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The Future of Fitness Technology

As with other industries, we in the fitness industry tend to become stale and myopic about the future of equipment, trends, and tools that can further our businesses. This is a very natural tendency that we operate within our limited, existing ecosystem. However, thought leaders in every industry have stepped outside of the bubble of their peer’s limited thinking to generate products and services that gives birth to creative breakthroughs. Think of Steven Jobs, CEO of Apple, and his continuing success with his suite of iPod products. Certainly Mr. Job’s uncanny vision of what consumers want and will use is unique. Yet, he continues to capture the zeitgeist of not only the consumer but also understands how individuals want to experience their media.

This month we’ve interviewed an executive with a company that continues to spend time and enormous resources thinking about how consumers will use technology in their lives in the future. In this interview we’ll concentrate on the enormous challenges facing our industry and the broader health care industry that exist right now.

Jonathon Puskas is a strategic platform planner for Intel’s Digital Health Group. A division of Intel, he is committed to changing the game on how consumers interact with their personal computers in the areas of personal care, health and fitness, and management of chronic diseases.

Gregory Florez: What macro trends do you see evolving in the next 12 to 18 months that involve technology in the health and fitness arena?

John Puskas: Aging populations, those over 60, outnumber those in their 20s for the first time in our history and will do so in the foreseeable future. Chronic illnesses will affect well over 500 million people by 2008. Forty-five percent of Americans already deal with chronic disease on a daily basis. The Center for Disease Control shows that we have a certified epidemic of individuals dealing with lifestyle-related diseases. There are essentially two places to “play” in this arena: treatment and prevention. We look at markets from frail patients in their later stages of life (those with multiple co-morbidities, diabetes and heart disease) to diet and fitness fanatics already using technology as a way to manage, monitor and reach their lofty goals. The third category, arguably the most fertile for the fitness industry is comprised of “the worried well”—those between 30 and 45 who, although not yet ill, have a family history of diseases and risk factors (or simply want to stay proactive in their health and nutrition). Think of your member or customer who thinks “I’m paying attention to my health while not necessarily being a hard core four to six times-a-week exerciser.” These are the people we believe represent one of the most fertile groups for technology partnerships on which to concentrate.

All of these categories are becoming regular users of technology particularly using their home personal computers. Early adopters, generally athletes, have been using technology that started with heart rate but now include devices that measure speed, altitude, power, cadence, all of which are uploadable to their coaches. With this group, the days of scratching around in log book are over. It is becoming much easier to make these devices even more compatible with PCs. This aggregation will lead to more seamless use of pedometers, weight scales, even virtual training modalities for all exercisers, not just athletes. Fitness companies recognize that downloading enhances the viability and efficiency of exercise devices which, therefore, increases adherence and goal achievement.

GF: How will technology companies support or interact with the fitness industry including manufacturers, clubs and practitioners?

JP: First of all Intel does not aspire to build exercise equipment, training devices and other peripherals that will take market share away from fitness equipment manufacturers. Intel hopes to act in a leadership role to enable the fitness ecosystem, drive standards and interoperability of devices and equipment, improve consumer ease of use and out-of-box experience in set up and use of these new products and devices and by doing so increase market potential, drive new consumers and users and improve the business models for all participants. Intel would also like to help fitness companies better understand technology and use it to interface with PCs and create more visibility to those who may not yet exercise in untapped markets.

GF: There appears to finally be a merging of health care, personal care and fitness. From your perspective what does this brave new world look like?

JP: We see a definite continuum here. It involves improving quality of life combined with lower health care costs. In the pure health care world there is acute care, specialty medical population care, etc., growing at a record pace. In the middle, assisted living, in its many forms is a growing market. Finally, at the highest are those individuals with medical conditions who are self monitored. We believe that some of the things can be done with heart rate monitors, glucose measuring devices and other traditional measuring tools that more people can move into the self monitored category as a result of the PC/device interfaces that will come online.

Ultimately, if we help people maintain their highest quality of health at home, we’ve won. Fitness is only one piece of the pie—diet, exercise and motivation are the other pieces. We picture a world where you do all of your workouts, record the food you eat, and all of it aggregates to the PC. When go to your health practitioner you would carry a USB stick that would contain critical information to share with your doctor and used with your PC in the early stages. Essentially, this becomes a space where fitness information is a feeder into a personal health record. Ultimately you, in partnership with your health care team, can maintain important information electronically and digitally in a wireless world. This information could be aggregated on the web for your coach or health care professional. Here then is really the vision: Your customer would arrive in a gym (not only your gym but gyms around the world for travelers), type in their password and user code, up would pop their favorite music to listen to, workouts from their coach and any “exertainment” devices that are to be used in their workout, communicating to their heart rate monitor and altering the beat of the music or pace of the workout resistance to keep them in their optimal target heart rate or cool down zone. And this is just the beginning.

GF: Given this discussion what then would the future gym look like?

JP: To begin with everything would be wireless—cleaner for end user, no cables, bouncing around, no cords to pull out of machines, or ears, etc.

We should also look forward to the day where I walk into my gym with an RFID (radio frequency identification) band like you see being used in marathons and other running races now. This band now “wakes up my profile.” I just arrived in the gym and my workout, my machine preferences and my entertainment are now ready to go. This would also allow clubs to insert video or audio ads or information for additional service. Each machine knows what I did last time and then tells me what I should do this time. The data is collected without sweat-soaked workout cards and updated for my next workout. And all of this happens in the background with no key strokes or effort from the user. Life is good. For the gym this information could be used for things like future preventative scheduled maintenance, hours of use, etc. There is a very good infrastructure in place now with many gyms and their partner manufacturers. This next step will not happen right now, but all of us need to start thinking in this way.

I really envision a workout world where you don’t just go to a spinning class, but from home you can go to a Web site where a real-time coach can teach a class and do a voice over IP (VoIP) providing instruction from “pick up your pace,” decrease your heart rate,” etc. This is a potentially huge benefit for an already time-starved population. From your club’s point of view, you can touch many, many more customers and create greater loyalty, not to mention additional revenue.

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