Soon, paper could become almost passé at health clubs. Digitization of information is increasing in many industries, including the fitness industry, as a way to reduce paperwork, increase efficiency and streamline record keeping.

The push for this digitization is coming from manufacturers who are now integrating universal serial bus (USB) ports into their new cardiovascular and strength equipment.

Some USB-enabled cardio equipment serves one purpose — to allow exercisers to charge their personal music devices. However, another application for USB involves tracking clients' workouts, which is especially important in the profitable personal training area of fitness facilities. By using USB technology, personal trainers can track what their clients do in their cardio workouts between personal training sessions without relying on clients to fill out paper cards. In addition, USBs mean less paperwork for personal trainers, saving them time, which can help increase clubs' personal training profits.

The Eastside Family YMCA in Penfield, NY, uses USB technology on two pieces of its strength equipment that cost $10,000 each. The technology enables trainers to download one of 20 custom, eight-week exercise programs to a USB-based key. Since the equipment was installed in January 2007, 161 users from 16 to 75 years old have worked out on the machine, which has logged more than 3,000, 30-minute sessions.

Another line of equipment allows exercisers to plug a USB stick into a port and create and save custom workouts. Personal training clients can hand the stick to their trainers, who can then download data into their computer program. Members can also take the USB stick home, plug it into their computer and view their results on a spreadsheet.

Equinox Fitness Clubs has invested more than $1 million in this line of equipment between last year and this year. David Harris, national director of personal training for Equinox, expects to see a return on investment in less than a year.

“This is our first step into the USB port world,” says Harris, who says Equinox is in the process of purchasing 500 USB-enabled treadmills, 200 USB-enabled elliptical trainers and 300 USB-enabled stationary bikes for its 41 clubs. “Our members are extremely results-oriented and technologically savvy, and we've seen many members and trainers using the USB feature to create and save workouts.”

Equinox employs 1,400 personal trainers, who currently track members' workouts manually on log sheets and PDAs. Personal training accounts for about one-third of the company's revenues, and Harris expects the technology will complement, rather than distract from, future profits. The majority of the members do not track their own workouts right now. By using the USB technology, they will receive validation of their personal training efforts, he says.

“Our members love the fact that they can use the USB technology to track performance,” Harris says. “It's a win-win for everyone as an educational tool.”

Workout Tracking

By investing in USB technology, club owners give members the ability to track their workouts and usage of equipment without filling out paper cards. Gregory Florez, CEO of Fit Advisor Health and Coaching Services in Salt Lake City, says that in his experience, members often overstate the intensity and duration of their fitness activity.

“With USB technology, the data doesn't lie,” he says. “Either they ran for four miles in their target heart rate zone, or they didn't. You can't fake it.”

Lynn Rosen-Stone, fitness supervisor for the Baltimore Jewish Community Center (JCC), knows this all too well. She has seen how members track their workouts on their cards and says they're often not complete.

“We have files and keep the cards, and half do it, and half don't,” she says. “I've seen missed numbers and missed spaces, and it's not nearly as accurate as if a trainer did it.”

Despite the availability of USB technology, some clubs continue to track members' workouts with paper. Defined Fitness, which has four locations in Albuquerque, NM, allows members to fill out their own workout cards, and personal trainers track members' workouts via log books, cards or computer printouts.

“Our trainers provide the data in the format clients are demanding,” says CEO Anndee Wright-Brown, who says her club uses an Excel spreadsheet and an in-house system. She plans this year to invest in personal training software that will help trainers schedule appointments as well as track members' workouts.

With and Without Paper

However, just because a cardio machine has USB technology doesn't mean a personal training department can go paperless. Since USB technology is installed mostly on cardiovascular equipment right now, clubs need another product to tie everything together, says one vendor.

Leo Perez, the general manager of an Equinox club in New York, says the USB technology is effective for recording cardiovascular training workouts, but for weight training and other modalities, the club still requires that the 50 trainers use hard-copy documentation.

“We don't intend to have our members have all the data regarding the strength training,” Perez says. “It's good for a trainer to have copies of everything.”

