Fitness has found a new home in cyberspace, with the new year promising even more Web sites dedicated to exercise.

By the time the new millennium dawns, literally dozens of web sites will be providing consumers with unprecedented levels of health and fitness information and customized training programs. This is mostly good news for commercial health and fitness facilities, which may find that the information these web sites are providing is compelling more people to exercise.

On the other hand, many of these web sites may very well be able to compel consumers to join their "virtual clubs," rather than a commercial facility. If some of these web sites do indeed deliver the high-quality fitness information and interactive support they are promising, some consumers may elect to exercise at home, or at the growing number of unsupervised and often free exercise centers such as those at apartment complexes, places of employment, and even churches to name a few.

At this point, the web sites that are making the biggest pushes for consumer interest, and those that are being developed by companies better known to commercial health club owners and operators, are emphasizing that their primary objective is not to compete with fitness centers. Instead, most maintain that the information they provide will help fitness facilities better meet the instructional and training needs of their members. Further, some web sites are already beginning to partner with commercial health clubs to help the fitness centers promote their facilities and provide more training support for the members.

"We're not positioning eFit.com as an alternative to membership at a health club," says Charles Platkin, president and chief executive officer of the online health and fitness network. "We're there to supplement what fitness facilities are already doing, make more people aware of the benefits of exercise, and provide information on how they can achieve them." At press time, the web site was scheduled for launch before this month.

At FitForAll, also scheduled for a pre-millennium launch, and GetFit, which is expected to be online soon after the new year, supporting the growth of the commercial health and fitness facilities is part of the program.

"One of the things that we'll be doing is facilitating communication between trainers and their clients," says Steven Striker, vice president of sales at GetFit. Like many of the web sites that have or will be launched, GetFit will allow fitness enthusiasts to upload exercise information into its system to be reviewed and commented on by trainers. "With our web site, trainers at health clubs will be better able to track what their clients are doing, and provide them the instruction and motivation to get even more out of their fitness programs," says Striker.

But an equally if not more important role the web sites see themselves as playing is the developer of pre-packaged and/or personalized training programs and the monitoring of them by their computers, staff personnel or remote trainers. GetFit will offer hundreds of programs including sport-specific regimens or those designed for people with special needs. FitForAll, according to Sharon Barbano, editor-in-chief and vice president of content development, will give consumers live access to certified coaches and trainers. One of the services that eFit plans to offer is personalized training programs with top athletes.

Recognizing that members of these "virtual clubs" will still need to exercise at commercial-quality fitness facilities, web sites are seeking partnerships with club owners and operators. For instance, some of the web sites hope to put interactive kiosks in commercial fitness centers. The kiosks will provide members with access to the web sites' library of information. They will supplement the member's own computer as a workout data entry point. And the kiosks will help clubs co-brand themselves with what the web sites report will be their highly visible brands.

The technology that is making it easier for these new web site companies to bring compelling and supporting fitness information to millions of people has not gone unnoticed by traditional suppliers to the commercial fitness industry. In particular, the companies that pioneered interactive fitness products and networks are, or will be, enhancing their services with Internet capabilities.

FitLinxx is in the process of developing a major web site that will provide health club members with round-the-clock access to its interactive system. In addition, the Internet link will make it easier for users of the system to enter information about their fitness activities outside of the club.

"Instead of having access to their workout information only when they're at the club, members will be able to review their workout progress 24/7," says Keith Camhi, FitLinxx president. Likewise, trainers will have better access to their clients, too. "With an Internet link, now the trainers can have much more contact with their clients, especially those who may not have come into the club for awhile."

Get to the Club
Camhi agrees that his and other web sites should be instrumental in driving more people to health clubs. And while an Internet application does provide the company with the capability of dealing directly with consumers, Camhi assures that Fit-Linxx's web site will always encourage consumers "to get to the club."

"Exercise is the one thing you can't do with a web browser," says Camhi. "We see our web site as part of an integrated play that fully embraces health clubs as the place where exercise gets done."

Like most of the major web sites that have or will debut soon, FitLinxx.com will provide a wide assortment of information for both club members and consumers in general. The site will also offer a variety of prepackaged programs and programs that can be personalized for individuals.

Schwinn Cycling & Fitness will launch an interactive web site next year. According to product development manager Tom Schmidt, interconnectivity with the company's Fitness Advisor System will provide club members with better access to their training data: "This will make it much easier for members to enter and retrieve data when they're home or on the road. Now when they get to the club, they'll have more time to exercise."

Technogym USA has not announced plans to link its interactive system via the Internet. But vice president Steve Robertson acknowledges that web applications are going to be critically important components of packages that fitness products suppliers offer to health and fitness facilities.

What Robertson does caution, though, is that technology alone is not the solution to the challenge of helping people to be fit: "Club operators have to understand that the wonderful technology available to them will dramatically help them build their business only when they truly commit themselves to supporting it. If a club really decides to get behind the technology that it installs, the return on that investment can be huge."

The ability of the FitLinxx, Schwinn and Technogym interactive fitness networks to monitor and record a member's workout information automatically gives these systems an advantage over the newer web sites. And to extend the tracking capability of these products even further, they are incorporating other technology into their systems. FitLinxx is exploring the use of handheld computers such as the Palm Pilot to collect exercise information. Schwinn is partnering with Physical Genius to help members collect data on exercising with free weights.

Web site developers are looking at ways to make it easier for members to collect their fitness information. In addition to handheld computers, other monitoring devices, such as heart rate monitors, are expected to be incorporated into the Internet mix. All of which ensures that fitness has a growing place in cyberspace.