State of the Treadmill Industry
2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the treadmill. Treadmill use was first documented use as a form of punishment in American prisons in the early 19th century. They did not catch on until much later, though, perhaps as modern day self-imposed punishment. Treadmills were tried in the late 1800s as a way to harness animals to run such things as water pumps and spinning wheels. Horses on treadmills were tried to run threshing machines. The first documented modern use of treadmill for humans was in approximately 1952 by Dr. Quinton of the University of Washington. This was the first stress test for the diagnosis of lung disease. From there, the use of treadmills spread from hospitals to health clubs, and later to homes, perhaps all in efforts to avoid the treadmill at the University of Washington.
The modern exercise treadmill was developed and commercialized in the late 1960s by William Staub. Staub was ninety-six years old when he died in 2012. He reportedly used a treadmill until nearly the end. Staub credited the book Aerobics by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, with giving him the idea. Staub sold his original product, the PaceMaster, through a company that he sold to his sons in the ‘90s. That company, Aerobics, Inc., ceased operations in 2010.
The inventor of the NordicTrack machine, Ed Pauls, died in October 2011 at age 80. Some of us remember that before NoricTrack was a brand of treadmill, it was a cross country ski machine. Pauls received a patent for it in 1976. He grew his company to 400 employees before selling it to CML Group in 1986. The machine was wildly popular, but its popularity declined severely and ICON Health & Fitness brought the brand and revived the name.
According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA), the modern fitness industry is now 40 years old. So it seems appropriate that the Fitness Industry Technology Council, a consortium of fitness organizations, recently requested proposals from its members for ways to standardize the measurements used in fitness equipment. Of particular concern is the calculation of “calories burned,” which has always been puzzle exactly how this was calculated.
Sales of stationary exercise bikes continued to grow quickly in popularity in 2011 as an alternative to treadmills. Bikes have followed the pattern of treadmills from club to home. Perhaps as a result of the popularity of spin classes in gym, the fastest growing segment of the exercise bike market has been the spin style bike. The SGMA reports that there are close to 9 million group stationary bike users the U.S and 58% of those who use their bikes at least fifty days per year are over thirty-five years old. According to Robert Braun, VP of Sales at Treadmill World, "It seems like all of the major fitness equipment manufacturers added at least one spin-style bike to their lineup this past year.”
That other pesky competitor to the treadmill has also been doing well. According to the SGMA, about 28 million Americans used elliptical machines in 20141. 52% elliptical users used them at least fifty days per year. Over 70% over users used the ellipticals in a health club.
Occupy Black Friday 2011 urged consumers to boycott Amazon.com and Dick’s Sporting Goods, major sellers of treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes, with unknown effect.
In December, 2011, Nautilus, Inc. voluntarily recalled about 10,000 Schwinn 460 ellipiticals that were potentially dangerous due to foot plates that could detach during use and cause falls. Nautilus had received nine reports of foot plates detaching or breaking. These Chinese-made machines sold for around $1,000 at Nautilus.com, Amazon.com, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and various retailers between 2008 and 2011. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said consumers should stop using this model and contact Nautilus for a repair kit and extended warranty.
In December 2011, after disappointing holiday sales, Sears, which had recently made a push to sell more fitness equipment, announced it would close 100 to 200 of its stores. Sears sells many ICON treadmills and ellipticals.
Woodway rolled out its EcoMill treadmill, a manual treadmill with no motor, no buttons, and a running surface made of slats that travel around a track, instead of the usual belt pulled by two rollers over a deck. The user’s steps power a generator that lights the console. You don’t use any electricity and can charge your cell phone through the USB port. A nice variation, but at a retail price of about $7,000, you would need to run an awful lot to save enough electricity to make it pay.
Woodway also introduced another manual treadmill called the Curve. The belt on the Curve is not flat, but curves up in both the front and back. Woodway claims that the design of the Curve requires a user to run with perfect form and decreases the stress on joints that can be caused by running on other treadmills.
A new Nordic Track X9i treadmill simulates running in the mountains with its steep 40 percent incline and 6 percent decline. Combining this with ICON’s iFit program makes it difficult to imagine how treadmill running could be made to feel more like running outdoors.
Octane Fitness introduced its Lateral X LX8000 Elliptical, which has adjustable foot pads that can be rotated outwards to create a side-to-side motion, as well as a more step-like motion. The intent is to help work the muscles from different positions. Retail about $7,000.
ProForm released its Le Tour de France exercise bike that allows steep inclines and declines, as well as “wind resistance” that varies with your speed. But Relay Fitness Group may have done them one better with its Evo ix Fitness Bike. This bike actually leans to the sides to simulate turning a corner. The first such bike was the RealRyder a few years ago. Relay Fitness Group. Relay was formed in 2010 by several people who left Star Trac a few years ago.
If these advances don’t impress you, consider the Alter G treadmill now being used for in rehabilitation facilities and some gyms. The Alter G uses air pressure and anti-gravity technology developed by NASA to actually lift the user away from the tread belt. The goal is to reduce stress on the user’s joints more than the common spring-based systems, allowing users to train with injuries. The AlterG is made by AlterG Inc.,a medical device company in Fremont, California.
