A Wider Field for Fitness

New Trends Expand the Reach of Fitness Equipment

By Deborah L. Vence

Since Jack LaLanne opened what's believed to be the first U.S. fitness club in 1936 in Oakland, Calif., the fitness industry has continued to evolve at warp speed, with workout videos and the next best exercise gadget turning up at every corner.

That evolution continues with fitness equipment as more innovations take place, including a connection with wearable fitness technology and growth among the aging population that is exercising more and living longer than ever before.

"Today, fitness and technology go hand-in-hand, and the growing trends of greater personalization and customization have a significant influence on how exercisers work out, and how we design our equipment," said Anthony Morelli, senior product manager for a Rosemont, Ill.-based manufacturer of fitness and exercise equipment.

"There are thousands of apps out there for tracking fitness stats, and depending on their goals and habits, users may prefer some over others. From a manufacturer's perspective, it's important to design equipment that can provide data and metrics to any tracking app, not just a select few," Morelli said, adding that his company has opened its platform for developers to incorporate into their own products without restrictions.

Besides technology, experts also say that small group training, including programs that are developed specifically to help increase fitness levels for outdoor activities, such as hiking, skiing and golf, is emerging as well.

"Small group training has proven to be an increasingly effective motivational experience to increase repeat visits and overall gym retention," said Dan Albaum, director, marketing, Americas, field marketing, for a Woodinville, Wash.-based fitness equipment manufacturer.

Albaum added that the fitness wallet, which involves having a certain dollar amount spent per month on fitness, and spending it on a combination of gyms, studios, training and apps/wearables, is growing in popularity as well.

"Retailers are shifting toward being transactional or experiential, regardless of pricing charged," he said. "Functional and group training are so important because they create fitness experiences, which drive engagement and retention."

Technologically Connected

One growing trend among equipment manufacturers is the incorporation of digital technology and fitness tracking apps.

"From our study, we know that the use of mobile app technology is set to rise from 56 percent to 74 percent by 2016, with 40 percent planning to use wearable technology for fitness purposes," said Isabel Coscia, vice president of marketing, North America, for a Cesena, Italy-based producer of fitness and wellness equipment, referring to a nationwide study her company conducted among 5,000 millennials to find out how they perceive health, wellness and fitness and what they view as the gym of the future.

Coscia said that "Because millennials will drive the fitness market for years to come, we thought it was important to understand what motivates them to exercise. What we found was that group exercise will still be an important trend, with millennials saying that the benefits of group exercise include increased motivation (70 percent), more enjoyable sessions (65 percent) and a great social opportunity to catch up with friends (48 percent)."

She also found that 65 percent of millennials believe it is important to track and monitor their fitness programs.

This interconnectivity—that involves linking a fitness apparatus to a smartphone, or simply wearing a device that tracks your fitness activities—continues to grow in popularity.

"There is a definite growth in wearables, as people are interested in tracking their time, distance, heart rate, blood pressure and fitness gains," said Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that specializes in developing programs, resources and education in children's play.

Functional fitness and HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts continue to gain in popularity as well. Gyms are already catching onto the trend, offering members new equipment.

"We haven't noticed it as much in the person-to-equipment field, as people tell us that they don't limit themselves to a single source of equipment, so having the device on your person, rather than the equipment," she said, "is more meaningful over the long term for data collection and tracking."

This opens up an entire world of possibilities for exercisers and facilities.

For instance, metrics from Morelli's company's cardio equipment can be uploaded instantly into any enabled fitness app, such as the popular Google Fit, Apple Health, Samsung S Health and MyFitnessPal, as well as wearables like Jawbone and Fitbit.

"As another example, personal trainers can create and share new workouts for clients based on their previously recorded metrics, such as resistance or speed, for continual progression," he said. "The exerciser then only has to sync up, select the workout and begin. This technology also allows facilities to create their own apps that offer rewards for achieving certain goals and metrics."

"Overall", Albaum added, "there definitely is a trend toward enabling more personalized fitness experiences, using media-enabled fitness equipment in the gym (touch screen, larger, crisper video, messaging, networked and Wi-Fi capabilities, etc.)."

Evidence exists within the industry, too, of early adopters investing in the digital trend and looking at how to integrate data tracking apps and technology into their businesses, Coscia said.

"Up to this point, the interconnectivity of equipment to the Internet of things has only really been embraced by the early adopters. Manufacturers are now starting to recognize that the smartphone is driving the change, and some have begun to create software to interact with a variety of data tracking apps instead of forcing end-users to use a manufacturer-based fitness app," she said.

What Coscia's company has done with its online platform for health and fitness operators, where you can track all of your physical exercise data in one central place, is sync it with a large number of third-party fitness apps and wearables (i.e., Apple Health, Garmin, FitBit, Runkeeper), giving consumers more choices in using the fitness apps that work for them.

"By making the platform open," she said, "we've given consumers more freedom in terms of using multiple devices to track their fitness, and the ability to link it … so that all the data can be aggregated and analyzed as a whole."

Morelli explained that for tracking to be most accurate, though, popular apps and wearable devices need access to an exerciser's workout data directly from fitness equipment, such as treadmills and stationary bikes.

"With this in mind, our machines are built on an open platform …, the first truly open platform in the industry," he said. "This means they can work with whatever technology people use and want to exercise with, from mobile apps to wristbands."

Active Aging

As baby boomers continue to retire and the aging population realizes that mobility is the key to a happy, healthy lifestyle, there is more interest than ever in active aging fitness.

"It's a very diverse group of people, and not the stereotypical, easy-to-identify demographic it may have been in years past," Spencer said.

