Do You Need a Better Technology Policy?

by Ryan Halvorson on Feb 16, 2017

Fitness Technology

Should—and can—anything be done to regulate the use of smartphones and tablets in the gym?

If you've spent any time at all inside a gym, you've likely experienced this scenario: You're humming along on your treadmill when Joe Talksalot hops onto the machine next to you and proceeds to speak loudly into his smartphone. To distract yourself from Talksalot's not‐so‐private conversation, you scan the gym floor—and over in the corner you see a woman doing backbends while contorting her neck to maintain a visual on her tablet. Next to her, a male in his mid‐20s is sitting at the bench press; he's hunched over his phone, sending text messages and pausing only briefly once every 5 minutes to perform eight or 10 reps. Finally, there are the mirror selfie‐takers, twisting and flexing their bodies to snap the perfect shot for their next Instagram post.

This is modern gym life.

"Five years ago, it was rare to see people using a phone for anything more than listening to music," recalls Peg Hamlett, PhD, director of fitness and wellness at the University of Idaho. "Now they're watching videos, making phone calls, texting, taking selfies or videos, or working with trainers via tablet. We are seeing phone/tablet users stay on equipment longer but at a much lower intensity. It's more difficult to focus on getting a good workout if you are catching up with a friend on the phone."

The use of these devices within fitness facilities has seen a significant uptick in recent years. According to a 2012 survey, 51% of consumers use smartphones during their workouts.

While most tablet users or smartphone users are respectful of others, there are those "bad eggs" whose use can cause distractions and even safety hazards. Should fitness facilities take steps to control device usage? Several gym managers and owners chime in on the subject.

The Road to Distraction

Historically, members read magazines and books or watched television to make their workouts more enjoyable. Thanks to technological advancements, people can now entertain themselves with their personal handheld devices.

"I've noticed that more people use them on the cardio equipment to pass the time," reports Manilla, Indiana‐based Jeff O'Mara, who owns 11 Anytime Fitness clubs across three states. "Children play on tablets while waiting for their parents."

These devices can help the time go by more quickly, but they can also be a threat to users or to those around them. Survey data released by Accident Advice Helpline, a personal injury law firm in the U.K., suggests that smartphone use has taken a toll on gym‐goers. According to the data, 200,000 U.K. residents reported experiencing injuries in the health club because they were distracted using their smartphones. Accident Advice Helpline also found that men tend to be more susceptible than women to smartphone‐related gym injuries.

"Smartphones can be a huge distraction, so we urge people to think about the risks and dangers before using them," explains the firm's representative, David Carter. "We would also ask gym management to be more aware of any potential risks that could cause accident or injury."

Fortunately for O'Mara and Hamlett, no device‐related injuries have occurred in their facilities.

"We have yet to have a major injury, but I think it's just a matter of time," Hamlett worries. "From improper form while exercising due to holding or talking on a phone, to falls and trips due to the distraction, it is a problem."

Inconsiderate Behavior

O'Mara observes that the greatest nuisance he has experienced is exercisers talking on the phone.

"The biggest complaint would be about people talking on the phone and being loud," he relates. "The worst offenders are the ones who have conversations while their phone is on speaker mode."

Hamlett recalls a recent incident at her gym. "We had several complaints about one individual who regularly spends her entire 40 minutes of time on the elliptical talking loudly on the phone. One patron confronted her, and I thought a fight would break out. She now uses a headset, which helps the noise issue though it doesn't necessarily solve the problem."

O'Mara explains that this hasn't been much of an issue at his studios. However, he has no concerns about speaking with an offender if necessary.

"If we get reports that members are being loud, we will address those individuals," he declares. "We will ask offenders to consider others and have their conversation elsewhere."

Some facilities have taken a tougher stance on smartphone use. Planet Fitness has banned phones on the gym floor, and the facility requests that individuals retreat to the lobby to make a call. According to an article in the Boston Herald, in 2013 one location went so far as to revoke a woman's membership after she failed to adhere to the no‐phone policy.

Photos and Video

Hamlett's facility has a no‐photo/no‐video policy, but she advises that preventing people from capturing in‐the‐gym moments is nearly impossible.

Mike Gelfgot, who co‐operates 23 Anytime Fitness locations, agrees. And while he doesn't have concerns about people capturing their own visages, he says he would draw a hard line if he learned that someone had secretly filmed someone else.

"If a member records something inappropriate and posts it online and we find out about it, we will speak with that member privately," promises Gelfgot, who lives in Cincinnati. "Like most situations, it's not what happens that matters most. What matters most is how quickly you deal with it."

Distance Training

One of the most puzzling device‐related challenges Hamlett faces is when a member is being guided by a trainer or instructor remotely via tablet.

"These trainers essentially train in our facility with our equipment, but they pay no fees and thus they can undercut the price of our trainers," she explains. "Of course, I am concerned about our trainers having clients, replacing equipment and providing quality programs. Using a trainer via a tablet affects our bottom line, and it is a loophole [I have to consider]."

Aside from financial losses, she worries greatly about the quality and safety of the instruction her members receive. All personal trainers at the University of Idaho must be NCAA‐certified, but there is no guarantee that remote trainers fulfill those requirements. However, as is the case with many of the potential problems listed in this article, Hamlett isn't sure there's much she can do to prevent it.

"Unless you're standing right next to people, watching them work online with their trainers, how do you prove it?" she wonders. "And is it really an issue?"

What Can Be Done?

Inappropriate use of smartphones or tablets in gyms is a relatively new challenge, and our sources admit it's one that seems to be exempt from regulation unless that use is noticeably disruptive. Despite this, O'Mara offers a simple solution to promote respectful behavior in fitness facilities.

"Always be friendly and inviting," he advises. "Get to know your members and their families. The more you know about them, the more respect they will have for you and the club you manage. It becomes their 'home away from home.' Most members respect their home and their gym. When people behave inappropriately in their home away from home, other people simply won't like it and will very possibly say something to offending members or guests."

Has the use of smartphones or tablets become a problem in your facility? We want to hear about it. Share your story with kellerj@ideafit.com.

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About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.