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Our Treadmill Skeptic Tests Apple GymKit

The tech giant’s latest foray into the fitness market: make exercise machines smarter

Welcome to the future. (Courtesy of Apple)
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The tech giant’s latest foray into the fitness market: make exercise machines smarter

I have a secret to confess: I’ve never been a treadmill person. Actually, that’s not a secret at all; I wrote about my aversion earlier this year. When I read the Facebook comments in response to that article, I was surprised at how many readers spoke up in defense of the “human hamster wheel.” Was I was missing something? Maybe it was time to get over my snobbery and give treadmill running another whirl.

An opportunity arose this week when I was invited to try out Apple’s new GymKit system. Launching this week, GymKit will enable Apple Watch wearers to instantly pair their device with exercise machines including, for starters, treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. Imagine stepping on a treadmill that knows things like your age, weight, and general fitness level. If that sort of creeps you out, I’m sorry to report that it seems to be where the fitness industry is headed. In 2018, the Life Time and Equinox chains will be outfitting their new clubs with GymKit-enabled equipment. (Older machines will be updated when it makes financial sense, i.e. when they are not so old that they would soon be replaced anyway.) According to Apple, 80 percent of the world’s cardio equipment manufacturers are on board with GymKit. In other words, even though it will only be available at select locations over the course of next year, Apple’s long-term plan is to make GymKit ubiquitous. Welcome to the future.

Eager to experience this brave new world for myself, I stopped by Life Time Athletic at Sky in Manhattan—the first (and so far only) gym in the country with GymKit-compatible treadmills—for a trial workout earlier this week. I’ve always been a Garmin loyalist, but earlier this year, Apple sent me an Apple Watch to test, which I’ve been using on my runs over the last couple weeks. Here were my three main takeaways:

It’s Easy to Use

Pairing your watch with the treadmill is a refreshingly idiot-proof process, even for those of us who are not especially tech-savvy. (Take my word for it. You know all that cool stuff you can do on your phone these days? Well, I don’t.) You just hold the watch up against the treadmill screen for a few seconds until it asks your permission to connect. You confirm and, voila, suddenly all your stats including your heart rate and “active calories,” will appear on the treadmill screen. At this point, you don’t need to look at your watch again for the duration of the workout, although I did this several times—partially out of habit, partially to see if I could catch GymKit off guard. No dice on the latter; the data on my watch always matched what was on the screen, regardless of how many times I paused the workout.

It Protects Your Information

Luckily, the creators of GymKit had the foresight to include an element of discretion. Prior to my Life Time visit, Apple gave a media briefing where I volunteered to be the guinea pig for a quick demonstration. Walking on a treadmill, flanked by editors from other publications, I felt mildly self-conscious that my (prominently displayed) heart rate was already exceeding 85 BPM despite the leisurely pace. Suddenly, I thought of another potential downside of having the info from my Apple Watch mirrored on the larger, public, treadmill screen: what if I got a lurid text from one of my disturbed friends? When I raised this concern, the Apple people assured me that only run-specific data would be relayed from small screen to big screen. Also, once you complete your workout, that data is only stored on your phone and deleted from the stationary device, which is why you have to pair your phone anew at the start of every workout.

It’s a Better Way to Record and Store Your Data

At Life Time Athletic, I was fortunate enough to have the treadmill area all to myself. I ran easy for an hour while listening to Bruce Springsteen, trying to find a watchable TV station, and fiddling with the incline on the Technogym as it whirred beneath my feet. (After restlessly flipping between cable channels, I finally settled on one of those virtual outdoor run simulations of the California coast—the footage was impressive, but still a poor substitute for the real thing. Obviously.) After ending one run, I moved over to an adjacent machine and quick-started into a trot, intentionally waiting for about five minutes before linking to the machine with my watch. Within seconds, my run info was magically in-sync. A nifty aspect of GymKit is that you don’t necessarily need to pair your watch at the start of an activity—as long as you do it at some point during the workout, your data will be retroactively recorded.

Speaking of recording data, from what I can tell that’s going to be GymKit’s biggest benefit for those who regularly run indoors. While the information on the treadmill screen—distance, pace, elevation gain—has always been accurate, transferring that information is usually a cumbersome process. On the rare occasions when I’ve been forced to use a treadmill, I’ve taken pictures of the workout summary with my phone. Other runners I know use a pedometer for treadmill sessions, with mixed results.

GymKit eliminates the problem of manually transferring run data or questioning the accuracy of your fitness tracker. I know it sounds like lame marketing lingo, but Apple’s new system does offer a remarkably “seamless” experience for those people who do a lot of indoor running and want accurate workout data instantly stored in one place.

The Verdict

The above benefits aside, all the snazzy gadgetry in the world won’t dispel my personal disdain for the treadmill experience. The time just passes soooo slowly when you’re churning away on the belt. For me, running inside still feels too much like a chore.

GymKit certainly can’t make the tedium go away, but if you’re gonna bore yourself half to death, you might as well get some accurate fitness stats out of it.

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