NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even in the vastness of the online fitness universe, it all comes down to the human touch on your touch screen.
The latest, smartest devices and websites are enlisting online dating and gaming technology to forge real relationships in the virtual fitness world.
"We sell the relationship between trainer and client," said Jeff Marinucci, president and CEO of InerTRAIN, an online personal training service launched in 2010.
To unite clients with the personal trainer of their dreams, the Chicago-based company uses algorithms similar to those of Match.com, the online dating service.
"This is the next generation of fitness," said Marinucci. "Too much online fitness was generic. Our trainers will fit your workouts to your needs anytime, anywhere, just not in real time."
He said his company targets world travelers, stay-at-home mothers, and others with tight and shifting schedules.
"When I was a client, my biggest problem was that workouts were not customized around the individual," Marinucci said. "I need that person that's looking over my shoulder, even virtually."
The game designers, artists and technicians at Striiv, which is based in Redwood City, California, have aimed to build a Smart Pedometer that is as habit-forming as a computer game.
"The power of a simple pedometer is mindboggling but people get bored so fast," said Striiv CEO David Wang. "We put technology inside ours that learns your behavior and gives you challenges depending on what motivates you."
Wang said the pedometer's learning algorithm resembles the one that delivers recommendations on Netflix, the internet subscription service for movies and television.
"People are addicted to game mechanics," said Wang. "We can get people addicted to fitness."
The pedometer can connect to competitions involving friends, family members, strangers and prizes.
"Even if you don't have a lot of friends, you have a community," Wang said.
Santa Monica, California-based exercise physiologist Amy Dixon believes that when you create a community around an activity, people are more likely to come back because they've made a connection.
"Look at Garmin Connect," Dixon, creator of the "Give Me 10" DVD series, said of a web community-based website for the runners, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts who track their activities with Garmin devices.
"There are numbers people who like to know how fast they ran, how many calories they burned," she said. "This (website) allows them to go back home, post their information and communicate with other people."
Similarly, she said, the Nike Plus website allows users to share information from the pedometers built right into their Nike shoes.
Unfortunately, Dixon said, this brave new world can be daunting for some.
"It makes some people just not try," she said. "Maybe if you wore that smart device you'd get fitter. But it's just too complicated."
Dixon recommends the beginner stick to established companies and check online reviews before investing in smart technology.
For Marinucci, online fitness is simply the logical future.
"I think this is where things are going, like online dating, online education."
Dixon agrees that smart technology is spreading: rapidly and everywhere.
"It's all pretty amazing," she said. "Sometimes I look at (the latest) washing machine and think, ‘Can't I just turn it on?' "
Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney