Step inside the gym of the future

Can technology help create the healthiest place on earth?

T3 travels to Italy to see how one company is combining technology, innovation and sports science to create a new futuristic concept of well being.

The gym experience has changed. Technology is changing the way we stay healthy, from apps that track what we eat, to trackers that tell us how well we're sleeping, we've never had so much information at our fingertips to help us get fit and stay healthy.

At CES this year, the major talk was of wearable tech, with most of the interesting innovation coming in the health and fitness. It was proof, if we needed it, that the influence of technology on sports and fitness has never been more pronounced and all the major brands want a piece of the action.

But what does all this new fitness technology mean for how we approach sports and fitness in the future? One Italian company, from a small town outside Bologna, thinks it has the answer.

In 1983, inspired by a man he saw lifting weights with bad technique, an Italian engineer called Nerio Alessandri was inspired to create a machine that could make lifting weights safer, easier and less daunting for everyday folk. He took this spark of inspiration, went back to his garage and built his first assisted gym machine. Technogym was born.

Twenty years later, the same man is still trying to change the way the world stays healthy, using technology, engineering and a unique approach to the concept of well being to create a different vision of the future.

In a small Northern Italian town called Cesena, Alessandri has built a cathedral to fitness, where health and technology are worshipped in equal measure. He calls it the Wellness Valley and he even managed to get former President of the United States, Bill Clinton to open it back in 2012.

From the outside, the Wellness Valley building, with its wood and gleaming glass exterior, is a modern building, built to sink into its surroundings.

Inside, it's exudes all the calm of a high-end a spa retreat and houses one of the most advanced gyms you can find anywhere in the world. It's also impeccably clean, reminiscent of the MacLaren Technology Centre – a building Technogym kitted out with equipment.

Inside the gym of the future

From Google-glass powered treadmills to wifi connected Android-toting cross trainers, all of Technogym's latest launches are on show and anyone who works here or visits the Wellness Valley is free to use them 24 hours a day.

It arguable the world's most advanced gym. You can surf the web, post on Facebook and even Skype while you workout. All of the equipment is cutting edge.

Just down the corridor, there's a subsidised staff canteen where you can eat healthy Italian food, all locally sourced, cooked on the premises daily, for not much more than a euro a day.

The employees are given two hour lunch breaks to make sure they have time to eat and workout.

The walls are adorned with inspirational messages and information to help the staff lead a healthier life. The lift doors carry a big bold font message: "Take the stairs and stay healthy."

It's a Google-style approach with a fitness twist. Alessandri has an equation: healthy people are happy people and happy people tend to be more productive. It's a theory he wants to promote beyond the four walls of the Wellness Valley and he's using technology to do just that.

Fitness in the cloud

Alessandri's company's most recent innovation, The Wellness Cloud, is driven by the desire to create a holistic view of your health and well being, aggregating data from apps, gym machines and other devices, so that whether you're in the gym or cycling to work, you can record, measure and fine tune your whole lifestyle.

It's the internet of fitness things where everything is connected and all your data is shared.

At the heart of this new fitness experience is the Technogym Wellness Key, an activity tracker a bit like a Nike Fuelband SE or a Polar Loop, that you wear clipped to your waist rather than on your wrist.

Whether you're in the gym on a treadmill or walking to the bus stop, the Wellness Key clocks familiar stats, like calories.

It also has its own units for measuring activity known as Moves. Just like Nike Fuelpoints, the Move has been designed to offer a consistent way of comparing how active a person has been regardless of weight and height. It offers a level playing field, that enables users to challenge each other and draw fairer comparisons.

But the Wellness Key's smarts go beyond activity tracking. It also unlocks your full in-gym fitness programme.

Plugging the Wellness Key into one of Technogym's machines, lets you see what pain your trainer has planned for you during any training session. Built-in screens on each machine, show what weight you need to lift, how many reps, how much recovery time to take between sets and even the tempo at which you lift and drop the weights. Once you're done it'll then tell you which exercise you need to do next.

It's like having a virtual personal trainer. Currently the programmes are set centrally by trainers but can be accessed anywhere in the world. Your programme will even adjust based on what gym you're using. No chest press? No problem. It'll recommend an exercise you can do in the Barcelona Virgin Health Club.

But it's not just about the workout routine you have planned, the machines also know what exercises you've done.

Once you complete your set - or not - it automatically knows how you've performed, logging the stats on the key, to be synced to the Wellness Cloud when you next plug your key into a PC. You and your trainer can then monitor your progress and respond accordingly.

While the key is currently at the heart of this new connected gym experience, you can also use your phone, scanning QR codes on each of the machines, or using your phones NFC function to unlock and log the same information.

We got to try out the system and while the key worked seamlessly, the NFC function wasn't without its problems, sometimes not recognising our LG G2 handset. That said, when it works it's a big improvement to the gym experience. The days of paper and pen and counting your own reps are clearly numbered.

The personal trainer of the future

This technology isn't just changing the gym goer's experience, personal trainers will have to adapt to a new array of tech-powered tools at their disposal too.

From an iPad and PC, they can create custom workouts by simply dragging and dropping exercises into a client's programme. Each exercise can be assigned a How to video to demonstrate correct technique and shooting a video using the iPad is a five-minute job.

The suite of tools also lets a trainer monitor your progress with stats from each workout, long term trends like weightloss and body fat also feeding directly into a single page. If they don't like what they're seeing, they can contact you at the click of a button to give you a remote kick up the arse.

Opening up the world outside

The Wellness Cloud is built on the concept of openness and aggregation. You can connect your other health and fitness tracking apps. Withings, Strava, Myfitnesspal, Mapmyfitness and Runkeeper are all partners.

Data captured from your Withings Wi-Fi scales at home can be synced with your Wellness profile in the cloud. Your outside runs on Runkeeper can be logged. It presents a world where your in-gym effort and your daily life outside combine, to create one holistic picture. It's a powerful idea indeed.

One thing's for certain, the days of paper and pen in the gym are numbered.

Kieran Alger
Freelance writer

Kieran is a freelance writer and editor working in the space where health, fitness, sports and technology collide. He covers everything from virtual reality and smart scales to the latest wearable health trackers. Kieran is also a borderline-obsessed runner and is passionate about using the latest technology to hack his health in search of marginal gains.