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Video bike helps bored exercisers win mind games


Forget Nintendo thumb. Get ready for Nintendo buns.

Or something like that. Exercise-equipment-maker Life Fitness has hooked a Lifecycle to a Nintendo N.E.S. deck, hoping to turn the drudgery of aerobic exercise into a video game. The system -- called "Exertainment" -- puts exercisers in a choice of eight tracks and pits them against other racers, obstacles and an occasional turtle-chucking villain.

"One of the biggest complaints in exercise is that it's boring," says Tom Flickinger, Exertainment manager for Life Fitness. "This turns working out into a game where the harder you play, the healthier you get."

Lifecycles and other stationary bikes generally use an L.E.D. screen of dots that symbolize upcoming hills, while at the same time flashing numbers for how many calories burned and miles traveled. The Exertainment system hooks the bike to the deck, and then shows scenery through a television screen.

The result is game-quality scenery that changes as the rider pedals or steers the bike. Riders steer through Nintendo keypads hooked to the bike's handlebars.

"As you climb a hill," Mr. Flickinger says, "the pedal resistance increases. It gets harder as the hills get steeper."

Since it's Nintendo, the views are anything but sedate. Riders choose between eight virtual worlds, from the tropical Sunshine Island to the futuristic Alumnitech City. The roads vary in texture, taking the rider through rough rock, rivers, snow, ice, tar and mud.

"The game sends the program to the bike, so the resistance changes and the pedal feel changes," says Jim Fox, software producer at Life Fitness.

"Then the bike sends the RPMs to the game, so if you speed up, the game character goes faster."

In addition, riders can choose between eight on-line personas -- such as California Jack, Wind-rider, Mountain Demon or Shadow Rider -- for each course. This has little to do with exercise, Mr. Fox said. But it has everything to do with making exercise more like a game. It also comes with program-manager software to log miles, calories burned and specific workout information -- such as which track, and how fast the rider completed it. The program manager lights up the television set like the L.E.D. screen of a normal Lifecycle.

Now available in stores, the Exertainment system costs $799. Later versions will link game software with Life Fitness treadmills, stair-climbers and recumbent bikes, Mr. Fox said. And future software for the bike will include such games as Pac-Man and Speed Racer.

Another company, CyberGear, offers a similar -- if more advanced and more expensive -- system coupling a recumbent bike and sophisticated interactive software. The bike comes with a video screen attached to the frame. The bike runs a program that simulates a ride through a fictional New England hamlet named Sweeney Town.

Like the Life Fitness model, the CyberGear bike increases resistance on the pedals as the scenery changes. But unlike the Life Fitness model, the CyberGear bike allows riders to invent their own ride -- steering off course and actually discovering the landscape of Sweeney Town.

Plus, if riders get halfway up a hill and get tired, they can turn around and coast down.

"We've provided a whole virtual world," says CyberGear president Mike Benjamin. "You can jump cliffs, interact with other people, make it more like a ride in the country. A half-hour later you're still a sweaty pig, but you haven't noticed the time gone by."

Manufactured by Tectrix Fitness Equipment in Irvine, Calif., CyberGear costs $7,495.

Both bikes have been recently released, so few stores carry them in stock.

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