If Karyn Szeszko had one word to describe the Manhattan Plaza Health Club (MPHC), it would be “relaxed.” With close to 4,000 members who live and work in the hustle and bustle of mid-town Manhattan, the club markets itself as a retreat from the outside world.

“It's probably the design, décor and the people [that give the club a relaxing feel],” Szeszko, director of membership services at MPHC, says of the atmosphere. “It's not one of those clubs that you walk in and there's pumping music. I think it's all the elements put together that make it that way.”

That's why when the club first started experimenting with different types of entertainment options for its cardio equipment, some members were excited while others were taken aback.

When the club first installed new treadmills that had individual television screens built into the consoles, members “freaked out,” Szeszko says. “They were saying, ‘This is our oasis. This is our home away from home.’ And we were like, ‘It's the 21st century.’”

MPHC's battle to find the right mix of technology while still maintaining its atmosphere of a quiet sanctuary isn't uncommon. As technology progresses, more and more entertainment options have become available from blending videogames and exercise (see “Play and Workout?” on p. 47) to Web access on ellipticals to advanced on-screen fitness training regimens and programs. With an increasing list of options available, how much is really helpful, necessary and maybe most importantly, wanted? Are clubs offering more than members even know how to use?

“When we were selling machines, we thought it was more interesting to sell to gym owners because they want to get their money's worth, so we gave them bells and whistles, but that's not what the consumers are looking for,” says Jay Blahnik, IDEA health and fitness instructor of the year (1996) and a consultant for manufacturers. “Extra buttons don't increase value. What increases the value is, do people use it?”

Many members spend their workdays hunched in front of a computer, typing and e-mailing away. Some come to the club to get away from technology, while others enjoy the interactive, engaging nature of the technology. Who to please is sometimes a toss-up.

Szeszko says her members who use the technology love it (and actually requested it prior to installation), but to please the tech-weary crowd, the club chose to leave the cardio equipment on the mezzanine overlooking the pool entertainment-free, except for the scenery that is — the 75-foot pool is enclosed by glass and surrounded by tropical plants year round.

“There are some people who are surrounded and inundated with technology. The last thing they want to do is be around technology,” says Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. “This is their time to get away from technology. You really have to look at the individual user.”

On the other hand, Bryant says that for some the entertainment can be motivating and encourage longer, more productive and enjoyable workouts.

“It does appear that many of the users do desire having these bells and whistles because they can serve as positive distracters to pass the time,” he says. “More and more individuals are trying to exercise for longer durations to lose body weight and fat or are trying to adhere to recent reports as to how much exercise is enough. These kinds of devices can be beneficial.”

To find the right entertainment technology for your cardio equipment, if any at all, you not only have to factor in how technologically advanced your members are and what they want from their workout, but also their ages. Your middle-aged and senior members might be more intimidated by brand-new technology on their trusty recumbent bike than a 20-year-old would be, Bryant says.

However, for any age, one of the most important aspects for any kind of technological device is its user-friendliness. So, before you buy, hop on and test it out. Is it easy to use?

“You want something that's pretty straight forward and intuitive for people to take advantage of technologically,” he says.

Other Whozits and Gadgets Galore

Besides the built-in television screens, advanced programming and Internet capabilities, it's almost standard now for cardio equipment to have some kind of heart rate monitor built in. Once again, the same questions apply — do your members want this? And really, how much does it help them?

“It's measuring how fast your heart is beating, but it's not exactly how hard you're working,” Blahnik explains. “It's really based upon algorithms that are outdated.”

He does say though that it is a good way to measure improvement, and most heart rate monitors on the machines are fairly accurate depending on the activity. Contact grips are accurate under 4 mph when walking on a treadmill, but anything faster than that loses its effectiveness due to vibration, he says. Monitors with a chest strap are usually highly accurate while those with ear clips are not very accurate, and the more the upper body is used, the less accurate the monitor becomes, Bryant says.

