The Body Electric

Home-Gym Gadgets and the Shape of Things To Come

Personal fitness machines have become something of a fetish industry. Eager slaves shell out big bucks for all kinds of masters: butt masters, thigh masters, StairMasters. Add to this latently s/m mix a new line of workout gizmos for those who prefer to abuse themselves in private.

Why endure another Ricky Martin remix at the gym when you can stay home and beat the crap out of Slam Man: a life-size, computerized sparring partner that takes all your punishment without ever striking back? Endorsed by Sugar Ray Leonard, the Slam Man is essentially an electronic Bozo doll; the object is to punch it silly, relieve stress, and work up a shvitz.

According to a PR sheet from parent company FitnessQuest (www.fitnessquest.com), Slam Man is getting his ass kicked in 25 countries. To add some sizzle to the experience, the big blue dummy comes networked with eight LED target lights. Select one of 15 built-in training programs which, like the vintage handheld computer game Simon, test your ability to follow the cues. The best workout, though, comes during the assembly: to keep Slammy grounded, he requires 240 pounds of sand.

For a considerably less intensive routine, nothing beats the promise of Electronic Muscle Stimulation. This decade-old technology uses tiny electrical impulses to stimulate and strengthen muscle mass. "The easiest analogy is putting an electrical shock to frogs' legs," explains Grady McGhee, owner of 21st Century Fitness, an EMS manufacturer.

To use the device, simply lubricate your desired appendage and apply a series of electrodes. McGhee says the transmission process "feels like having someone hum on your skin [until] your muscles expand." Sounds familiar.

Of course, many people prefer to expand their muscles with more familiar devices, like treadmills and rowing machines. A host of home-gym equipment can make you feel like a frantic hamster in your very own living room (and, for many people, double as plant holders or laundry racks). To spice up the routine, some companies have embedded video games right into the exercise equipment via a monitor. The $2999 Life Fitness Liferower, which can be found at various gyms, links your movements to a representative rower onscreen who strokes his way down a low-fi, Atari 2600–style gorge.

Obviously it'd be a lot more fun to play a gruesome computer game like Grand Theft Auto while riding the stationary bike. A few companies have tried, with varying degrees of success, to connect their equipment to PC gaming systems. One device, the Tectrix VR Bike and VR Climber, has been discontinued for over a year, despite its novel idea. This one actually included a Pentium PC and 20-inch monitor right on the machine. A spokesperson said the device was not cost-effective. But it's probably only a matter of time before we'll be recumbently Net surfing.

Even after a good workout, it's not always easy to tell if you're actually getting in shape. A process called Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis is kind of like an updated Special K trick. Instead of pinching an inch, you shoot electric currents through your blubber. Body-fat measuring devices like Tanita's TBF 621, which uses four AA batteries, work almost like regular scales. By standing on the device a series of electrodes make contact with your skin.

As Tanita technician Gregg Szczesny explains, after you input your height, sex, and whether you are an adult or a child, an indiscernible electrical impulse is released through your feet. The energy waves make their way through your body, traveling more quickly through muscle than fat. Once the signals are received back in the base unit, a computer chip calculates the results. The strength and speed of the energy lower in response to your body butter. This way you can see if you have the slosh of a beer belly or the muscle of a sumo wrestler.

Szczesny says devices such as these are especially popular with athletes who are as concerned about body fat as they are about their weight. It seems such equipment might have other practical purposes, especially in these health-conscious times. Would it be possible to, say, slap a hunk of sirloin on the TBF 621 to see how it stacks up? Sorry, says Szczesny. "You have to calibrate the method with human beings," he explains. "There's a difference in resistance between people and steak." Who knew?

 
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