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It didn’t take long for Brenda Kraemer to make friends with fellow riders in her spin class. The 52-year-old retired former project manager schedules rides with pals, chasing them up the leaderboard and cheering when they’ve reached a new milestone. And yet she is alone at home as she does it, riding a Peloton, a beautiful, digitally connected stationary bike that launched in Canada this fall.

The bike not only looks futuristic – its sleek, carbon-steel frame coated in matte black, a 22-inch full-HD touch screen mounted in front of the handlebars – it is futuristic, part of a burgeoning trend of smart home fitness equipment designed to be show pieces for the home.

“It’s a work of art,” Kraemer says of her bike.

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Riders can choose from more than 10,000 classes, pick their favourite instructors and tailor their music, whether they want to listen to country or hip hop. It’s a customized, connected experience to be enjoyed in the comfort of their homes.

The Internet of things, in which physical devices are able to transfer data across a network, has become pervasive in almost every room of the home, from smart fridges that allow you to order groceries online to thermostats that can be controlled remotely from your phone. Now the revolution in how we live is changing home gyms. With its emphasis on design and connecting users digitally to trainers, coaches and fellow users, the so-called Internet of fitness aims to change how we exercise, with possibilities that those in the industry say are practically boundless.

“We’re just at the beginning of this trend,” says Robert Jacobson, digital manager for Nautilus Inc., the company that manufactures Nautilus, Bowflex, Schwinn and Universal brand home-fitness equipment. The company entered the connected gym equipment market with a Bluetooth-connected treadmill launched five years ago and now has apps for each brand that provides workouts for users.

Despite the prevalence of health and fitness apps – there are more than 165,000 of them currently available, according to mobile metrics tracking company Flurry Analytics – connected home fitness equipment is poised to become big business. The connected gym equipment market, valued at US$159-million in 2016, is expected reach more than US$1-billion by 2023, according to a report released in January from Allied Market Research. That represents a compound annual growth rate of 31 per cent. Meanwhile a report published last year by IBIS World, another market research company, found that during the previous five years the gym, health and fitness clubs market in Canada grew by only 2.3 per cent annually.

Traditionally, home fitness equipment has posed two problems. One is the need for exercise knowledge. A user manual might provide a few examples of possible routines, but once you run through them multiple times, it is not easy to know what else to do with the equipment. That leads to boredom, which kills motivation. The other problem is a matter of design. Racks of dumbbells or weight machines with cables and cumbersome pulley systems are often banished to the garage or the basement not just because they are bulky but because they are unsightly. Out of sight and out of mind, they often go unused.

It’s no wonder, then, that for manufacturers of the new generation of fitness equipment, looks are top of mind.

A Tonal Digital Strength Training unit.

Tonal, a San Francisco-based start-up that utilizes Silicon Valley’s sleek, minimalist design aesthetics for its personal training system, replaces weights with electromagnetic resistance and comes with the option of accessing a personal trainer digitally through its screen. It looks more like a flat-screen television than a traditional strength training system.

“We wanted to create not just the world’s most intelligent fitness system, but also create something beautiful that would be at home in people’s living room,” says Aly Orady, chief executive officer and founder of Tonal. “For something like fitness to be sustainable people need to be engaged with it. Part of that engagement comes from a product being beautiful and accessible. We wanted something that can live in the home so you can hop out of bed and use it without worrying about hiding it away in the basement.”

And with the growing emphasis on wellness, people increasingly want to show off their gear. Toronto-based interior designer Jane Lockhart says that home gyms today are like wine cellars. Once tucked away in the most remote corners of the house, they are moving up to the main or second floor of homes.

“Your hobby is on display,” she says. “It used to be leftover space in the basement. If the equipment’s kind of ugly it stays down there. But as pieces are getting nicer – they’re more streamlined – they’re starting to move upstairs.”

That insight informed the design of the sculptural-looking Bowflex SelectTech 560 dumbbells, an adjustable set of square weights with laminated steel plates. Launched in 2016, it connects to a smartphone app where a virtual trainer guides users through exercises and, thanks to built-in motion sensors, will track reps and sets.

“This equipment is often sitting in a room that other people are in, and we realized that we really need to show off not just a design that looks really catching in a home, but it also needs to kind of show off that this is a very futuristic dumbbell,” Jacobson says.

Indeed, it was the look of the Peloton that convinced Catriona Smart to buy one of the bikes for her Toronto home. “I’m obsessed with design, so when it comes to basically anything I buy that’s a big factor,” says the 38-year-old, who was previously running on an elliptical trainer at home. “It’s a beautiful bike. You don’t have to hide it somewhere.” (At first it was in her bedroom, although she’s since moved it to the basement, where sweat on the floor is less of a nuisance.)

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Earlier this year, Peloton unveiled a treadmill that will offer users running classes, walking classes and boot camp classes. At Nautilus, Jacobson and his team are focused on ways to bring more tailored, personalized coaching to users through digital equipment. “It feels like we’re right at the edge of all sorts of really cool possibilities,” he says. The only question will be matching the machines with your decor.

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