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On Wednesday, Balance Fitness will host a free event to kick off its partnership with Surround Fit & Wellness, providing classes, prizes and refreshments. (PHOTO: Surround Fit & Wellness)

Balance Fitness, Surround Fit & Wellness introduce immersive exercise experience

On Monday night, after leaving Balance Fitness in Whitefish Bay, where I'd gotten a first look at the boutique training studio's new collaboration with Surround Fit & Wellness, I went for a run. Two miles in, it was a torrential downpour; by three miles, the lightning overhead had forced me into a nearby Colectivo to wait out the thunderstorm, soaking wet and unsatisfied with my workout.

Starting Wednesday, I never would have had to leave Balance Fitness, and my entirely too-experiential exercise could have been done there – comfortably, conveniently and completely – without regard to the bad weather outside. In fact, without getting off my stationary bike, I could instead have been riding through the mountains of Hawaii, immersed in the sense and surroundings of being somewhere else.

That's the appeal of the innovative exercise partnership between Balance Fitness and Surround Fit & Wellness, the first of its kind in Southeastern Wisconsin. The latter's combination of high-resolution content and custom visualization systems virtually take participants beyond the former's Whitefish Bay location, offering a unique and absorbing way to workout. The large projection screens provide users with a stimulating experience, capturing their view and attention and engaging them with skillful instruction synchronized to details within the immersive content around them.

On Wednesday, Balance Fitness will host a free event, open to the public, to kick off its partnership with Surround Fit & Wellness, providing classes, prizes and refreshments to introduce the equipment and approach. The event will feature a variety of fitness and wellness classes every hour from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., including cardio kickboxing, cycling, kids yoga, meditation, Latin dance, tai chi and yoga.

So, what, exactly, is this new fitness experience? Essentially, it is a system of cross-functional training equipment and large projection surfaces that display high-resolution content consisting of striking visual images and virtual instruction, more fully engaging users and providing a deep sense of immersion. It stops short of virtual reality – there are no headsets and it's not really interactive; while the content and instruction is customizable, it's created and filmed in advance – but offers convenience and stimulation that regular exercise classes do not.

It's also a more interesting, evolutionary step past simply watching TV or looking at whatever scenery happens to be along your running or biking route; after the Hawaii sunshine, I rode through the snow-covered mountains of Montana – filmed in real life by the Surround crew – without fearing a nasty fall.

"Surround Fit & Wellness' system is pushing fitness in the direction it is already going by layering in technology and more experiential classes that make workouts engaging, productive, safe and hopefully addictive," says Garrett Stangel, the owner of Balance Fitness. "It will offer new dimensions to our existing training programs and tremendous value to my clients by providing additional self-serve classes to help them take their fitness to the next level."

The proprietary content comes from Marquette, where members of the University's employee wellness community had used it for more than two years. Last June, Surround Fit & Wellness – which has an exclusive license to deliver the content for the emerging immersive fitness market – launched an expansion beyond Marquette, targeting corporate wellness groups and small boutiques, with Balance becoming the first studio to integrate it.

One of the primary benefits of the immersive content, Stangel says, is that the classes can be run with or without an instructor. That's cost-saving and convenient for both the studio and its members, who can select a program via touch-screen panel and get their workout in even if their schedule doesn't allow them to attend an actual instructor-led class. Likewise, that option enables freedom for employees like Stangel, who can either lead the class live or turn on the virtual instructor and work with members individually.

"From a studio standpoint, one of the things that I liked most about it was the fact that we can create a much more experiential component to our workouts by adding imagery, by adding light, by adding just a more immersive approach to our training programs," Stangel says. "We can also leverage our employment challenges by allowing for more content being generated without me having to have an extensive staff in a small boutique like this."

All of the instructors used in the classes are trained and certified in whatever they are teaching. Surround works with them to plan, film and virtualize the programs, then afterward records imagery behind them and mixes in some audio, ultimately producing a sensory-pleasing exercise experience.

According to John LaDisa, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the university and director of the MARquette Visualization Lab and a partner in Surround Fit & Wellness, the response to the technology has been positive. Over the last two years at Marquette, he says, the employee wellness program had 200-300 participants and, depending on the class, saw up to a 20 percent increase in attendance.

"People tend to come initially because the technology engages them, and then they stay for that and the skill of the instruction and the exercise," LaDisa says. "When participants feel present in an environment beyond their physical location, they engage more fully."

Adds Kristin Kipp, another partner in Surround Fit & Wellness: "Incorporating daily movement and mindfulness practices is important for your health, and having a system like this in place makes it a little easier to do this."

On the corporate wellness side, since the immersive content can be run without an instructor, classes can be done at any time and as often as desired – saving money, blocking distractions, eliminating excuses and letting employees take charge of their health and physical movement.

I love exercising outside, but during a May deluge with thunder and lightning keeping me indoors in Milwaukee, I really would have preferred to go elsewhere for my workout, experiencing someplace dry and sunny, beautiful and motivational.

Surround Fit & Wellness and Balance Fitness classes are listed on this Mindbody page. For the May 17 kickoff event, class preregistration will be available until 30 minutes before each free class here. Class sizes are limited, so early registration is suggested. Attendees can rejuvenate afterward with healthy juices and snacks, and all participants will have a chance to win prizes, including free future physical and virtual classes, as well as other giveaways.

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