Curious about what new exercise contraption will be the Stair-Master of 1991 and beyond? Wondering which new fitness fad will spark the aerobic ambitions of this year's crop of couch potatoes? The answers were at the 1990 Club Industry Show, where the fitness equipment you'll find at your health club tomorrow was on display for four days last November.
The trade show, held in Chicago's Hilton, attracted more than 240 companies as vendors and 3,750 health club professionals as buyers. This gathering would never have been mistaken for investment bankers. The men were properly pumped-up types, and the women looked as if they were newly hatched from a Jane Fonda workout video. If Lycra were an animal, it would be endangered, judging by the amount of it worn around the exhibition areas. The casual dress, however, was functional because prospective buyers—mostly fitness club owners—routinely jumped on the exercise equipment and tried it out before deciding whether or not to sign on the dotted line.
As at most trade shows, the mood in Chicago was upbeat. Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda autographed pictures at the Ultra Slim-Fast booth, and two members of baseball's world champion Cincinnati Reds—Todd Benzinger and Paul O'Neill—were on hand to endorse Nautilus equipment. Still, there were a few dark clouds on the horizon. In late 1989, The Wall Street Journal had published the results of its consumer study, "The American Way of Buying." Not surprisingly, the $4 billion-a-year fitness category figured prominently in the survey, and the findings were enough to elevate heart rates throughout that industry.
"It isn't just exercise gear that isn't getting a good workout," the Journal reported. Of the 2,002 surveyed adults who own home-exercise equipment, nearly three fourths of them admitted that they don't use it as much as they had planned. The Journal also pointed out that people tend to exaggerate their fitness regimes. That would suggest that most of 15 million stationary bikes sold in the U.S. in the last five years (at an average of $150 each) aren't being used at all.
What's more, the survey found that half of the respondents who were fitness club members didn't use those facilities that much, either. And of 14 athletic activities—including cycling, swimming and skiing—only two, walking and golf, showed any increase in participation during the 1980s.
The Journal concluded that consumers with good intentions ("I'll start exercising tomorrow...really") have been keeping fitness sales healthy. But with a recession setting in, how much longer can the boom last, especially when fewer Americans are willing to "go for the burn"?
"The trick now is to create so much excitement about a machine that people will want to run to their local health club to try it," says Michael Hoffman, of Life Fitness, Inc., a computerized exercise equipment manufacturer in Irvine, Calif. Manufacturers at the Chicago show, however, seemed to be staying with the tried and true; most of the machines on display were variations of proven hot performers—stair machines, stationary bikes and treadmills. Still, there were a few notable innovations to be found:
•Lifecircuit. The folks who pioneered computerized fitness with the Lifecycle, a computerized exercise bicycle, introduced computerized circuit training, custom-made for our push-button society. No more tinkering with pins on weight stacks or changing clanging plates to set up that machine. Simply select the program you want and enter the desired lifting weight on the console touch pad; fine-tuning adjustments are as easy as pressing an up or down arrow. "It's what we call roboticized training," says Hoffman. "Get people to play with all the buttons and they'll become fit in the process."
A bar graph lights up at the completion of each rep, so even the need to count is eliminated. A preliminary strength test takes the guesswork out of lifting weights by first determining your "max," then automatically setting the resistance for a routine tailored to your strength level. And if you try to lift more weight than you are capable of handling, the machine locks and tells you to start over. There are 12 machines in the circuit, each one designed for a different exercise—chest press, arm curl, leg extension and seated rowing. The computer gizmos can seem daunting at first, but, really, any dumbbell can work these weight machines. Unfortunately, only a Henry Kravis can afford a set at $86,400.
•Hydro-Tone. The concept is simple. Jump in a pool, grip what look like high-tech spaghetti colanders in your hands and make like a Maytag washing machine. The effort exerted by dragging these hydro-dumbbells through the water produces an excellent workout. The submerged dumbbells weigh about a nano-ounce, meaning that even the most pathetic physical specimen can use them. Water resistance is the key; the harder you push the weights through the water, the more they resist. There are also boots with wacky-looking flaps around the Velcro straps, to work the thighs, buttocks and waist.
According to Hydro-Tone's marketing director, Charles Razien, 20 minutes of exercise three times a week is all the time required for the body beautiful. The workout is low-impact (in water, your body weighs only about 10% of its land weight), making it appealing to an athlete coming back from injury, and the water in the pool allows one to exercise intensely for longer periods without overheating. The Oklahoma City-based company has an advisory board that's heavy with M.D.'s and athletic coaches, and Razien says that John McEnroe called Hydro-Tone a secret weapon during his climb back up the tennis rankings. A starter set goes for $230, nose clip not included.
•Gravitron. This machine was invented a few years ago by the StairMaster gang at Randal Sports/Medical, in Seattle. Gravitron looks sinister and has a compressor that hisses. What the machine does, though, is help you cheat at pull-ups, chin-ups and military dips. "Dips and chins are two of the most beneficial exercises a person can do," says Chris Torggler, Randal's manager of international sales. "But the great majority of people, even men, can't do one. This machine makes the exercise accessible to everyone."
A person stands on a platform on the Gravitron and punches into the computer the percentage of body weight that he or she would like to lift. The platform then provides the necessary boost from below to lift the weight, while the exerciser's arms are at work above. Only a hundred or so of the machines are currently in use at corporate fitness centers and health clubs across the country. But Torggler, for one, expects sales to skyrocket this year, despite the Gravitron's $3,995 price tag. "Just look around," he said. "Three companies have already imitated the idea. It's catching on fast."
•Gravitone. No, that's not a misprint. Gravity is big this year. This is perhaps the most unusual concept. The user of the Gravitone lies supine on the machine and bench-presses his or her body weight, or a percentage of it (up to 200%), using leverage, not weights. The lifting produces a rocking motion. "It puts movement into your weight workout," says Spacebok's Doug Palmisano, who engineers the Gravitone at a Pompano Beach, Fla., plant. Built of ultralight aluminum, the Gravitone looks like a skimobile from hell, and retails for $6,500. Nine other pieces, which exercise various muscle groups, are in the works from Spacebok.
So, why is a Gravitone better than the ordinary bench press already at the Y? Said Palmisano, repeating the unofficial mantra for the Chicago exposition, "Why is a Lamborghini better than a VW? It's just high-tech versus low-tech."
Free-lance writer Lisa Twyman Bessone has never owned a stationary bicycle.