www.styku.com/fitness (COURTESY OF STYKU)

Walk into David Barton’s new gym in Manhattan, and you will be greeted by an array of high-tech fitness options: fingerprint scanners, giant screens with lifelike landscapes and a saltwater pool, all bathed in recessed LED lighting. But the real game-changing gadget here is not on the weight room floor. It’s a Styku 3-D body scanner, tucked away in a room next to a minibar serving protein shakes.

If history is any guide, millions of people are making a New Year’s resolution to go to one of the 180,000 gyms across the globe in an annual, usually ineffective effort to lose a few pounds. But according to experts, checking your weight is a misguided, demoralizing way to gauge overall health.

“Many people are focused on the scale,” said Mark de Gorter of Workout Anytime, which sells gym franchises across the country. “But in doing so, they lose the bigger picture of transforming the body.”

Fitness gurus have long complained that a myopic focus on weight is counterproductive. After all, muscle weighs more than fat, and because fat takes up 22 percent more space than muscle, the real measure should be volume. As you lose fat, you shrink somewhat, a fact that you can feel in the fit of your clothes. But it’s hard to be objective when the scale is still creaking beneath your feet.    

Enter body scanners, which allow you to visualize your muscle gain and see, in three dimensions, how — and where — you are losing fat. These devices use a powerful camera that takes surface measurements of your waist, chest and arms and then assembles a 3-D model that can be rotated, panned and zoomed using more than 600 infrared images

A growing trend

In the past year, health club execs have discovered that the technology is one of the most effective ways to attract and retain clients. “We use it as a selling tool, but more as a retention tool,” said Diana Williams, founder of the Fernwood Fitness chain in Australia. “A measurement is just a number. But a visual image of what they look like, rather than their imagination, is much more motivating.”

Because it converts measurements into a metric that people can understand, a body scanner can also make for easy before-and-after comparisons, said Raj Sareen, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Styku, one of the main suppliers of body-scanning technology to fitness clubs.

The company introduced the equipment at trade shows in 2015 after a pilot program with smaller gyms; in the next 12 months, its scanners became available in 350 locations in 25 countries.

The technology is familiar to anyone who has gone through a scanner at an airport. Using it is a straightforward process: Stand on a raised circular platform that makes one 360-degree rotation while an infrared camera takes pictures and relays the information to a connected laptop.

Barton, who opened TMPL (pronounced “temple,” as in “your body is a temple”) in September, pairs the Styku with an InBody machine, which measures body fat, and an on-site nutritionist to create a diet around the findings. “The most efficient way to change the outside is to know what’s inside,” he said. 

An accidental discovery

The technology was not initially designed for health clubs. Sareen got his start by hacking into webcams and turning them into body scanners. Then he saw the possibilities inherent in Microsoft’s Kinect, which could create lifelike 3-D scans of objects with its high-powered camera.

In 2012, his proposal was accepted for the Tech Stars accelerator program, and he came out of it with a business plan to market the technology to allow retailers to create clothes that would be the right size every time. (In essence, he would design the perfect virtual fitting room.) 

Sareen did a pilot program with Nordstrom while one of his competitors, Bodymetrics, partnered with Bloomingdale’s in New York and Selfridge’s in London. But the clothing industry is famously slow to adapt to technology, and it wasn’t the right environment, anyway. Turns out that consumers were not ready for quite that level of reality while shopping. “We tried plastic surgeons, spas, dermatologists,” Sareen said, but it wasn’t until his company went to health clubs that it found a receptive environment.

Even then, though, de Gorter was lukewarm the first time he saw the scanner in action. “I thought seeing someone in 3-D might be too revealing and too weird, but that notion was blown out of the water by everyone who tried it,” he said.

Until now, the only way to get an accurate measurement of body fat was either through calipers — those small pliers that measure the amount of loose skin around your waist and arms — or via an MRI device, whose scans are used in health-care settings. The Styku unit runs about $10,000, with no recurring fees at the moment. Fernwood Fitness’s Williams says that the cost is a worthwhile investment, given the competitive advantage. “It’s an added service,” she said. “We do charge for it, but if someone’s not motivated, we’ll give them another scan at no charge to keep them.” She also offers short-term challenges at her gyms, with participants receiving scans before and after “so they can see the difference,” she said. 

Beyond fitness

It’s not just health clubs. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona and the Four Seasons Resort & Club Dallas at Las Colinas have introduced the Bod Pod, a scanning technology that measures muscle-to-fat ratio so that nutritionists can give recommendations while clients are traveling for business or just taking a few days off.

Similar units may be available at the consumer level soon. Farhad Farahbakhshian, chief executive of Naked Labs of Redwood City, Calif., is developing a version of the technology that works with your phone and can be set up at home. His background is in electrical engineering and computer science, but some work as a part-time gym instructor gave him insight into what keeps people motivated. 

“I saw people going through several New Year’s resolutions, and it wasn’t about motivation,” Farahbakhshian said. “Everyone is motivated on the first of January.” The main issue is that the more motivated you are, the more you want to see the changes. But there was no way to quantify that process, other than by weight. “People were making tremendous progress, but their weight wasn’t changing,” he continued. “They were using the wrong gauge to measure their progress.”

He hopes to roll out a retail-friendly version of the product by November, and he is optimistic that people will adopt it. “The biggest challenge is just convincing people that it’s real,” he said. “They think it’s something you see in ‘Star Trek.’ ”  

— Bloomberg News