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Working out with the Web

By Elizabeth Knefel

May 15, 1998
Web posted at: 5:01 PM EDT (1701 GMT)

(CNN) -- Let's face it. Working out is boring. Even when people make the time for exercise, most lose interest and give it up after a short time. Health clubs spend large amounts of money to install audio systems and banks of televisions to distract patrons from the fact that they are sweating. Now, fitness aficionados can not only watch TV, but surf the Web, get e-mail and even earn frequent flyer miles while they exercise.

That's what Colleen O'Neil does. She and many others are using the latest in high-tech exercise hardware. They like the new equipment so much that they sometimes go past their exercise time requirement without even knowing it.

"I log onto the Nike Web site . . . for sports information, . . . Nike has a training program called 'Speed, Agility and Quickness.' It helps the time pass," O'Neil says.

San Francisco-based Netpulse Communications makes this solution for bored exercisers. Called Netpulse Stations, it's a high-tech upgrade for cardiovascular exercise equipment that includes touch-screen, color computers with high-speed connections to the Internet. The PC mounts directly to a Lifecycle or Stairmaster, and users can log on and call up preprogrammed bookmarks or visit their favorite Web sites. The Netpulse panel features a full keyboard with special keys for "www", "@" and ".com." Each unit also includes a CD player so you can listen to your favorite music and a television tuner so you can watch your favorite channels.

Client boredom is a major problem for the health club business. How that problem is addressed makes a big difference in how clubs can attract and retain members says Netpulse President and CEO Tom Proulx.

"The Netpulse Station makes working out fun and kills the boredom. People just hate sitting on these cardiovascular machines for twenty to thirty minutes and watching the little red dots go by. You walk into a health club and you'll see people doing anything they can to distract themselves. People try to read newspapers, books or listen to music on Walkmans. They are trying to pass the time because it's very boring. The Netpulse Station gives them an incredible variety of things they can do."

Proulx says Netpulse users are hooked. "The usage on these machines is enormous. If you go into any of our clubs at the busy hours, you will find all of our machines in use and people waiting in line for them and several non-Netpulse cardiovascular machines sitting idly. People will actually wait in line to use our machine versus getting right on a normal Stairmaster or Lifecycle."

Netpulse Stations are popping up in health clubs all over the country. The upgrade costs $2,995 per unit and the online connection, free to users, is paid for by advertisers.

Health clubs hope the device will be a big selling point to current and prospective members. According to Bryan Arp, Director of Operations for the Embarcadero YMCA in San Francisco, keeping members is a problem.

"The national average is 50 to 60 percent retention, meaning in an average year you lose 40 percent of the people who join a health club. And our constant goal is how do you retain more."

Arp says his clients get excited about the Internet access, e-mail and other features, but the frequent flyer miles are the big draw. "It's the most amazing thing. It's like we're giving them candy. It's beyond me. People will do anything for frequent flyer miles."

Netpulse provides club owners with maintenance and usage reports for each unit. Personal workout records can be accessed at any machine at any location and later this year users will be able to access their records from their own home computers. One drawback for some is the small screen. The Internet screen shares space with the equipment controls and readings about workout time, calories, resistance level, heart rate, etc.

Who would have thought you could surf the Web, exercise and earn frequent flyer miles at the same time? Not only will such equipment take users' minds of the drudgery of working out, they can save up their airline miles, fly to Hawaii and do some REAL surfing.

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