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Koko FitClub in West Roxbury offers new take on 'personal' training

Posted by Roy Greene  March 19, 2012 07:06 PM

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(Photo courtesy of Koko FitClub)


Employees inspecting new equipment recently at the Koko FirClub in West Roxbury.

This spring, West Roxbury will have a new gym, in Shaw's Plaza, that takes "personal" training in a new direction -- by using high-tech gadgets to direct a client's workout.

The Koko FitClub, at 77 Spring St., is part of a chain of fitness clubs coming to Greater Boston that customizes workouts via a machine called a Smartrainer. Koko trainers sit with clients and develop a workout program, based on their age, height, weight, workout experience, health, goals and strength test results.

A customized program is then entered into a USB flash drive called a "Koko Key," which is plugged into the workout machine. The technology, designed exclusively for Koko Fit Club, allows clients to complete workouts on one machine.

The aim of Koko, which targets people in their 30s and 40s but attracts clients of all ages, is a quick, low-maintenance workout that can be squeezed into a busy schedule.

"You're in, you're out within 30 minutes, and you go on with your life," said Lana Lemeshov, owner of the Koko FitClubs coming to West Roxbury, Brookline and Dedham-Norwood.

Debra Bisacchi, 60, who had health problems and joined Koko to regain and maintain her fitness, said she likes the one-machine-for-all aspect.

"Being able to be very independent, only having one machine, and not having to run around to do a circuit” makes it easy, she said.

Koko's technology offers clients the ability to track every element of their workouts. The flash drive stores data from each workout, as well as progress across visits.

Independent personal trainer Debra Bennett, who trains across Greater Boston, recognizes the appeal of the tracking component.

“Even though I can say to my clients, ‘Look, you were only able to run half a mile and now you can run three,’ sometimes people see that data, and it really sinks in a little bit more,” Bennett said.

Along with the typical data of time, mileage and calories burned, the Koko Key includes a point system, which clients can track during workouts. Users receive a pace score, Koko points, and a "Q" score, which is a number based on their gender, weight and a strength test, explained Luke Wilder, a Koko fit coach at the club in Needham.

The pace score is determined by how well users match the pace that the workout program instructs them to hit. Koko points are earned based on the pace score. Depending on the Koko score, members are given different colored lanyards for their Koko Keys, progressing through colors as they would through belts in karate.

The Koko FitClub company was founded by marketing strategist Mary Obana and her husband, Mike Lannon. Since they began franchising in 2009, more than 60 clubs have opened up nationally, and the company expects there will be more than 100 within the next six months.

Koko FitClub owners have moved forward with multiple locations in Louisiana, Ontario, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas, Washington, and Idaho, according to the company's website. The West Roxbury club will be the 15th to open in Massachusetts.

As with every new trend in the fitness market, the Koko concept has stirred some controversy. Personal trainers Bennett and Chris Johnson, a trainer based out of Boston Sports Club in West Newton, believe the "virtualization" experience offered by Koko lacks an important element.

“Software cannot use wisdom and experience to accurately assess you, adapt to you, or motivate you,” said Johnson. “Has anyone ever pushed harder during a workout to impress a machine, to earn a machine’s respect?”

Wilder said that the point system is a key motivator in Koko's method. If the staff notices a client who has dropped off his or her fitness regimen, a fit coach will step in and try to get the client back on course, he said.

Bennett acknowledged that Koko has benefits, including affordability, but said she believes people also need personal attention.

“I think it is a useful thing for people. . . where it will give them some education, some progression. But I don’t see [Koko and personal training] competing with each other that much in that way, and they shouldn’t be." She added: “The more resources there are out there, the better.”

She noted that other fitness companies also have incorporated technology that customizes and tracks workouts.

Owner Lemeshov said she believes that the "general direction" of the fitness industry is towards virtualization, affordability and easy access.

Client Jason Lipsett acknowledged that Koko's approach is not "necessarily right for everybody." But he added, "For some people out there, it can be the perfect way to really get motivated and start [to see] a difference.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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