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Welcome to a Future When We Work Out on Walls

Is a club where you train on walls while sensors track your body's performance just another fitness trend? Or is it real innovation?

exercising on Fitwall

Will this become the Apple store of health clubs? Photo courtesy of Fitwall

I’m sure there are people who enjoy working out. I just don’t know many of them.

So, no doubt, the people I do know would be thrilled to hear that scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida have made progress in developing a pill that mimics the effects of exercise. Get this: Mice injected with a particular chemical compound lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and expended more energy. And not only did all this occur while they were on a high-fat diet, they also actually were lazier and less active than they had been before they received any injections.

Sounds like magic in a bottle.

Alas, there are caveats. No one, for instance, knows how the human body would react to the compound or what risks it might bring. And the researchers themselves aren’t certain that it’s possible to create any pill that can come close to replicating all of the complex effects and benefits of true physical exercise.

Back to the grind.

Hang time

The problem is that the fitness business has never been one to crackle with innovation. You can switch the soundtrack or pump up the volume or change the instructor’s outfit, but in the end, there are only so many ways you can run and step and spin.

Still, wearable sensors like the Nike+ Fuelband or Jawbone UP, are starting to make the gathering of data as much a part of exercise as sweating without shame. And now that interplay of workouts and stats-tracking is being taken to another level in a different kind of fitness center, one that its backers want to become the Apple store of health clubs.

That’s some ambition, particularly since pretty much the only equipment inside these clubs will be a line of skinny little walls. Each wall, called a Fitwall, is seven feet tall and has four stationary rungs that serve as footholds and four hand grips. It’s designed for what’s known as “vertical training”–which means you can do all kinds of exercises while you’re hanging from the wall–a “perfect pullup,” for instance, or something named the “cowboy squat.”

Still, this does not a fitness revolution make, right?

Okay, but then you add the data layer. Before he or she gets get on a wall to begin the group workout, each person straps a wearable Bluetooth monitor over their chest. This transmits data throughout the session to an iPad connected to the top of each Fitwall. And that allows each “athlete”–that’s what you’re called here, rather than member–to see how he’s doing compared to past workouts or how he stacks up against people on the walls nearby. To add a gaming element, the data is calibrated, or graded on a curve, so that a white-haired guy can compete with a 22-year-old workout warrior on the next wall.

Bring on the coconut water

But wait, there’s more. The goal is to create an experience unique enough that Fitwall will come to mean more than the thing you hang on. So there’s no front desk with a zesty greeter; each person instead checks in on an iPad, where his or her data is stored. And, apparently, no club will have more than 16 Fitwalls, meaning that counting instructors, there should never be more than a dozen and a half people in the club at one time. When each 40-minute workout is over, the trainers go over everyone’s results, then the session is wrapped with a celebratory shot of coconut water and chilled towels–scented with mint and lavender– all around.

You might say this is not for everyone and you’d be right. It’s no accident that the first Fitwall opened earlier this summer in relentlessly chic La Jolla, California, with more to follow soon in the LA area. Next year, Fitwall plans to tackle Manhattan.

But even if less trendy markets don’t embrace the full Fitwall experience, the company does seem to be on to something, with its infusion of real-time data and body-to-body competition into workout routines. At the very least, it’s something different.

Says Josh Weinstein, one of the Fitwall’s main investors:

“There are so many products out there in the fitness industry that I would call ‘me too’ products. It’s yoga–but with heat. It’s spinning–but the music is louder. There’s so little innovation in the industry and that frustrates us, not just as entrepreneurs, but also people who have a passion for working out.”

Or you can hold out for the pill.

Sweat projects

Here’s more recent news on the fitness front:

  • Or about long enough to chow down an order of fries: According to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, four-minute bursts of intense physical activity three times a week is enough for a person to stay fit. A total of 12 minutes of vigorous exercising, they said, was enough to elevate oxygen intake levels, plus lower blood pressure and glucose levels.
  • Burn, baby, burn: Japanese scientists have developed a pocket-sized sensor that can tell you if your body is really burning away fat. After a person breathes into the device, it provides a reading of acetone levels in your blood. Acetone is produced when fat is broken down.
  • Unless, of course, the thought of exercise gives you stress: And there’s more evidence that physical activity reduces stress. Scientists at Princeton University found that exercise reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function. When mice allowed to exercise regularly experienced a stressor — in this case, exposure to cold water — their brains showed a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that regulates anxiety.
  • It’s always something: So much for resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine, being a magical compound that can help fight aging. Oh, it may still be able to do that, but a new study at the University of Copenhagen has found that for older men, resveratrol can undercut how much good exercise is doing hem.
  • Drinking sweat–the final frontier: Well, it’s about time. Swedish scientists have invented a machine that turns sweat into good old water you can drink. The device spins and heats sweaty clothes to remove the moisture, then runs it through a filter that allows only water molecules to pass. While the researchers pointed out that their liquid was cleaner than the local tap water, they also acknowledged that people don’t really sweat all that much.

Video bonus: Get a little taste of Fitwall frenzy. I apologize in advance for the music.

Video bonus bonus: For old time’s sake, take a look at a mash-up of what some people still think was the last big fitness innovation.

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