Selling Exercise Equipment: Always a Heavy Lift

The rise of exertainment

Headshot of Robert Klara

In 1932, Mrs. Gordon Bergfor of New York City learned from her doctor that she had a chronic neuromuscular disease. The only hope she had was finding an exercise machine that worked every major muscle group simultaneously. Unfortunately, no such machine existed at the time. Fortunately, Mr. Bergfor was a mechanical engineer and built his wife one himself. When neighbors and friends noticed the relief the device brought to Mrs. Bergfor, they asked for one, too—and the Exercycle hit the market. Tens of thousands sold. Within a few years, loyal users would come to include John Wayne and President Eisenhower.

Today, the exercise equipment business is a $4 billion industry. But while the mechanical basics of the machines haven’t changed all that much, selling them has, as the two ads here make clear. Most obviously, the machines have evolved from Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions like the Exercycle pictured in this 1960 ad (complete with the gent working out in business attire) to veritable pieces of sculpture like the sleek personal trainer in the color ad. But the bigger and far more significant evolution has occurred in the basis of fitness itself. Fifty years ago, consumers had to buy into the idea of exercise before they’d buy the piece of exercise equipment. Today, it’s just about the equipment.

“You’re not selling the benefits of exercise; you don’t have to convince everyone anymore,” explained veteran fitness management consultant Jim Thomas. “But now, the exercise business is almost like the entertainment business. People are doing it; we’re trying to figure out how to keep them doing it.” And, increasingly, keeping people exercising has become the business of digital distraction.

In 1960, the only real exercise that most Americans got was walking to their cars or playing golf. It’s why Exercycle’s ad is a 387-word disquisition (with doctor’s endorsement) on the benefits of exercise and the concurrent merits of using the bike. Today, with half of Americans exercising at least 30 minutes a week, the marketing task for a brand like Technogym is no longer a difficult, two-step sell.

Which is not to say it’s an easier sell.

Thomas says that exercise equipment brands now compete on the basis of bells and whistles. “You have a very educated marketplace, so the differentiation is about being trendy, about fun and entertainment,” he said. This new market reality would presumably explain why Technogym hired a famous designer like Antonio Citterio to sex up its Cross Personal machine, and also why its control panel doesn’t just monitor your heart rate, but lets you shop online, listen to your iPod or watch TV while you’re working out. The Cross Personal also comes with Dolby Surround speakers loud enough to blast the room and “immerse yourself into an ultra high-quality sound that makes your training session even more engaging,” according to the online brochure.

So it is that the exercise business has become more like playing video games than working out. Fortunately, neckties are no longer required.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.