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Smart Fitness Equipment Brings the Gym to Your Home

Seeking to avoid COVID-19, some opt for high-tech exercise systems to get a workout

Tonal Workout

Tonal

En español | Bruce Phillips and his wife were regulars at their neighborhood fitness club in Oak Park, Illinois.

They took a range of classes, from cardio fitness to yoga and hip hop, which Phillips admits “is out of my comfort zone.” The couple was there so often they struck up friendships with fellow gym members.

Then COVID-19 hit, the gym closed, and they stayed home to avoid the coronavirus. Even when the gym partially reopened, it no longer felt safe. Instead, the couple turned to weekend golf outings and Youtube fitness videos, but Phillips felt he needed something more for his at-home exercise routine.


After six weeks of research, Phillips, who has spent decades working in the technology field, ordered the Mirror, an interactive workout studio that streams live and on-demand fitness classes through a futuristic, mirror-like interface.

The home gym, which looks just like a mirror on the wall, is part of a new wave of smart home systems that blend into the decor and don't take up much space. Since COVID-19 shut down gyms across the country and people are reluctant to go back, Phillips and other workout enthusiasts have been turning to devices like the Mirror, Tempo and Tonal that use cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence to help users keep proper form.

Older adults embracing exercise technology

These high-tech home “gyms” are pricey, often starting at $1,500 and increasing from there. Most require subscriptions for trainers and classes, and that means additional monthly fees, though some of those subscriptions are available and useful even without the equipment. Despite the hefty price tag, sales have skyrocketed over the past year.

In the early days of the pandemic, technology-infused exercise bike Peloton saw a 66 percent increase in sales — just months after the company lost $1.5 billion of its value over an ill-conceived advertisement. Sales of Tonal, which uses magnets and electricity to simulate a weight-lifting experience with up to 200 pounds of resistance, are up around 800 percent year-over-year, with sales in November 2020 nearly double those for all of 2019.

And those purchases aren't being made just by younger buyers. More than 60 percent of Medicare-eligible seniors say they have embraced technology in new ways since the pandemic began, according to a survey from healthinsurance.com. That includes for monitoring their health through wearable devices, for keeping in touch using video chats and social media, and for entertaining themselves. Many of these smart exercise systems combine aspects of all of these — exercising for health, connecting through online group classes, and spending leisure hours pumping iron and sweating.

"There was already a shift starting to take place, but the pandemic pushed it over the edge,” says Jessica Ruiz, a certified personal trainer and staff writer for FitRated.com.

Ruiz, an instructor for Silver Sneakers, a health and fitness program for adults age 65-plus that is included with many Medicare plans, says lots of her clients who used to attend in-person classes are now working out at home. They are “much more willing to consider using tech, which I think would make them far more willing to use artificial intelligence for home” exercise, Ruiz says.

The size of a television or bookcase

Smart home exercise devices have some things in common: They aim to fit in small spaces, and range from the size of a television to a midsized bookcase. They offer high-tech methods of tracking everything from your reps and heartrate to your increased strength. Most offer similar digital communities and virtual exercise classes and training, though each one uses smart technology in a different way.

The Mirror was designed for those who prefer classes. With no weights or equipment required, it streams more than 70 live classes per week ranging from yoga and barre to cardio boot camp and kickboxing. It also boasts a two-way camera that can be engaged during one-on-one personal training sessions.

Tempo is considered by some experts to be more appropriate for experienced exercisers. It comes with some free weights (additional weights can be ordered as add-ons) and combines those with 3D infrared sensors to track body movement, offering instant feedback on form to correct mistakes that could lead to injury.

Instead of using actual free weights, Tonal simulates the weightlifting experience. It starts with a full-body strength assessment to analyze how much weight users can handle, and then automatically increases it as they improve. It is a safer bet for folks who are just getting started in a strength-training routine, says James MacKay, director of rehabilitation at Long Beach Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Long Island.

The machine “knows what's appropriate,” he says. “It can prevent injury for someone who isn't as used to working out."

Real estate broker Debi Mestre, 67, started to notice it was getting harder to push herself back up after bending down toward low-hanging electronic key boxes at showings. She already had a rowing machine in her home gym, but the former nurse realized it was time to add strength training to her exercise routine to improve bone density and balance.

She and her husband purchased a Tonal for Christmas in 2019. It has made a significant difference in their ability to do everyday tasks. Mestre no longer worries about going up and down stairs while showing houses or getting out of low-sitting cars or chairs.

"I was a weakling,” she says of her initial strength assessment, especially in her left arm. “Yesterday I was up 168 percent in my strength score."

In late December, Jennifer Miller, 56, converted the 100-square-foot basement guest bedroom of her Alexandria, Virginia, home into an exercise studio when her Mirror arrived. What was once a rarely used space is now often occupied by family members sampling what Miller refers to as “a buffet of workout classes."

While Miller has discovered a love of boxing strength classes, her husband now regularly soothes himself through restorative yoga — options they say they would have been unlikely to try in an actual gym.

Those varied options and their ease of access are why Miller says she'll be sticking with her high-tech home gym when the world gets back to normal. “It feels like something out of the Jetsons,” she says.

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