July 14, 1998 5:40 PM PDT
Surfing at the gym
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It may sound like a late-night infomercial, but gym patrons across the country are logging on to the Net while they pedal exercise bikes or sweat away on stair climbers.
Gyms in major cities increasingly are installing stationary bikes and stair climbers equipped with terminals that allow exercisers to watch TV or cable, listen to CDs, and surf the Net--all while racking up frequent flyer miles with United Airlines or American. Now that's convergence.
No where is this trend more apparent than a few blocks away from San Francisco's multimedia gulch. Using their own headphones, exercisers clamor for the machines, accessing everything from the Jerry Springer Show to online stock quotes.
"The No. 1 reason why people quit heath clubs is boredom," said Bryan Arp, director of operations at San Francisco's Embarcadero YMCA, which was the test site for the Netpulse exercise stations in January 1996 before the equipment went online the following spring.
"Even with our great [San Francisco] Bay view, it gets old," he added. "We could have just put in TVs, and it would have cost less. But people are using Net access more and more. The Netpulse machines are extremely popular."
The original Netpulse stations were dubbed "ICE" machines, and included access to TV and interactive CD-ROMs. But with all the free content flooding the Web, the San Francisco-based firm decided to add Web access to its machines.
The price for a Netpulse machine ranges from $1,495 to up to $2,000.
Using a touch-tone screen, participants also can sign up for a NetPulse ID. Most gyms run programs that let patrons accumulate one frequent flyer mile for every minute they work out. Netpulse promises not to sell or disclose a station user's personal identity with a third party without permission.
San Francisco's Bay Club and Decathlon Club also have set up the machines, and this year 24-Hour Fitness plans to install more than 200 machines in its gyms throughout the country.
Combining exercise machines with couch potato habits is a concept Netpulse plans to introduce in other markets as well.
"The product makes a lot of sense for a business traveler," said Netpulse spokeswoman Karin Newman. "We will look at both the hotel market and corporate and hospital fitness markets."
Netpulse also is working on a deal to include the terminal in other machines, such as elliptical cross trainers.
And although the treadmill has become a symbol for monotony, don't expect to find a Netpulse terminal on one any time soon, because of safety concerns.
"We have one in prototype in our lobby that we have never released," Newman said.
"There is an increased liability," she added. "Being distracted is not a good thing when you're on a treadmill."
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