“Twenty percent of Americans belong to a gym, but only about 18 percent of those people are users of the gym,” says Ted Vickey, senior advisor of fitness technologies at the American Council on Exercise and professor of kinesiology at Point Loma University. “Very few of us are exercising, and none of us are exercising in the most effective ways. We know you should exercise regularly and eat healthy foods but exactly what should you eat and how should you exercise—this new tech can answer these questions and make everything more effective. And when it’s effective, you utilize it.”
Vickey says that the focus of creating high-tech gym environments for the masses starts with how tech that already exists works with people outside of the four physical walls of the gym. Trackers and wearables allow you to keep track of your health stats 24 hours a day, seven days a week—not just for the hour a day that you’re in the gym.
“The forward-thinking gyms will implement high-tech components this year,” Vickey says. “Anytime Fitness has an app so you can connect your wearable device to equipment in the gym and create comprehensive workout reports. Gold’s Gym released an app that has personalized coaching embedded into the songs on their playlists. Gyms are finding ways already to enhance membership—and if it’s popular, other clubs will follow suit.” Both gyms and tech companies alike are looking to join forces. Apple recently announced GymKit, which will allow gym-goers at certain chains to track fitness data with Apple’s own Health app.
And that’s just the beginning of it—or as Dr. Daniel Chao, CEO of fitness tech company Halo Neuroscience puts it, that’s the “cookie cutter version” of what high-tech integration in gyms will look like in the coming years. “In five years from now, you’ll be able to move in front of a camera and it will tell you if you’re set up for an ACL injury on your left knee because of poor form, or hip injury on this side because you are moving incorrectly. We’re going to see genetic screening come into the picture—you’ll have access to see what sports and athletic endeavors your musculature genetic makeup is predisposed to being successful at. People will be able to be the most successful versions of their physical selves.”
The tech Chao describes is already here, too. Less than 400 miles away from CES, Dr. Marcus Elliot, M.D., and a team analyze professional athletes exactly as Chao describes, studying their every movement and workout with sensors and programs, aiming to give specific injury-prevention and workout feedback.
That’s the possible allure of bringing tech into the gym, says Chao: making fitness more approachable may make it more effective. “The future of the gym will be more prescriptive to an individual with objective standards so that you can participate in and excel at what your body is meant to do, uniquely,” Chao says. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Success begets interest. Success leads to more motivation.”
High tech even has the capacity to help you not only know what you’re meant to be good at athletically, but help you get good at it, faster. Halo Sport, developed by Halo Neuroscience, is a headset worn for 20 minutes a day to strengthen mental synapses. It works by sending electrical signals into the brain’s motor cortex. In short, it is supposed to strengthen your brain so you can learn and master movements more quickly.
“Take it into consideration that we’re all humans and we have a limited number of lifetime physical repetitions, and day by day we draw from that count,” Chao says. “With high-tech equipment affecting our training, we can make the most of those limited movements so we can get the highest return for our efforts. Our body is finite and we need to budget our training load. Overtraining is just as bad as undertraining. To make the most of our fitness, we have to make the most out of every rep.”
But both Chao and Vickey acknowledge that even though this all sounds great, usability is the forgotten part of technology—and it comes at the expense of the users. “The key with fitness is that you have to maintain the human element,” Vickey says. “I mean, it is all about the condition of the human body to begin with.”
So while camera monitors and body sensors and headsets don’t seem so accessible and lifestyle friendly now, experts and inventors are working to normalize their potential—so don’t expect any drastic changes overnight. Just as Fitbits rocked the boat in 2010 with their connectivity to users’ phones, a gym’s ability to connect to a member is just a few updates, years, and adaptations away.
But the connected gym is coming, promises Vickey. “We see the future is going to be digital,” he says. “So we have to be here to make it work for everyone.” If it creates a gym-topia, it might not be that bad.