When Theresa Burton hops on the elliptical for her 30-minute workout, she only pushes one button: quick start. The 37-year-old assembler at General Motors has been a member of Fitworks' Indian Ripple location in Beavercreek, OH, for a little more than a year.

“I just don't feel like messing with all the buttons,” Burton says. “I just want to get on there and get it done.”

Burton's use, or lack thereof, of cardio equipments' features is common, experts say. Members don't come to a fitness facility to stand on a treadmill and plug in their age, weight, height, gender, name of their first-born child, etc. They come to move.

“If you think about it, we all have less time, are more over-programmed and are more time-starved, so people don't want to push more buttons,” says Gregory Florez, who is CEO of First Fitness Inc. and FitAdvisor.com, which provide fitness training to companies and individuals as well as product and technology reviews. “Finally, some of the manufacturers are getting that.”

As the fitness industry has realized that attracting the lucrative deconditioned market is no easy task, club operators have become better attuned to member feedback, including what they like and dislike on cardiovascular equipment. Although members like technology options such as virtual personal trainers and iPod connectivity, the clear message is that when it comes to pushing buttons, less is more.

Cardio equipment manufacturers have addressed this by not only adding new technology but also by simplifying a number of features they spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s creating. Most have reduced the number of programs on treadmills, ellipticals, stair steppers and stationary bikes, and limited the number of times a user must push a button to start moving.

“The fitness industry has been much like the car or home stereo industry where it's all about features instead of feature-benefit,” says Florez. “Just because it's a feature doesn't mean it's a benefit to the user. Nowhere is this more relevant than in cardiovascular equipment.”

Besides a big green “start” button and a large red “stop” button, fitness facility-goers are demanding interfaces that work with their MP3 players or can pull information from a memory stick. At the very least, consumers want a USB port and a place to hold or charge their iPod. On some new models, users can plug their iPod directly into the system, allowing them to change songs on the console or watch their downloaded videos.

A piece of user-friendly equipment can vastly help in sales and retention, and is imperative to a fitness facility's business, Florez says.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, almost every consumer wants the most bang for their buck in the shortest amount of time,” he says. “User friendliness is absolutely a sales tool.”

Easy Does It

John Janszen, executive vice president and COO of Fitworks, a health club chain with more than 15 facilities in Ohio and northern Kentucky, has a simple way of testing equipment to see if it's easy to use. When at a conference or expo, he pays close attention to how other fitness professionals interact with the equipment on the trade show floor.

“If they ask, ‘How do I use this?’ or ‘How do I get this to work?’ then, uh-oh, it's a bad piece,” Janszen says. “When people have to ask how it works, that's a basis for weeding different lines out.”

Similarly, when Anthony Slayen is in the market for new cardio equipment, he looks at each piece from the point of view of a person who has never been to a fitness center. Slayen, continental health and fitness consultant for the JCC Association in New York, looks at how easy it is to get onto or into the machine and its intimidation level. JCCs serve a number of member markets from teenagers to seniors, so it's important that everyone has a piece of equipment that's right for them.

“Treadmills and bikes are usually the first choice for non-users,” he says. “The user friendliness of the equipment plays an important role. Most manufacturers will build equipment with the consoles on all their different machines the same so that there is familiarity with that line of equipment.”

A large quick-start button, iPod connectivity and individual television viewing screens are also important factors, Slayen says.

Television console sales are on the rise, one major manufacturer reports. Even though this kind of entertainment upgrade costs about $800 more than an average console, it's worth the added expense because member response is usually very positive, the company says.

Fitworks has budgeted for more than $250,000 in cardio equipment for its new location in West Chester, OH, which will open in December. The club will have about 100 pieces of equipment, half of which will have individual viewing screens and half of which will face the club floor, Janszen says.

“We find that simple is better, but it is important to provide personal viewing screens to those who want them,” he says. “Some people want them. Some people want to look into the gym.”

Other manufacturers have added touch screens to their consoles, making them interactive and similar to consoles people use often, such as those at gas pumps.

“My analogy is that if you can take money out of an ATM, then they can get on the product,” says one manufacturer. “Many first-time users feel intimidated and don't want to look stupid. With a touch screen, people can walk on and go, and everything is easily at their fingertips.”

As technology in other aspects of everyday life becomes easier to use, fitness is starting to follow suit, Florez says.

