The fitness industry is changing as Americans seek to pump up the entertainment or keep tabs on health data while buring calories.
If Charles Atlas were to walk into a gym or a health club today, he might take one look around and wonder where he was.
Gone are the free weights and medicine balls, relegated to a dusty corner. The basketball court is no longer center stage.
In their place are bleeping, blinking, TV-equipped machines. Club members walk on treadmills equipped with a miniature television screen. Across the room, members hike or bike with headphones hooked to iPods or a bank of TV screens featuring news, weather, soap operas. And in the teen room, kids dance frenetically to a game of Dance Dance Revolution.
"Electronics and exercise have never been joined at the hip any stronger than they are now. It's all about exertainment," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). "I think it's the nature of human beings these days. If it's not fun, it's not No. 1."
From gyms to schools to homes, Americans are turning to technology for exercise and entertainment. And the effect can be seen across the country. In West Virginia, officials who were worried about an epidemic of childhood obesity have purchased one Dance Dance Revolution machine for every school in the state, hoping the wildly popular dance game that started in video arcades can work its magic in physical-education class.
In Philadelphia, one man created his own six-week weight-loss experiment using the Nintendo Wii system -- a video game system that forces users to stand up and move while playing games -- and chronicled his progress on the Internet.
For those who find treadmills boring, the new wave of entertainment has been a godsend.
At the Downtown Orlando YMCA, Carol Veal times her arrival so she can snag a treadmill with a built-in TV -- and watch "Seinfeld" at 5:30 p.m. "I don't really need to watch TV while I work out, but I really like it," Veal said. "It makes the time go by faster."
A double-edged trend?
Why do we need to be entertained to exercise?
"It's a distraction from focusing on your workout and, since most people do not like to work out but love to watch TV, it eases the pain," said Tony Tamules, fitness manager of the RDV Sportsplex in Maitland, Fla.
But he isn't crazy about the trend. "I think it is one reason people have a tough time reaching their fitness goals -- because they really are distracted and aren't focused on the task at hand."
But Tamules can't fight the trend. By 2009, all of the fitness equipment at RDV will have TVs built into the console.
Indeed, as technology has evolved, health clubs have had to get wired -- or risk losing members. "Health clubs need to provide state-of-the-art gear to stay competitive," said May of SGMA. "We are so used to being stimulated electronically with beepers and cell phones and iPods and BlackBerries. ... So when it comes to joining a health club, that's what people are looking for."
Those banks of interactive, entertaining workout machines seem to be helping the fitness business attract new members. In 1990, 20.7 million Americans were members of a health club. By 2006, that number had climbed to 42.7 million, according to the SGMA.
But the technological revolution in the fitness industry is moving beyond entertainment. Today, some gyms are incorporating "smart armbands" that can monitor a person's workouts, caloric expenditure, blood pressure and heart rate. In other gyms, exercisers log into systems such as FitLinxx -- which looks like a touch-tone ATM -- and see how many pounds they have lifted over the course of a year or how many calories they have burned.
At the Winter Park (Fla.) YMCA, a crowd of kids gathers every afternoon around the Dance Dance Revolution machine. As the music blares, they dance and hop, trying to keep up with the directions. In just a few minutes, they're sweaty, red-faced -- and laughing.
That's what makes Dance Dance Revolution so appealing to schools and health clubs. Although athletic kids are attracted to sports -- and the idea of a pickup basketball game -- there are many kids who aren't interested in sports. Trying to help them get fit traditionally has been tricky, experts say.
Josh Trout, an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University at Chico, puzzled over kids' fitness, too -- but marveled when he walked into a video arcade four years ago and spotted a crowd of kids gathered around a DDR game.
"There were kids lined up, dollar bills in hand, ready to play, and the kids who were on it were sweating their tails off," Trout said.
The fitness industry noticed and now there are a handful of other games aimed at blending technology with fitness: stationary bikes that let users pedal their way through a video game; and Sportwalls, an interactive game wall that lets kids create scoring games by throwing balls at targets, bopping targets with bats or jumping to tap the targets with their hands.