Exercise equipment that requires a subscription to work is the opposite of smart

The closures of gyms and concerns over community spread of COVID-19 in the past two years has resulted in a meteoric rise in smart home gym equipment. Much of this technology is innovative, award-winning, and holds promise for the future. That’s a very good thing.

But much of this technology is basic machinery that has been around for years. What’s worse is that its functionality is locked behind arbitrary subscription services that make the equipment nothing more than a heavy, expensive paperweight if you don’t subscribe.

And that’s nothing short of stupid.

A workout using The Mirror.

The rise of the pay-to-be-fit culture

Exercise equipment is expensive. It always has been; in fact, many words have been written on the frugality of purchasing exercise equipment secondhand to reduce its cost. A quick search shows an incredibly basic treadmill available for just over $160, but if you want a machine that allows you to train hard for a marathon, you’ll likely need to spend upwards of $300 or more. After all, you don’t want it to shatter after a few footfalls.

People who buy exercise equipment aren’t afraid of spending money on the equipment, but they do so with the expectation that they can use the device. Smart home gym equipment has changed the paradigm. Instead of paying once for a machine you can use whenever you want, you now pay once for the machine — and again, and again, and again for the monthly subscription. And without that subscription, the machine doesn’t work.

What part of that sounds smart?

The model makes sense for certain devices like the Mirror. Its purpose is to connect the user with guided classes that help improve form and technique. That’s not easy to do without a subscription, especially since one-on-one training is a possibility.

When it comes to something like an exercise bike, locking its functionality down behind a subscription is ridiculous. I tried out several, and each one would track distance, heart rate, and other health metrics during a class — but outside of a class, I could pedal all day long and it would record no information.

At that point, it felt smarter just to strap on a fitness watch (or even just use an iPhone with the Strava app) and hop on an actual bicycle than spend $1,500 or more on a piece of equipment that still charged on a recurring basis.

NordicTrack Studio Cycle in Home

If you want to keep track of your health and fitness scores, you have to pay for it. In a world where physical health is under scrutiny more than ever before, that seems counterintuitive.

I’ll pay for a class, but metrics should be free

Guided classes and connected gym equipment are great, especially if your friends also use them. It adds a competitive element that helps keep you motivated and striving for better and better scores, and it certainly has a place in the world of smart gym equipment.

But it just feels greedy to not provide metric tracking for free. Standard, not-smart equipment can tell your heart rate, distance traveled, and estimate calories burned for half the cost of a smart exercise bike. A piece of smart exercise equipment that costs more than $1,500 should give you the option to cancel subscriptions without essentially bricking the entire machine.

Another aspect of the problem lies in what content is available. Sometimes, I want to jump on an exercise bike and put in a few miles without watching a class or trying to cycle to the beat of the music. Sometimes I want to throw on Netflix on my phone and watch a show while getting in a bit of light cardio. In some instances, even that isn’t an option.

If a machine offers guided classes and workouts, it should also offer unguided workouts. Every machine should have a free roam feature that tracks my heart rate. I don’t need a specialized background or a virtual tour of some far-off land to guide me as I cycle. Just give me a black background with all of the relevant metrics. It’s a simple ask.

Between apps like MyFitnessPal, the dozens of different exercise-specific tracking apps available on both the App Store and Google Play, and smart fitness wearables, the rest of the world seems dead-set on making it easy to keep up with your fitness. Why do exercise machines, even the smart ones, still feel so far behind?

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