Feature Article - November 2019
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From Functional to Ninja-Inspired, Fitness Continues to Evolve

By Deborah L. Vence


Advancements in fitness equipment have really changed the way people work out today. Free weights, the standard treadmill and elliptical machines are still expected, but sophisticated technologies have been incorporated to enable gym-goers to better track their progress and create more challenging workouts. What's more, fitness enthusiasts are being influenced by other forces. Exercise videos on YouTube, as well as television shows, such as American Ninja Warrior, are pushing the boundaries of physical fitness and inspiring everyone from beginner fitness enthusiasts to the more experienced to push themselves beyond their comfort zone.

Adapting to Trends

There are many fitness trends that continue to gain in popularity among fitness enthusiasts—group fitness, the popular HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and even fitness techniques that mimic the popular American Ninja Warrior television series.

When asked about how equipment trends are adapting to fitness trends and expectations, such as the cardio floor (more tech interconnection), as well as group fitness, functional fitness/HIIT and Ninja warrior-type workouts, industry experts, like Ben Hackney-Williams, digital marketing manager for a U.K.-based company that manufactures functional fitness equipment, said that "Operators are embracing the popularity for functional fitness spaces, both within bigger gyms and as standalone locations.

"In addition, more members, customers and clients are embracing bodyweight and full-body workouts," he said. "Whether it's tri-planar patterns using training tools or challenging your body through calisthenics exercises, movement trends are leading the way for functional fitness equipment to bring the biggest benefits to gym-goers.

"Boutiques have brought a rise in group fitness in a way that's now influencing traditional gyms to provide a studio offering," he said, "but the community approach to exercise has really seen growth thanks to gamification and education that comes with the use of innovations."

He added, "When gym-goers are given the environment to enjoy movements of all kinds, they'll push themselves harder and use the progress, enjoyment and education as reasons to not only return, but also encourage friends to share the experience."

Meanwhile, Erica Tillinghast, global education manager for a manufacturer of premium fitness equipment in Washington state, said, "Exercisers bring in workouts from apps, YouTube, magazines and other forms of media. They also increasingly want to emulate experiences found in popular free-standing studios like CrossFit and Orangetheory, or on TV shows like American Ninja Warrior. As such, functional fitness structures must be dynamic, flexible and sturdy.

"Exercisers," she added, "are loading functional frames in ways we've never seen before, and they are seeking equipment that easily accommodates their workout, rather than needing to alter their workout around the limitations of the equipment."

Tillinghast's company introduced functional training equipment to the market in 2010, and it "…has undergone rigorous load testing to retain its position as best-in-class." The structural integrity of the equipment supports programs like obstacle course race training and aerial yoga classes (yoga that combines yoga, dance and Pilates with suspension training).

"On the other side of the functional spectrum, lifting equipment—platforms, barbells, kettlebells—continues to grow in popularity and gain space on the floor. In the cardio area, exercisers demand equipment that easily accommodates HIIT workouts and other interval training protocols defined by sources outside the gym," Tillinghast said, adding that her company's interval treadmill "makes it easy for exercisers to alternate between low, medium and high intensity levels at the touch of a button, making it a great tool for individual or instructor-led workouts."

Judy Geer, who works for a company in Vermont that manufactures exercise equipment, said, "We're seeing a growing interest in measurable training data. There's an expectation that workout results can be captured and shared. Our performance monitor helps athletes monitor their progress toward their goals. With wireless connectivity to heart rate and fitness platforms, athletes and trainers can easily access workout feedback."

For Ashley Haberman, marketing manager, U.S. Commercial, for a Wisconsin-based fitness equipment manufacturer, "It's all about connectivity—technology and community-building."

She explained that "Users want to remain connected in all aspects of their lives, and the cardio and strength equipment on the floor needs to help facilitate that need. Technologies need to be integrated into the equipment to allow users to access important social networking and entertainment apps (Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, etc.), along with fitness tracking (MyFitnessPal and others).

"On the group fitness and HIIT front, equipment must be designed to allow facilities to offer these training solutions to not only drive results in fitness, but to also create the 'connectivity' through building that social community," she added.

Changes in Fitness Equipment

In looking at how fitness equipment has changed over the years, continued developments and advancements in technology certainly have been a driving force.

"Product development is one of the most exciting aspects of fitness," Hackney-Williams said, "and with more operators embracing technology and driving innovation in fitness spaces around the world," his company "has been lucky enough to speak to many entrepreneurs on the subject" as part of the company's podcast, which shares success stories of influencers in the fitness industry as well as other entrepreneurs.

"Through conversations between guests and host, Matthew Januszek, we've learned why design plays a much bigger part in equipment decisions than it used to, how programming is key to both retention and attrition, and why some of the biggest innovations in well-being equipment development that will change the industry have actually been outside of traditional fitness," he said.