The patent wars continued through 2012. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc. sued five developers of mobile and online fitness applications for patent infringement of two of its patents that enable users to upload and store exercise data. ICON claimed that Strava, Garmin, Polar Electro, FitnessKeeper and MapMyFitness are violating its patents for “methods and systems for controlling an exercise apparatus using a USB-compatible portable remote device” and “the method and apparatus for using physical characteristic data collected from two or more subjects.” For example, ICON says that mobile apps, such as Strava and MapMyRide, which collect users’ data from a GPS device or smartphone and can be uploaded to a website for analysis, and the devices on which they work, such as the Polar and Garmin heart monitors, use technology owned by ICON. ICON holds 223 patents with more than another hundred pending. Since 1991, ICON has been involved in about 175 patent or trademark infringement cases. Sounds like the lawyers need to get more exercise. Maybe then they’d relax a bit.
Cybex International turned around three years of losses in year ended December 2011. It attributed its losses to cautious club owners and attributed its sales rebound to improved economic and industry conditions, as well as marketing and product initiatives. Cybex now offers high definition monitors on their treadmills, ellipticals, and bikes, with video from TV, iPod, or iPhone. Cybex sued TuffStuff Fitness Equipment for patent infringement in December 2011. Cybex borrowed money to pay a $66 million judgment entered against it in favor of a physical therapist who become quadriplegic when an exercise machine fell on her. (Barnhard .v Cybex International)
LifeFitness, a division of Brunswick Corp., settled a patent suit regarding its elliptical machine technology brought by Amer Sports, the Finnish part of Precor. The suit was settled in September 2012 and resulted in LifeFitness agreeing to pay Amer Sports $23 million.
It may be that some manufacturers are intentionally infringing on patents, hoping to make more money while litigation is proceeding than the costs of litigation and damages. This is a strategy discussed in connection with the recent Apple/Samsung phone litigation.
The iPad Holder
Some manufacturers seem to be adopting a different strategy by making an end run around treadmill patents by letting technology companies provide the technology. BH North America recently announced an agreement with Apple whereby users of Bladez treadmills, ellipticals, and exercise bikes can dock their iPads directly into their machines and run both their exercise programs and their other iPad functions directly and simultaneously through their iPads. This agreement would seem to avoid infringing on ICON’s patents because the functions are not embedded in the treadmill. Maybe people will prefer to use their own devices, instead of buying new devices in each piece of equipment. This appears to be the trend in automobiles, where built-in CD players are being replaced by ports to insert iPads and other portable devices. Bodyguard Fitness also offers its Imagine iPad app for commercial equipment that allows similar functions, but does not provide for docking the iPad directly into the console of its equipment.
True Fitness also announced its new ES 900 recumbent bike that holds an iPad, but it does not seem to integrate the functions of the iPad into those of the machine. ICON also sells an optional iPad holder.
The pace of technological advancement has definitely picked up over the past year. Mark Zabel, VP of Global Marketing for Johnson Health Tech North America, says “We believe multimedia entertainment, exercise coaching, personal entertainment, and social media will be the norm on fitness equipment. Some of the latest cool features are virtual destinations integrated on the console that will include coached workouts.”
Indeed, however cool the iPad technology may be, its success may be short-lived if it is leap-frogged by an even smaller technology – the iPhone App. If treadmills are virtual running, why not take the next step full circle and have a virtual treadmill while running outside? The leading app for this is called (what else?) the itreadmill. It turns your iPod into a super pedometer that tracks and records your workout stats the same way a newer treadmill can. So when you are out for a walk or run, you can turn on your iPod and pretend you are on a treadmill! Your results from your on treadmill and off-treadmill workouts can then be stored centrally on your iPhone.
Other new apps, like treadtrainer and RunAnywhere use Google Maps and GPS to create virtual runs, and record your location and progress. A big advantage of such programs is that runners training for an event can cater their treadmill training specifically to the event and store comparable data from treadmill and outside running in the same place. Integrating music chosen from the iPod completes the experience. Other apps are designed to simply add workouts to your treadmill so that you are not limited to those pre-programmed into your treadmill. There are also apps designed to help you repair your treadmill.
In early 2012, Sports Art Fitness introduced its Green System of ellipticals and exercise bikes that can harness up to 70% of the energy generated by their users and feed it back into the grid. Gyms can then use the EcoFit network to track their members’ individual energy production.
In September 2012, Life Fitness announced the release of an open API for its equipment, making it the first fitness equipment manufacturer to open its product platform to other developers. This makes way for these developers to create new apps that work directly with Life Fitness equipment.
Also in September 2012, FitWet introduced exercise bikes, steppers, and treadmills that are partially submerged in tubs of water. To be used for rehabilitation in medical facilities, this equipment combines the effects of cardiovascular exercise with water resistance. Reducing pain and eliminating sweat are among the benefits.
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