Like Equinox, Fitness and Wellness Professional Services, which owns, manages and operates six wellness centers in New Jersey and has 20 more under development, still tracks strength training with a workout card. The facilities are mostly paperless and high tech, but the trainers personally track the members' strength workouts to ensure a level of personal interaction. At the medically based fitness facilities, each member is set up with a trainer, and trainers are always available on the floor to help put the exercisers through their workout.

“Cardio is a totally different animal from strength training,” says CEO Gary Reidy. “Unless you're in a cardiac rehab program, cardio is something that you do independently. Trainers, however, need to work with their clients and help them get through their resistance training program.”

Barriers to Adoption

Although USB technology can allow club owners to reduce their paperwork, the technology comes at a price. The relative cost of adding a charging port to a cardio machine is relatively low, says the director of product management for one cardio equipment vendor. To be functional and to transport data, however, a cardio machine needs to have an embedded computer, which adds a significant cost to the machine, he says.

Although treadmill prices vary depending on the purchasing agreement, USB-enabled treadmills can run $1,000 or more than those without. That extra cost may be too much for some fitness facility owners, Florez says. However, the cost of the equipment may not be the only thing making some club owners cautious about adding equipment with this technology.

“Clubs have been disappointed by spending a lot on technology that didn't work,” Florez says. “They're leery of being a first mover until they see if the customers will really use it.”

Wright-Brown says that Defined Fitness, which has 30 trainers company-wide, plans to wait and see whether the USB technology is a fitness trend or a fad.

“We're not going to jump on board in the first year or two,” she says. “We want to see if it's something that is serving a purpose and providing them with useful information.”

Wright-Brown typically spends about $5,000 to $6,000 on a new treadmill, and each year, her company invests between $50,000 and $200,000 on new equipment per location, she says. If the USB trend turns out to be a success, she'll take a closer look at investing in the new cardio machines, she says.

“The more you empower your member to improve their health and fitness, the more you make them committed to be healthy and keep them in your business,” she says.

In the end, wider adoption of this USB-enabled equipment will depend on the results that the early-adopting clubs see in member retention, goal attainment and increased personal training revenue — not to mention reduction in the mountains of paperwork for personal trainers.

Tips for Launching USB Technology in Your Fitness Facility

The success of USB-enabled equipment depends on how club owners embrace, package and manage the technology and incorporate it into an experience for the member, says Bob Esquerre, fitness consultant and owner of the Esquerre Fitness Group in Boca Raton, FL. Here are three tips from club owners and consultants about how to implement this technology:

  1. Sell the memory sticks to your members in your pro shop or provide them free of charge to your personal training clients. If your club is investing in cardio equipment that uses USB-based cards, you can bump up the monthly dues for card users.

  2. Rather than keeping cardio equipment with USB technology in a personal training studio, place it out on the floor and make it available for everyone.

  3. Train your personal training staff and your other employees on how to use the USB technology so that they can in turn train their clients to help them get the most out of their workouts.

The Medical Model

The current method of communication between physicians, therapists and personal trainers is about as effective as working a TV without a remote, says Gregory Florez of Fit Advisor Health and Coaching Services in Salt Lake City. USB technology makes it easier for personal trainers to share fitness information with physicians and therapists, he says.

“As our health care system continues in a death spiral, and obesity and life-related diseases continue to increase, logging and tracking systems will allow exercisers to share their data with personal trainers, and, more importantly, going forward with the health care professionals,” he says.

Gary Reidy of Fitness and Wellness Professional Services purchased 150 USB-enabled treadmills because he thought they would be a great way for fitness information to be shared with the entire patient-caregiver team. Every two weeks, members hand the personal trainers their USB sticks, and the trainer uploads the fitness data into a comprehensive computer program. Although the medical files are under lock and key and the facility follows all privacy regulations, the USB technology helps the medical team track the members' exercise regimen.

“At the end of the day, all their results end up in the computer and the database,” he says. “We're excited that we can download the data and see how people are doing.”

Cardio Equipment Vendors with USB Technology