Pass a health club membership card across the exercise equipment's sensors and it reads medical and exercise records off the card's embedded chip.
The exercise machine then automatically adjusts to the card owner's body size. It sets resistance levels based on how well the card holder did in the last visit and what a personal training program recommends for joints, bones and muscles.
The workout of the future? It's as close as the millennium, say people who follow exercise trends.
''Programming is becoming more complex. Right now, you can go into a gym with a plastic card, and it will record your entire workout and send it to a trainer,'' said Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Equipment that reads individual needs and adjusts accordingly is already here, too, and the treadmill is a case in point, Cotton said, adding ''I put on a heart rate chest strap, and my control panel picks up my heart rate.''
''I input an upper limit, and the workout is adjusted to keep my heart rate near target,'' he added. If he slows his pace, the treadmill responds by tilting slightly upward -- forcing him to work just as hard by making him run uphill.
Cotton's vision of the techno-workout is in line with Vincent Scalisi, editorial director of Muscle and Fitness magazines, who expects equipment to become more sophisticated and more linked to the Internet. Already, some exercise bikes let riders tie into the Web and set off on virtual races against riders elsewhere in cyberspace, he said.
The Net will also allow creation of a huge exercise data pool, Scalisi said. He expects exercisers to input their personal stats, so the computer-programmed wisdom of the world's best coaches can guide their workouts.
Users of future exercise equipment will more likely be older, experts agree. Baby boomers will see exercise as a key weapon against declining vitality and age-related illness such as heart disease.
Aerobic exercise such as running and walking has long been the mainstay for heart health. But weight training is about to get more attention, said Barry A. Franklin, president of the American College of Sports Medicine. In news, the American Heart Association will highlight data that show the value of resistance workouts in reducing heart disease risk, said Franklin, who has been working on the panel that was writing the recommendations.
Weight training has other values for aging boomers. By triggering bone to retain calcium, it fights the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis. And by stimulating muscle development, exercise builds strength that can help older people prevent falls.
As research improves, exercise prescriptions can become more specific, said Michael Pratt of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors may be able to calibrate exercise programs specifically to help patients fight such conditions as heart disease, diabetes and some forms of mental illness, he said. It's already known that exercise in general works against these diseases.
Researchers also will pay more attention to the benefits of bursts of exercise that can be fit into small periods in busy lives, Pratt said. Right now, the CDC's recommended minimum is 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walks, broken into no less than three 10-minute segments, on most days.
''We will see more and more attention paid to the health effects of lower doses of physical activity -- what happens if you have six bouts of 5 minutes' duration,'' Pratt said.
Exercise may become more a family affair, as parents turn gym time into quality time by having their kids exercise with them, Scalisi said.
Martial arts is a case in point, as parents join classes, following kids they already had signed up for karate lessons. Cotton, however, expects some dropouts in the current martial arts boom. The activity is intense, and some participants already are finding that the snapping kicks and punches injure their joints, he said.
Pratt is worried about a rich-vs.-poor split in America's approach to exercise.
On one side will be those who have money for home equipment or club membership and who live in neighborhoods where outdoor activity is safe, Pratt said. These better-off Americans also will have educational advantages that will clue them into the increasing knowledge about exercise's benefits, he said.
''Things are going to be getting better and better for them, and physical activity levels will go up for these groups,'' Pratt said.
On the other side will be those who lack the money, opportunity and knowledge needed for exercise and who therefore will be less likely to get its benefits, Pratt said. ''A lot of people may be left out,'' he said.
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