CARNELL WATSON is cranking out reps on a leg-curl machine at the National Capital YMCA. While Watson concentrates on the business of pumping iron, a small monitor keeps track of his progress, displaying the amount of weight he's lifting, the number of reps he has completed and whether or not he is maintaining a proper pace and range of motion.
When Watson hits his goal of 12 reps, the monitor sounds a computerized bugle charge. Watson, though, is still feeling strong and decides to push on for three more reps. When he finishes, the monitor takes note of his stamina by flashing a message that asks if he would like to try a heavier weight next time.
"It's really motivational, almost like having a personal trainer," says Watson of his computerized coach, which goes by the name of FitLinxx. "And it's much easier than keeping track of the workouts yourself. You don't have to remember the weights or keep a notebook to follow your program."
Say goodbye to those convenient miscounts in your head (you know, like ". . . 4, 5, 10, 11, 12. Finished!"). FitLinxx is only one example of high-tech exercise equipment designed to keep you both honest and fit. From cyber coaches to e-mail linked step machines and virtual-reality equipped stationary bikes, it seems that the fitness world is finally jogging in the light of the 21st century. The hope, at least among health-club owners and their fitness directors, is that the new gear will make exercise a bit less confusing and a lot more fun.
Electronic personal trainers like FitLinxx are designed to supplement the scant time that most people actually spend with their club's real-life personal trainers. The system works like this: The real trainer tailors a fitness routine to a client's needs and goals, then enters the information into the FitLinxx computerized database. The system, which is compatible with a variety of weight machines and cardiovascular equipment, then acts as a workout log for the client, canceling the need to carry a notebook and pencil during workouts.
Watson begins a workout by entering his FitLinxx ID number into a central kiosk. The kiosk then maps out the day's routine and offers a variety of information on past workouts and the progress he's making. If he wishes, Watson can also use the kiosk to send a message to his trainer about problems he might be having with his routine.
After logging into the system, Watson heads off to the weight machines. The smaller monitors at each machine display the proper seat height, weight and repetitions for his workout. When he finishes his weight training, he can then move on to treadmills and stationary bikes that are also hooked up to the FitLinxx system. The computer keeps track of both weight training and cardiovascular work. It converts the accumulated exercise into "fit points," which are part of an awards system noted on a hallway bulletin board.
"Once you learn how to use it, it becomes second nature," Watson says. "I can even record the amount of time I spend playing basketball."
One lure of FitLinxx is that it's a lot less expensive than a full-time personal trainer. The YMCA, which also offers the system at its Alexandria, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and Upper Montgomery branches, includes the cost of FitLinxx in its athletic membership fees (about $113.25 per month). Consultations with trainers and updates to workout programs are free. Also free are the close tabs that trainers keep on their clients' workouts.
"We have a management station where we check the progress of clients every day," says Mary Wolk, strength and conditioning director at the National Capital YMCA. "If someone skipped their leg exercises, we'd know and could call them and ask why they're not doing it. We could also call them if they haven't been in for a few weeks."
While a system like FitLinxx can be used to oversee an entire workout program, other health club gadgets merely offer blessed relief from the tedium of stepping and pedaling and never going anywhere. At Sport & Health clubs in Herndon and Tenley Circle, cardiovascular machines are equipped with internet-accessible terminals made by Netpulse. Herndon regulars, like Rafael Garcia, can climb aboard recumbent stationary bikes and use the Netpulse touchscreen monitor to write e-mail, surf the Web or watch television.
"You need to concentrate on your workout," says Garcia as he pedals and keeps an eye on a midday newscast. "But if I can take my mind off the fatigue, I can work out much longer."
In addition to the TV and Internet access, Netpulse stations are also equipped to play CDs (members can plug in their Walkman headphones), maintain an exercise log and to offer incentives such as frequent-flier mileage based on how many miles a member pedals. And yes, the terminal only works when said member is actually using the equipment.
Netpulse isn't the only company looking to make red dots and digital numbers obsolete. E-Zone Networks is another maker of high-tech audio/visual terminals that attach to cardio equipment. At Sport & Health in Alexandria, E-Zone terminals offer a channel-surfer's nirvana of television and radio programming, as well as built-in CD players. Though Internet access is not available through E-Zone, the TV programming includes custom-produced channels focusing on entertainment, music, extreme sports and men's and women's lifestyles.
The company is also planning to introduce exercise-instruction programs in the coming year, one of which will include a step-machine workout led by an on-screen instructor.
People who work out at home can watch or listen to whatever they want. But even total freedom with the remote control loses some of its luster over time. One product that might spice up those basement workouts is UltraCOACH, an adapter/software program which interfaces home computers with stationary bikes, treadmills, rowing machines and step machines. The cost for software and an adapter box is approximately $195.
The result is a virtual-reality workout displayed on your computer monitor. Treadmill owners can tackle the Boston Marathon, rowers can zip down the Charles River and step-machine enthusiasts can walk on a simulated moonscape.
If you have a modem, you can even race a friend online.
At some point, too many distractions during exercise might become a bad thing. After all, how many people can watch Springer, answer e-mail, listen to a Korn CD and run a simulated Boston Marathon all at the same time?
"There is a chance that as your attention becomes focused on something else, it could lower your intensity," says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "On the other side of the coin, this technology can pull in many people who can't put up with the lack of intellectual stimulation that accompanies exercise. So, overall, I think it's a fabulous thing and the wave of the future."
While the mind-body approach might work for some people, Cotton thinks the general public needs a variety of incentives in order to continue exercising. Technology, he says, could offer that and more.
"The ultimate is getting people to support each other," he says, "and you can use technology to do that. You could even have teams within a club competing against teams from other clubs."
The Cyber-Fitness Olympics, perhaps? No doubt there would be at least one downside to this type of competition: No face-to-face taunting after you've laid waste to an opponent. Of course, there's always e-mail.