Fitness tech isn’t new. Before smartwatches that could take your ECG, there were old-school clip pedometers. That said, stepping into an Orangetheory on a weekday night might have been the most futuristic workout of my life—and I regularly work out with no less than four wearables strapped to my body.
I was invited for an Orangetheory workout because the company announcing a new device and partnership with Apple, along with a few proprietary apps on the business side of things. The device, dubbed OTbeat Link, is a small clip that members can strap onto their Apple Watch bands. The device comes with its own little charging case, and the idea is that members can sync their Apple Watch with Orangetheory’s proprietary heart rate monitoring system. Why the Apple Watch and not say, Fitbit? Orangetheory says it chose Apple because 90 per cent of its members are on iOS devices and that 43 per cent already own an Apple Watch.
If you’ve never heard of Orangetheory, it’s one of those cult-y group fitness studios in the U.S. In each 60-minute interval training class, you get handed a heart rate monitor in the form of a chest strap or armband. (Or starting today, you can use your Apple Watch instead.) The treadmills and row machines are equipped with monitors that give you live read-outs of your heart rate, calories burned, and what percentage of your maximum heart rate you’re at.
When you’re doing floor exercises, there are huge video monitors that tell you what you’re supposed to do and for how many reps. There are also smart scales that utilise bioimpedance signals to give you a breakdown of your body composition, and of course, peppy fitness coaches. For every minute you spend huffing and puffing at 85 per cent of your max heart rate, you get a splat point. Supposedly you want 12 splat points per 60-minute session because science says this is ideal for fat burn.
All this is already more high-tech than most gyms, where the most you get is NFC or ANT+ enabled equipment that syncs with a wearable or chest strap. To get a feel for the OTbeat Link, I got to try it out during an abbreviated 20-minute Orangetheory class. The device itself is no bigger than my thumb, and Orangetheory CTO Joe Mazzarella told me that you don’t actually have to clip it to the strap for it to work. It just needs to be on your body.
Mazzarella also made sure to point out numerous tiles on the studio’s roof—each Orangetheory studio he told me had a mesh network of ANT+ hubs. That meant as I walked up to a treadmill or rowing machine, the machine already recognised me and was able to sync up my data without me doing anything more than confirming that I was who I was. Cool, and a little weird.
In my brief workout, I can say I didn’t have any technical hiccups. The metrics on the giant screens and on the machines matched what was on my Watch. To me, adding on the OTbeat Link isn’t going to revolutionise a workout, so much as streamline data sources—which, to be fair, is no small thing. If you’re a self-quantifying nerd, the annoying thing about working out is different apps and devices will spit out different numbers.
Syncing between multiple apps is a time-sink. My post-workout routine, for instance, involves 10 to 15-minutes of deleting duplicate workouts in MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, and in Apple’s Activity app. More if I’m testing other wearables at the same time. Not having to do that, while still getting to close my Activity Rings accurately, is pretty freaking rad.
I recognise this is the epitome of a first-world problem. But after the workout, I did stare around the Orangetheory studio and wonder if this was the gym of the future or a dystopian fitness nightmare. On the one hand, it was motivating to see my stats in real-time and get personalised advice about what heart rate zone I should be aiming for.
On the other, there were brief seconds where I looked up and felt like a lab rat. This is, after all, a lot of health data being generated, though Mazzarella told me that “No one sees your data but you.” Well, you, the coach, and the 20 or so other folks in your class—though hopefully everyone is too busy looking at their own numbers to look at yours.
Orangetheory’s other announcements also toe that line. The company is launching two business-side apps, OTassist and OTcoach. The former is so sales associates can go paperless and desk-less while helping members check-in and view class schedules—a thing that I’ve started to see pop up at plenty of fitness studios and gyms.
The latter is an app to help coaches run their class programs directly from their Apple Watch, instead of memorising thick manuals every month. Orangetheory says that should help coaches spend 10 per cent more time, or 7.2 million more hours, giving more guidance. It also sounds an awful lot like science-fiction narratives where technology leads to greater productivity, at some kind of human cost. Or, as tech evangelists would say, creating a frictionless solution for a common problem.
I still can’t decide how I feel overall about this high-tech approach to gyms. The work out was undeniably fun and motivating. Adding the OTbeat Link is a clever idea, especially given their member demographics. But to get it, you still have to navigate the capitalistic hellhole that is gym membership tiers. To get the OTbeat Link, you’ll have to sign up for a new tier Premier+ or be willing to shell out $US130 ($189) once they’re separately available early next year.
Prices vary from studio to studio, but generally, Premier+ will cost about $US30 ($44) more than the regular Premier tier. Both the Premier+ and OTbeat Link device will be available at two New York City studios in December while rolling out to all studios in 2020.