Pumping the Pedals

Cyclists can ride along the coast, pedal through the mountains and cross a bridge all without leaving a health club. By investing in the latest virtual reality (VR) technology, fitness facilities like Club One in Alamaden Valley, CA, are drawing in new members and increasing retention.

“I think this is just what people need,” says Lisa Destefano, general manager of Club One, which owns four stationary bikes equipped with VR technology. “If members are bored with their workout, they're not going to stick with it. These bikes help them to continue to be challenged and entertained.”

VR technology isn't new — it's been around since the 1950s — but in recent years, manufacturers have capitalized on the popularity of video games and computers by integrating VR capabilities into exercise equipment. The first VR exercise machines launched in the 1990s, but due to the high cost and primitive imagery, they failed to appeal to a wide audience. Today's VR bikes aim to make the imagery appear so real that cyclists may forget they're exercising indoors.

Virtual World

To immerse themselves into a simulated environment, cyclists don't need to wear goggles or virtual reality helmets. To pedal along a virtual course, they simply climb on the stationary bike, log on and select a course, which appears on the 17-inch LCD screen mounted in front of their handlebars. Riders can chart their progress on the bike, which measures their heart rate, calories burned, location on the course, incline, speed and change in resistance. To make the upright stationary bike feel more like a road bike, the handlebars turn left and right and the rider can select one of 30 gears. When the course goes uphill, the riders must pedal harder or shift to a lower gear.

More than 40 health clubs nationwide including Club Sports in Pleasanton, CA, now own this type of VR bike, which carries a price tag of about $5,000. Club Sports, which has 15,000 members, tried out the VR bikes about a year-and-a-half ago and now owns four of them. Club Sports members from elite cyclists to Baby Boomers to 12-year-olds are riding the bikes, which each get eight hours of usage seven days a week, says Jeramy Conner, wellness director at the facility. About 300 of the club's 15,000 members have set up an account online to track their progress.

“Our members took to the bikes right away,” Conner says. “Everyone loves the stats and being able to see how they're improving, and it's more entertaining than sitting on a stationary bike watching TV or staring off into space.”

Club Sports, which owns 10 regular stationary bikes, 10 recumbent bikes and 60 spinning bikes, set aside a special area in its cardio room for the four VR bikes. If demand increases for the bikes, the club may consider buying more to set Club Sports apart from other fitness facilities in the area.

“We show these bikes on our tours with potential new members, and it's a differentiator,” Conner says. “No other clubs in our area have them yet.”

Club One's four VR bikes, which are located in the front line of the cardio equipment, often spark the interest of prospective members when they walk into the club for the first time, Destefano says. The club purchased its first two VR bikes a year ago after participating in a three-month trial period, and the bikes were so popular that the club bought two more bikes. In the future, all 18 Club One locations could offer the VR bikes, Destefano says.

Increasing Interactivity

Networking VR bikes together enables clubs to encourage interaction among the members, says Lisa Tinker, fitness director for Stow, MA-based Global Fitness, which owns four VR bikes. By simultaneously logging on the same course, cyclists can compete for the fastest time. The technology even allows cyclists to compete against members of other health clubs.

The children who belong to N4 Fitness in Westchester County, NY, also can compete against each other and work up a sweat while playing video games on a patented stationary bike. By spinning the pedals and steering the handlebars, riders can control the movements in various Playstation, Game Cube or XBox games.

As members race against each other, they often have so much fun that they don't realize they're exercising.

“On these bikes, our members enjoy the challenge of the ride and feel like they come off of the bike with a good workout,” she says. “Anytime you can get people engaged in something that they enjoy and connect members, it's a good thing.”

Competitive Racing

To spark interest in the VR bikes and reward their members, some clubs offer a free month's dues or a free massage to riders who finish a course in the fastest time or make the most improvement during the month.

The VR bikes are part of Club Sports' Fit Man Challenge, which challenges the club's male members to beat the general manager's time on the VR bike, run six miles in an hour on the treadmill, bench press 1.5 times their body weight, touch the basketball rim and swim 700 yards in 12 minutes.

Clubs can also sponsor live racing events to raise awareness of the club in the community and attract area cyclists. In fact, one type of technology allows cyclists to ride their own bikes during a race. As multiple cyclists compete on the same course, their families and friends can cheer them on from the starting line to the finish line without stepping outside of the health club.

As riders spin the pedals of their bikes, a course is projected on the wall or a large screen. A resistance motor on the back of the training system simulates the ride and applies the proper amount of resistance. If riders crash by hitting another rider or immovable object, they can't start pedaling until the back wheel stops, which simulates the loss of valuable time during an actual road race.

This sense of realism is missing with other types of VR cycling technology, says Kendra Wenzel, a professional cyclist with more than 20 years of racing and coaching experience, a head coach for Wenzel Coaching and author of Bike Racing 101.

“Typical health club bikes have a huge saddle,” she says. “You can be on the hill standing like on the screen, but it's not a bike like anyone would actually ride on a course. If someone climbs straight on their bike and expects the road to respond the same way, they would run into trouble on their first ride.”

Cyclists don't live to ride indoors, but if VR bikes can encourage more health club members to get on the road and on to actual bikes, it's good for the cycling industry, Wenzel says.

“I just hope these bikes don't get so real that no one goes outside anymore,” she says.

Group Cycling

To cater to members who thrive on competition, will future clubs transform their spin rooms into VR studios?

“In the high-end clubs, I envision that spinning rooms will be like an Omnimax theater,” Wenzel says.

The Summit YMCA in Summit, NJ, is already taking steps in this direction. The Y, which has three locations with 18,000 members, recently explored VR technology for its group cycling classes. After two of the Y's instructors tried out the bikes, the Y looked into buying six to eight of them.

“We've been looking out for something that would make an interesting class ride,” says Chris Ahlers, senior health and physical education director for the Y. “We try to stay current, and these bikes would be good for member retention.”

Manufacturers of Exertainment Bikes and Accessories

Exertainment Trends for Cardio Equipment

  • Audio and visual entertainment

    Your club members often have music, entertainment and technology at their fingertips wherever they go. Fitness manufacturers are now expanding the entertainment options for cardio equipment by integrating LCD screens into their bikes, treadmills and ellipticals. Clubs can also allow their members to use in-club music and TV technology while they're working out.

  • Customization

    In the future, cardio equipment will provide customized workout programs for each health club member.

  • Personalization

    Clubs can now communicate with their members through custom Podcasts.

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