot of hybrid models combining that in-person, face-to-face personal training aspect along with virtual check-ins for digital coaching," Scott Williams says. "We've placed such an emphasis on connecting with members inside the facility. When this pandemic hit, we've come to the realization that it's equally as important to connect with them when they're outside of the four walls. I also believe a majority of people will return to the gyms, but I think some will be leery of going back, so it's still important to connect with them. There's going to be more offerings from fitness facilities to create maybe a tiered membership."

In the end, Jim Williams admits that technology is ultimately a means to an end.

"The ultimate goal, whether you are working out at home or at a facility, is to better your health," he says. "Whether that is just getting off the couch to walk on a treadmill or ride a recumbent bike or stride on an elliptical or, if they want to, train for a marathon, our goal is to help the end-user work toward their ideal health."

Face to face with futuristic technology

In some spaces, technology has developed to the point that the console has morphed into the machine. The Mirror has led the public awareness in this space, while the Echelon Reflect also allows users to work out at home in front of a mirror-like screen that shows a trainer walking the user through a workout.

"Basically what you're getting is visual instruction with an instructor on display. You're getting audible instruction, you can hear their voice giving you the cue of what to do and how to do it, and then you're getting this extra interactivity of seeing your own reflection on the mirror's surface over the top of the instructors," Simat says. "Now you get that mimicking ability to say, 'Oh, I'm flaring my elbow on my arm curl, I shouldn't be doing that.' It's not just watching a video on your iPad and blindly working out. It's actually seeing yourself and saying, 'I guess I have to go a little deeper on that squat to match what the instructor's doing.' "


This article originally appeared in the January | February 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Advanced consoles creating a more connected cardio community." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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