“The consoles, programs and entertainment options are becoming much more intuitive and much like Palm Pilots, iPods and other electronics,” he says. “It's so simple and intuitive that the learning curve is very short.”

The fact that this technology is decreasing in price hasn't hurt either. In the past, manufacturers funded their own research teams to develop new technology, something that added to their cost. Today, fitness companies often pair with established technology firms to incorporate existing trends in their equipment.

“This is a really big deal,” Florez says. “With the technology and entertainment functions, prices are flat or coming down.”

Although technology is always changing, the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh has taken extra care in choosing cardio equipment that will last. For the renovation of one of its locations, the facility's management plans to invest in machines with iPod connection and a mix of individual viewing screens and wall-mounted TVs. However, that technology won't do any good if members don't know how to use it.

“When we open our doors after our renovation, we need to make sure that when each person walks up to a machine, they are oriented by a staff member, or they might not come back,” says Sherree Hall, program director of sports and fitness for the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. “This applies to conditioned and deconditioned users.”

Florez recommends that all club owners have a certified fitness professional run all new members through a detailed orientation where the professional listens to the member's needs and adjusts the orientation accordingly. At the very least, all clubs should have an easy-to-follow written guide on how to use the equipment.

To help new members get the most from a club's cardio equipment, some manufacturers are creating “virtual personal trainers.” These built-in programs walk fitness newcomers through the setup process and offer words of encouragement during a workout.

“After a mile, it says, ‘Congratulations,’ and ‘Two more to go,’” one manufacturer says. “It's not an annoying intervention but something subtle.”

Touch and Go

The addition of USB ports to equipment is another easy-to-use feature that helps members — and potentially personal trainers — track progress.

On some equipment, USB ports are allowing clubs to hand out or sell digital programs stored on a memory stick to members and clients. Clients can take the stick, plug it into a cardio machine and work out to a special program they've downloaded on the stick. Members can then take their results home with them or to a trainer to manipulate or track.

Jim Karanas, chief fitness officer at Club One based in San Francisco, has been internally producing audio spinning workouts for Club One members. Members download the audio workouts on an MP3 player that the club provides and follow his workout on their own time. The new digital workouts are part of a trial program for a manufacturer, but because Club One produces it internally, the marketing and messaging is geared for the club, Karanas says.

“People are going nuts for it because they have a coach and someone actually saying motivating things and counting intervals,” he says.

Downloading the workouts and following them is easy to do, Karanas says. However, no matter how easy it is to use, experts caution that new technology like this may still intimidate some of your members, especially deconditioned ones.

Christopher Arterberry, associate director of fitness and wellness at DePaul University Campus Recreation in Chicago, says DePaul's Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center must have equipment that appeals to all patrons — students who are comfortable with technology and even insist on it and those who are sometimes intimidated by it, such as faculty and staff members.

“Manufacturers need to simultaneously ensure that their equipment remains accessible to those users who don't understand or want [high-tech features],” he says. “You've got to appeal to both ends of the spectrum.”

Club operators shouldn't allow themselves to be too wowed by features, either. Owners should use common sense and remember that the customer always comes first, Florez says.

“We can have a USB port that can run a George Forman Grill, but who cares?” he says. “Instead of adding features, ask, ‘What the heck does the customer really want?’”

To view a complete list of cardiovascular exercise manufacturers, please visit Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro's online Buyers' Guide at www.fitnessbusinessprobuyersguide.com.

  1. Survey your members

    Tips on Buying Easy-to-Use Cardio Equipment

    Ask them what they like and what they don't like. Listen to what they say, and base your purchases on that.

  2. Consider a full line

    Manufacturers typically have similar features and consoles for all of their cardio equipment. By buying the full line, your members only have to learn how to use one console to use them all comfortably.

  3. Try it out

    There's no better way to know if a piece of cardio equipment is user friendly than by hopping on it yourself. If you can't figure it out, your members sure won't.

  4. Ask the manufacturer for a training session

    A good company will send a representative to your facility to train your staff.

  5. Show your trainers how it can benefit them

    Some trainers may think their job is being replaced by some of the technology, such as virtual trainers. Show them how they can work with the technology to design their clients' workouts and track their progress.

  6. Make your members aware

    Show every new member how the equipment works. After asking what their goals are, have them get on the machine and push the buttons. Show them only the features they need to know to meet their goals.