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Gyms get 'smarter' with tech upgrades

Gyms get 'smarter' with tech upgrades

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Hats that count steps and calories burned. Earphones that double as heart-rate monitors. Sports bras that “talk” to your phone.

Just as technology is disrupting retail and other industries, it’s beginning to transform the way Americans work out.

Since Fitbit launched its first fitness tracker in 2005, fitness software has migrated from our pockets to our wrists and then morphed into inconspicuous add-ons to our phones and even our clothing. Gyms are increasingly responding to consumer demand by investing in machines that measure performance and, in some cases, adjust the workout.

Globally, there were 113.2 million shipments of tech wearables last year, according to the research firm International Data Corp., and that figure is projected to grow to 222.3 million by 2021. Fitbit and budget leader Xiaomi have been trading spots as top seller, followed by Apple and Garmin.

But how are these James Bond — or perhaps Inspector Gadget — type devices changing the way we work out?

“It depends on what you’re looking for,” said Dave Reddy, director of the exercise science program at Webster University and a personal trainer. “Are you computer-savvy? Will you check what it uploads?”

The data are just numbers, he said, until you use them to change your behavior.

“For people who go to a gym and go to a class, that can help you know you are getting results — if you put it into a database. What you ate, how much you slept. It can help you figure out a better plan as you get better analytics,” Reddy said.

The analytics have expanded and become more precise as technology has improved. If you’re willing to shell out some money, there are gadgets that can track distance, elevation, step count, metabolic rate, even running form. Some, such as Moov’s HR Burn or Jabra’s Sport Pulse, give verbal encouragement in response to how well you are meeting certain targets.

Stats that were once jotted on a clipboard or logged in a workout journal are now uploaded automatically to websites that allow you to measure yourself against other users, your own past performances or averages for your age and gender.

Jeanne Schober, 58, of Kirkwood, has been religiously tracking her daily steps for the past five years with the same Fitbit — the original model.

“I am ridiculously OCD about it,” the retired teacher said. “I can get competitive with my friends about it. I never cheat.”

But she couldn’t find that same motivation for noncardio activities. Her Fitbit can’t record weightlifting or flexibility training. So when she got a postcard in the mail advertising the Exercise Coach workout studio, she decided to give it a try.

The so-called “smart gym” is run out of a small storefront in Webster Groves. With only about 10 machines, it serves just one, sometimes two, clients at a time. A trainer accompanies each client through the circuit.

The high-tech machines work the whole body, said franchise owner Jessica Phillips. The entire workout takes an average of 20 minutes.

Phillips opened the studio on West Lockwood Avenue in 2014 with her father, Don Eisenberg, as well as a location in Town and Country. Their third gym is slated to open in Clayton next month.

The premise behind the Exercise Coach, which was founded in Chicago by Brian Cygan 18 years ago, is that most standard ways of working out are inefficient.

By employing a proprietary technology called Exerbotics, the machines record, track and store the exertion level of each user. Resistance increases in real time with the amount of force expended on, say, a leg press or a chest row.

The franchise has expanded since 2000 to include more than 40 locations across 14 states. Twenty-five more are expected to open in the U.S. this year, including the Clayton location on Maryland Avenue.

“I was not into fitness before owning the Exercise Coach,” Phillips said. “I just wanted to get it done.” Phillips said her clients share a similar viewpoint, mainly falling into two groups of “unlikely exercisers”: busy professionals who don’t have time for daily gym visits and folks who want to get in shape but don’t know how.

“We focus on the quality of the exercise versus the quantity,” she said. “We control the range of motion, and they control the intensity.”

To start, a trainer taps a PIN onto a touchscreen attached to the Exerbotics machine. A green stripe snakes across a line chart representing the exertion goal for the duration of the movement, which requires both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions. As the client completes the rep, a yellow line crawls across to record the degree of effort.

When the next screen pops up, it shows four bar graphs comparing the exertion level from the client’s first visit, most recent visit, personal best and the current day. The trainer can adjust the weights or repetitions based on the continuous feedback.

On a recent Saturday, Schober had finished her initial three-visit trial. “It’s just a learning curve,” she said. “I feel like I am using my time to the best. My legs feel like rubber right now.

“I like the data from the assessments. I’m going to run the experiment and see how I do in four months,” she said as she signed up for a package of twice-weekly visits. A four-month plan for one person costs $290 a month, or about $33 a session.

At CycleBar studios, riders can see their own “power output” on their stationary bike screens and can also compare themselves with others in their indoor cycling classes.

CycleBar, a national chain with franchises that opened last year in Creve Coeur and Chesterfield, created a formula based on a person’s size, age and gender to produce a “power point” to put riders are on a more level field, said Paul Schnapp, who owns the Creve Coeur location on Olive Boulevard. He is opening his second CycleBar this spring in Richmond Heights and has longer-term plans for a third.

“In real time, they see that instantaneously,” he said. “We record their average and maximum output so they can compare themselves to the class.” Results are also emailed to participants.

Dave Busker, who owns the CycleBar on Clarkson Road in Chesterfield and has plans for one in the Central West End, has noticed a dichotomy among his clients. “We’re kind of split,” he said. “There’s a portion of our crowd that’s really stats-driven, and then we have a good portion of our demographic of riders that just want to ride” and opt for classes where they leave the display screens off. CycleBar packages average about $16 to $22 a class.

For Reddy, the Webster University professor, “the data tracking is important, but it can be overload. A better question is ‘How am I feeling now?’ I worry we’re outsourcing our intuition.

“It’s nice to put on a Fitbit, but if a watch has to tell you to get up from your desk, that’s a problem,” Reddy said. “We have to figure out better ways to do it.”

That may not take long, at least if you’re looking for a robo-running companion. A study from RMIT University in Australia has already tested the benefits of using drones as pace-keeping “jogging partners.”

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