"The biggest changes that we've seen in-house have been in the development of … an education station that not only gives members workout inspiration and advice on safe form, but provides operators with a reliable PT resource that never sleeps," he said.

"Operators are embracing innovation," he added, "driving change and implementing a new approach to functional fitness that engages more people more often, and it's a constant source of inspiration for everyone to bring their A-game."

Adam Hubbard, director of product management for a manufacturer of premium fitness equipment in Washington state, said that "From the exerciser's standpoint, the equipment choices are more versatile and adaptive to accommodate different training methods and individual fitness levels. Customers are expecting more personalized products in everything they buy and use; fitness equipment is no exception. There is a greater attention to detail with modern fitness equipment. Gone is the clumsy and utilitarian equipment from the '90s. In its place are more modern designs with greater fit and finish, and ease of use."

Since the beginning, fitness equipment has come a long way, Haberman said.

"No longer square tubing and simple interfaces, many equipment suppliers are now offering equipment that reaches the cutting-edge in terms of technological integration," she said.

"Additionally, the level of customization available to facilities continues to increase—from the frame and upholstery color all the way to the ability to brand the interface and experience on cardio consoles," she added.

What Users Want

In terms of what exercisers really want to get out of fitness equipment, regular gym-goers want "physical and mental wellbeing results!" Hackney-Williams said.

"However, research, opinion and results all show that experience and environment are the two key factors in what customers want," he said. "Create exciting spaces through innovative gym design, install brand-led fitness frames that act as a real talking point of any space, and stock the gym with equipment that's accompanied by … education and programming—that's a seamless fitness experience for anyone."

He added that "Great gym design from concept to completion provides the incentive for members to work hard because the gym or studio is an exciting, efficient and effective place to be."

Meanwhile, Geer noted that "Customers are looking for efficient workouts, preferring ones that serve many muscle groups."

In addition, exercisers and fitness facility operators alike will appreciate machines that are reliable—"something that is durable and high quality, and won't be out of commission when they arrive at the gym first thing in the morning," she said. "Something that is easy to use; customers don't want to waste time getting set up or connected," she added. "Equipment that is backed by a community—whether real or virtual, these are ways to connect in our busy lives."

On top of that, Haberman suggested that customers want "Customization, [and the] ability to connect. They want simplicity. The entire experience should be intuitive and non-intimidating."

For facility operators, "Product reliability is at the top" of the list, Hubbard noted.

"It goes beyond making equipment that simply doesn't break. Operators want equipment that looks good for the period of time they are going to own it," he added. "They don't want equipment that looks good on the tradeshow floor, but begins to squeak and rattle after the first year of use."

He also said his company "focuses on keeping designs very simple with fewer moving parts and more proven materials and technology. Operators want products that are thoughtfully designed for not just their members, but also their service technicians and cleaning crews."

Best Practices in Equipment Maintenance

For facility operators to continue ensuring that gym-goers are happy with their facilities and fitness equipment, regular maintenance is important. So, experts suggested some best practices to keep in mind.

"Before the obvious factors such as wiping equipment down after use, regularly servicing and ensuring that any wear and tear is addressed, prevention is the sticking point that many operators miss," Hackney-Williams said.

"The easiest way to maintain quality fitness equipment is to ensure that your storage is as efficient and protective as possible. [Our company's] low-level and ultra-low-level storage, for example, enables easy access for a huge variety of equipment, meaning that users can easily remove and replace even heavy items without dropping them on shelves or scraping them across surfaces.

"In addition to the maintenance benefits, efficient storage such as this also means that you're getting the best return on investment from your floor space, which ensures that members have more room to work out in too," he added.

Hubbard said that "It begins by purchasing your equipment from a trusted supplier that can provide parts and trained technicians to support your facility. Having a preventive maintenance plan is essential. This should be written down with the exact process and service frequency. Too many operators rely instead on a reactionary approach to fixing problems as they arise.

"In addition, keeping equipment clean is critical for customer satisfaction and equipment longevity. This involves more than just a simple wipe-down that your staff or members might do. From the technology front, we are seeing operators take advantage of service analytics in cloud-based solutions with their networked equipment," he said.

For instance, Hubbard pointed out that recently his company has had "the most success with our status light directly on the equipment. These Active Status Lights allow operators to simply look down the row of equipment and instantly know if any product is in need of service."

Other simple suggestions include: "Stay ahead of maintenance!" Geer said. "Clean and maintain your equipment on a regular basis so you don't experience emergencies." And, "Choose equipment that doesn't need much maintenance and the maintenance is easy."

Finally, Haberman recommended following "manufacturer guidelines. Much like an automobile," she said, "fitness equipment is built to last, but does require routine care like cleaning and base-level maintenance to ensure a long product life." RM