One to One Koko Strives to Take the Mystery Out of Strength Training

Much has been made of people living longer than ever, and wanting to stay healthy in their later years. That got the co-founders of Koko Fitness thinking.

“We were looking at the fitness and health care industries and were primarily interested in Boomers’ longevity, and their fitness habits as they age,” said Mary Obana, senior vice president of the Norwell-based company. “We spent a year and a half doing research, and we found that people don’t have time to exercise like they used to, but they realize that fitness is essential to their health.”

Enter the Koko Smartrainer, a software-based strength-training machine that creates a personalized workout centered on the specific needs of the user. Since its unveiling last year, the Smartrainer has made its way into fitness clubs across the country, including the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

Obana said that many Baby Boomers recall their own parents’ later years with some trepidation, remembering their parents’ bodies wasting away in a sedentary lifestyle. “They don’t want to be like that; they see themselves as being vital throughout their lives. We call it squaring the curve: they want to have peak functionality with no disability until they die — and they see strength training as essential to that.”

However, Obana said exercise enthusiasts told her and Mike Lannon, Koko’s CEO, that other strength-training equipment is complicated and difficult to use.

“All the growth in club membership lately has been driven by the 40-plus audience,” Obana said. “We wanted to develop a product that meets the preferences of this group, that makes strength training quick, efficient, and effective.” She believes that the Smartrainer does just that.

Personal Touch

In many health clubs, Obana said, members are more likely to board treadmills or cardio bicycles, rather than circuit strength training, because it’s easier — just press a button to set a program or course, and start sweating. And at the end of the session, they are rewarded with clear statistics on how far they traveled and how many calories they burned.

In the strength-training area, on the other hand, users typically need help setting the equipment, and lack that instant-gratification readout of the day’s efforts. Koko — which means “one to one” in Japanese — solves both of those problems, Obana said.

The software-driven system recognizes each exerciser by name when they insert a personalized key into the machine’s USB port. The Smartrainer then guides the user through a series of exercises, at all times setting the pace, determining how much weight to lift, counting repetitions, and issuing a score at the end based on the user’s performance.

Feel like cutting some corners in your workout? Think again.

“You’re given an introduction at the beginning in how to execute the exercises properly,” Obana said. “Every time you attempt a repetition, it makes sure you complete the whole range of motion, every time, without cheating; in fact, it won’t give you credit if you don’t complete the repetition in full.”

The YMCA of Greater Springfield installed Koko Smartrainers late last year, and Courtney Harnness, youth fitness coordinator, said their appeal goes beyond ease of use.

“There are a number of advantages, starting with the price,” he said. “We do an eight-week program with 24 sessions for $30, which is $1.25 per session. Personal trainers run $40 to $50 per hour. So right off the bat, the price is a big draw — that, and the fact that there are so many different programs.”

The Y offers Koko programs geared toward weight loss, fat burning, sports conditioning, power running, even bride-to-be conditioning — about a dozen in all. Each program is designed with exercises and specific repetitions geared toward the members’ age, weight, and strength level.

Users are tested for baseline strength at the beginning of the 24 sessions, not unlike in a traditional circuit-training cycle. But instead of having an attendant increase the weight over time based on the user’s own observations, Koko knows when to raise the difficulty level based on how quickly and easily the reps are completed.

“That’s a real benefit,” Harnness said. “People now have everything given to them, and don’t have to wonder how much weight to use, and whether it’s too little or too much. That guessing game is eliminated.”

Right Track

“There are so many things people do wrong with exercises, and this gives them the confidence that they’re doing it properly,” Obana said. “People have said, ‘the thing I love about it is I know I’m doing it right.’”

Internal statistics seem to bear out such stories, she said, noting that 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of respondents in a survey rated their satisfaction level as 7 or higher out of 10. More importantly, 90{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} said they would recommend the equipment to a family member or friend.

“That’s because it’s easy, and they get results,” Obana said, adding that Koko has gone beyond the health-club milieu and is actively marketing the Smartrainer to hotels looking for another fitness-room amenity. “It takes up only a 5-by-6 footprint, so it’s efficient in space, and they’re able to give their guests a state-of-the-art experience.”

Compared to health clubs, where strength training is already a key component, Koko will have a tougher sell marketing the machines to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. But it has already teamed with Mass General Hospital in Boston to introduce Smartrainers in physical therapy, and Lannon has met with Stryker Corp., which operates some 500 rehab clinics across the U.S.

As for the YMCA, Koko has been a clear success story, Harnness said.

“There’s a demo on the machines that’s 10 minutes long, and once people do the demo and get the drift of what this is, they’re attracted to it,” he said. “It’s so easy and fast that it really is a good choice for a lot of people.”

Get on, get off, go home … in today’s fast-paced world, that’s smart training indeed.

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