"Active aging today means everything from seniors who are just beginning their fitness journey to uber-fit marathoner-types who want to remain very active, but are perhaps looking for different ways to continue their active lifestyle. We have had to do a lot of research and development to ensure that we could design fitness areas that meet the range of abilities and activity that define today's active aging population," she said.

"One thing that is a constant across the whole group is the focus on balance and flexibility, an element that is often overlooked in outdoor fitness areas, but is one of primary concern to people who want to ensure that they grow or maintain balance and flexibility to help prevent injury and inadvertent falls as well as keep up with young family members and maintain a strong quality of life," Spencer added.

As baby boomers continue to retire and the aging population realizes that mobility is the key to a happy, healthy lifestyle, there is more interest than ever in active aging fitness.

Of the growing fitness trends, developing fitness programs for older adults was one of the top six. (Other trends that are growing in popularity are high intensity interval training, strength training, CrossFit, functional training and circuit training), Albaum noted.

"With the aging baby boomer population, many fitness companies are looking for ways to meet their needs (e.g., lower-impact exercise classes, equipment designed to reduce impact on joints while still providing an effective workout)," he said.

Coscia said as baby boomers begin to enter the active aging market, their prevalence in the market will be an interesting cause-and-effect relationship to watch.

"For most manufacturers, the active-aging market has been on their minds, though only a limited few are designing equipment centered around programming to meet the health, fitness and wellness needs of an aging (active) population," she said.

"We have worked with hundreds of active aging communities in the U.S. to install gym solutions to suit their particular needs," she added. "We customize solutions to be non-intimidating and easy to use, designed to promote everything from cardiovascular to strength training, mobility and flexibility, and even cognitive and balance training for the aging population."

Morelli agreed that active aging is an emerging market since the baby boomer population is staying active and healthy longer.

Among the leading trends for fitness equipment for the active aging population are easy-to-use technology and comfortable design.

"For instance," Morelli said, "our customers often tell us that recumbent bikes are primarily valued by their active aging exercisers. Our design team develops these bikes with easy-access step-through designs for safe entry and exit, as well as models with enhanced back and arm support."

Fitness … Al Fresco

For those who like more variety in their overall fitness experience, using equipment outside might be a welcome change.

One big trend right now is the growth in outdoor fitness equipment clusters and outdoor fitness parks.

"Exercising outside continues to grow in popularity as people look to maximize their time and gain understanding of the benefits of being outdoors," Spencer said.

"Research has shown that people who exercise outside tend to do it for longer periods of time, repeat the behavior more frequently, and are more open to socializing with other people," she said.

"Add to that the benefits of vitamin D from sunshine and fresh air and you have a winning combination. There is a huge emergence of outdoor boot camps, meetups at local outdoor fitness equipment clusters and neighborhood group walks," Spencer added. "We see this continuing with the explosive interest in creating a meaningful outdoor fitness park for adults. It is one of the fastest-growing product categories we offer."

For those who like more variety in their overall fitness experience, using equipment outside might be a welcome change. One big trend right now is the growth in outdoor fitness equipment and outdoor fitness parks.

Three layouts are seen regularly—a trail, a cluster and a cluster installed outside a playground zone.

"With a trail, there is the benefit of being able to augment the cardio part of a workout by walking or ruining the trail in between stations," she said. "Clusters are also popular, and if no option for trail or pathway running exists, the cardio portion can be built into the cluster, preserving the space saving that site owners are desirous of with this type of layout."

Clusters also are increasingly popular installed in a semicircular pattern just outside a play area as it allows parents the ability to supervise their children while working out, rather than just sitting on a bench.

"Our research shows that parents who can get a workout in will tend to stay longer, and people who exercise outside tend to repeat the behavior more frequently, so both children on the playground and parents at the fitness area get the benefit of prolonged exercise," Spencer said.

Unlike an indoor gym where there are hundreds of activities and types of equipment to choose from, an outdoor space generally has between six to 12 pieces of equipment in total. Ensuring that the equipment is chosen to provide a well-rounded workout is critical.

"All too often we see examples where everything is designed to work one part of the body, upper body, for instance, or the design has completely left out balance and flexibility," Spencer added, "which is one of the most important features to actively aging people who want to practice this type of exercise to enhance their balance and flexibility, ensuring quality of life and helping to avoid inadvertent falls."

She shared an example of outdoor fitness equipment used along a trail. The equipment encompasses five stations used to create a host of exercise options that allow for multiple users, the opportunity to add extra cardio using the trail itself, and provide a total body experience with cardio, muscle development, core development, and balance and flexibility work.

"The layout described benefits the user similarly no matter which end of the trail they begin-limbering up the user and warming their muscles before reaching the central aerobic station, then cooling down as they reach the opposite end," she said. The trail is designed to provide a focused station for each area of a well-rounded workout.

Meanwhile, Morelli added that functional fitness and HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts continue to gain in popularity as well.

"Gyms are already catching onto the trend, offering members new equipment better suited for the functional fitness and plyometric exercises associated with HIIT," he said.

"The system combines various training zones, including a monkey bar zone, boxing space, battle ropes, suspension training, kettlebells, pull-up bars and more, for a dynamic, high-intensity workout," he said.

In addition, the cross-trainer category is experiencing a lot of growth due to the low-impact nature of the exercise.

"We hear from clubs that they are always looking to add variety to their floors and challenge exercisers with new movements. As a result, new, variable motion machines … are becoming increasingly popular because they allow exercisers to change stride length on the fly and choose the workout that's right for them," he added.



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