Just when you thought the wizards of consumerism must have run out of ideas, they've come up with:

A way to earn frequent-flier miles by working out in the gym, and send e-mail at the same time. Along with a few other things.

This development, the "Internet Powered Workout," comes to us courtesy of a San Francisco outfit called Netpulse. It consists of Internet connections attached to cardiovascular exercise machines--like StairMasters and Lifecycles--and has already been installed in 300 health clubs across the country, including Sport & Health locations in Herndon and Tenley Circle.

This Time They've Gone Too Far--this one really does seem to be over the top, just one more time again.

"I love it," observed Susan Davidson, a fiftyish magazine editor trying one of the machines out yesterday at Tenley Sport & Health. "Normally I'm so slow with mechanical things, I can get in trouble with a toaster. But this is fun."

At the time, Davidson was doing a little cyber-shopping as she pedaled. "And I'm earning miles," she added with a sweaty grin.

The basic idea has the brilliant simplicity characteristic of so many great American innovations:

While exercising your butt off to reduce stress and enjoy a long life, you simultaneously surf the Net--sending and reading e-mail, shopping for automobiles, playing the stock market, listening to your fave CDs, studying online publications, watching CNBC and a whole host of other modern activities that could actually, well . . . stress you out.

"For those in need of extra motivation," a press release coos, "the Earn a Mile a Minute program lets gym goers earn one frequent flier mile for every minute they work out."

Which could be a lot of work, especially if--perish the thought--you were cycling furiously and happened to notice that the stock market had just crashed, ruining you financially and bringing on the very heart attack you've been cycling to avoid. Under circumstances like these, you can't help but wonder if this snazzy invention is actually making life easier, or more difficult.

In any case, folks using the four new machines at Tenley yesterday seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly--although there was some complaining about the difficulties of typing e-mail messages by tapping a keyboard displayed on the screen, a slow, one-finger process.

"It's hard," noted Susannah Tillson, 21. "You're working out and sweating and can't type."

She tried, however, and seemed thrilled when she accessed an e-mail letter from a friend in Italy, where she'd just spent her junior year abroad. "Ciao Amore," the letter began. She read it eagerly.

"It's in Italian," she explained. "He's saying, 'Wow, how easy it is to send e-mail to America,' and he doesn't even realize I'm exercising on a bike while reading it."

"I prefer reading magazines, while exercising, that I don't have time for otherwise," commented Elizabeth Newman, Tillson's mother, who was standing by watching.

"You know the magazines are all on the Internet now," interjected Netpulse PR guy Adam Handelsman, letting no possible opportunity slip past. "And you don't have to sweat on the pages."

Why would anybody do this? Why not just relax and enjoy your workout, while letting your mind wander aimlessly--or maybe not so aimlessly--the way people have done since the beginning of health clubs?

The sad fact, according to Handelsman, is that most people just can't do it. They are bored while working out.

"I find it boring myself," he commented. "My wife is a trainer in New York, she loves working out, but I need motivation. I enjoy that positive distraction that Netpulse gives. It's for the majority of us who need to be positively distracted while working out."

Multi-tasking, in other words.

As for "positive distraction," why not just attach a kitchen to the damn thing so you could whip a little fettuccine marinara while you're at it? After all, as Handelsman also pointed out yesterday:

"Everyone is so cramped for time. It's that mental image of boom boom boom, rush rush rush!"

Anoosh Ghajar, 35, an information technology consultant, was utterly entranced yesterday when he climbed on the exercise bike and realized he was hooked up to the Internet.

"Oh, great!" he said.

"You can surf the Web," Handelsman explained.

"Lovely!" Ghajar replied. "First things first," he added, going right to his online stockbroker and checking the prices of some of his holdings.

Apparently satisfied by the result, he turned on the TV function and began channel-surfing.

"This is wonderful," he said. "The typed images are good, the TV picture is good. They're giving me information, which is what I need. This makes you want to work out on a religious basis."

True enough. Because if you stop pedaling, the wizards of consumerism have so arranged things that

the whole syst

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CAPTION: Sport & Health President Mitch Wald, left, and Netpulse's Adam Handelsman watch Colin Ram at the Tenley club.