Bryant says users could get more out of heart rate monitors with just a little more explanation from the fitness facility's staff to help members understand monitors' strengths and limitations or to teach members the basics of a simple perceived exertion test.

“For most individuals they can rely on something as simple as the talk test. You really want to find a level of intensity where you can hold a basic level of conversation,” Bryant says. “While it's nice to have heart rate technology, are they really required? In most cases not.”

Instead, Blahnik explains that knowing calories, time, distance and speed is usually more of a must for users, especially new users, to measure their progress — once again, as long as it's in an easy-to-understand way.

“We tend to set funny goals for ourselves in our head,” he says. “If there's a way to know that, then it's compelling to stay on another five minutes. Once you ask them to do a lot of stuff, then it's the opposite of what they want to be doing.”

Future Possibilities

So, what does the future hold for cardio entertainment technology? Plenty, says Blahnik, but it's all going back to being “brilliantly simple.”

“It's not really about the high tech stuff out there. Look at the iPod. You don't need it to be fancy; you just need it to work and look good,” he says. “It's about entertainment and motivation, and motivation is not as complicated as you think.”

He points out that less than 10 percent of the people on treadmills and ellipticals even use the speed and incline buttons to vary their workout.

“It's really about making the more complicated stuff invisible and the more important stuff visible,” he says. “Someone who is more sophisticated doesn't mind digging for it.”

He expects the treadmills and ellipticals of the future to allow their users to quickly buy and download music online for members' digital music players, and for the equipment members use to be able to compare their workout today with their workout from last week.

“It's the easy things that motivate people,” Blahnik says. “We think it's tons of information, but it's really how far I've gone and how many calories I burned, and I can compare that with yesterday and the week before. It's not having a ton of information.”

Whether you decide to outfit your club with top-of-the-line technology or use a bare-bones approach by getting back to the basics, you already know as a fitness and health facility leader the industry rule: no matter what changes that you make to your equipment, programming and facility, you can't please everyone. So talk to your members to find out what they want, strike a balance and sit back and watch your members enjoy their workout to whatever tune they whistle.

Play and Workout?

Perhaps the newest trend in cardio technology is the blending of a workout with the ultimate in interactive technology — video gaming.

“It's purposeful exercise,” Jay Blahnik, IDEA health and fitness instructor of the year (1996) and a consultant for manufacturers, says of the trend that is commonly called “exertainment” or “exergaming.” “I think the reason it's compelling is that younger people don't have a reason to exercise. It's always a little easier to get hooked.”

Although started for kids with high hopes to help decrease the childhood obesity epidemic, the trend is gaining steam with adults, too.

“I think adults have really lost that element of play and having fun,” says Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. “I think what you'll find is that most adults will find it enjoyable. We've forgotten how much fun it is to play.”

Some Manufacturers to Check Out:

  • Makoto USA: A game that combines physical training with sensory integration therapy to improve performance. www.makoto-usa.com

  • CycleScore: A project funded by a grant from the MIT iCampus program, a recumbent bicycle is hooked up to a motivational game that uses interactive feedback. www.cyclescore.com

  • Konami: A company known for its computer, video and arcade games, Konami also offers Dance Dance Revolution and other interactive cardio games and equipment. www.konami.com

  • Powergrid Fitness: Specializes in interactive, isometric strength training devices that hook up to common video-gaming systems. www.powergridfitness.com

  • Broadcast Vision Entertainment: www.broadcastvision.com

  • Cybex: The Trazer is a virtual reality game that combines reaction time, acceleration, speed, power and balance. www.cybextrazer.com

  • Expresso Fitness Corp.: The Spark bike pairs cycling with interactive training software as it simulates dozens of courses. www.expressofitness.com

  • RacerMate Inc.: Offers electronic bicycle ergometers and trainers along with software including programs on coaching and multi-rider racing. www.racermateinc.com

  • Sportswall: Products such as SportsPC, ScoobieBall and SmartBall use games, lights and sounds to get children and adults moving. www.sportwall.com