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Jessie Raymond: New workout smacks of Big Brother

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Posted on February 26, 2014 |
By Jessie Raymond



You might say I’m an expert on home exercise videos. After all, (a) I have a degree in exercise science, (b) I’m so fit Jennifer Aniston calls me for over-40 workout tips and (c) I have a three-decade history of home fitness programs.

OK, (a) is false, and (b) is more of a half-truth; Jennifer Aniston only calls me for fashion advice. But (c) is kind of true, if you go back to the early ’80s when, as a gangly middle schooler, I would join my stepmother for the Jane Fonda Workout on audio cassette.

To be honest, I didn’t do much more in the way of home workouts until four years ago.

One lazy Sunday morning in February my husband and I — while wolfing down waffles and watching fitness infomercials, as people do at this time of year — bought Insanity, a 60-day workout program designed to either kill you or get you in shape, whichever comes first.

“Insanity” was a fitting name, less because we almost threw up three minutes into the Day 1 warm-up, and more because we stuck it out for all 60 grueling days. Mark is no quitter. I am, but I couldn’t let him outdo me.

We then moved on to 90 days of P90X, a less intense program with a more annoying trainer. Five months after we’d started, Mark had lost over 50 pounds (which he has kept off, mostly to spite me) and I had spent a lot of time insisting that it’s different for women.

After that, Mark rejoined the gym, where there are heavier things to pick up and put down, but I stuck with an ever-growing library of home workout programs. I’ve jumped, pumped, lunged, crunched and kicked my way around the living room through every fitness video series out there.

The latest one, however, is different. This one uses XBox Kinect camera technology to allow the trainer to “see” you.

The program, Nike+ Kinect, is a cross between a workout class and a full-body video game. The Kinect camera, mounted near your TV, reads your outline and projects a live blue silhouette of you into a computer-generated gymnasium on screen next to a fully rendered CGI version of your choice of trainer. I picked former NFL player Alex Molden.

Alex demonstrated moves, told me what to do, tracked my reps, and provided real-time feedback, as if he really could see me. He knew when I wasn’t squatting low enough or keeping my weight on my heels and he wasn’t afraid to tell me to work harder.

It was equal parts amazing, challenging and disturbing.

In traditional fitness videos, the trainers can’t tell if you’re actually doing the exercises, skipping the last few reps, or even lying in a recliner eating a cheese Danish. They still say, “Way to hang in there.”

Alex could tell.

And he had a cruel streak. He even made me play — and I am not kidding, this is actually part of the program — dodgeball. The first time kick balls and soccer balls came flying at my screen character from out of nowhere, I screamed and curled up in a ball, like I was back in seventh grade, while Alex stood by and laughed.

The program was amazing, but it wasn’t perfect. While Alex had thousands of recorded voice cues, over time they got repetitive. And the camera couldn’t pick up on certain nuances, such as once when the cat came in and rubbed up against me while I was doing crunches. My new part-human, part-cat silhouette caused Alex to criticize my form.

After that, every time I’d do crunches, Alex would say the same thing: “You’ve had trouble with these in the past.” By week four, I found myself yelling, “It was the cat!” and making a rude gesture at the screen.

“Keep your hands behind your head,” he’d say without apology.

I’ve finished the one-month program, and I’d say overall the technology is impressive and the workouts are tough. I’m sure future versions will be even more realistic — which is why I won’t buy them.

I don’t mind having a CGI trainer bark at me to go faster or fight for one last pushup. But I don’t want him doing a double-take on screen and saying, “Yikes, when’s the last time you shaved your legs?” or “That Spandex is not doing a thing for your muffin top.”

I’m OK with my virtual trainer being brutal. I just don’t want him being brutally honest.

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