MANKATO, Minn. – With the click of a mouse, Cassie Pap flips through cable TV channels, her legs pumping away on a recumbent exercise cycle.
She settles for MTV and reaches for the mouse to turn up the volume during her 2-mile workout. On another day, Pap might check e-mail or write a homework assignment using a flexible keyboard that will survive hundreds of sweaty fingers.
Her options are part of the latest technology upgrade on campus: computer-equipped exercise equipment.
"It's easier to work out with something in front of you to keep you entertained," said Pap, a freshman at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She credits the new equipment with motivating her to exercise nearly every day instead of just once in a while.
Campus officials, planning a renovation of the recreation building, hit on high-tech as a way to get more students to exercise, and brought in the school's technology staff to help out.
But when they went looking for the equipment — treadmills, bikes and stairsteppers with computer/TV capabilities — they couldn't find it.
"We found exercise equipment with TVs in front and others with computer programs but not a complete computer," said Wayne Sharp, director of the university's Academic Computer Center. "We had to take it to the next step."
So Sharp and his tech experts set up adjustable stands next to 40 pieces of exercise equipment. Each stand has a computer, keyboard and mouse; the student who uses it chooses his or her own way to pass the time.
"Exercising can be monotonous and tedious at times," said Todd Pfingsten, director of campus recreation. "The important thing is that it becomes habitual."
Pfingsten sees that happening already: Pap and other students fill up the machines almost all day, forcing students to sign up in advance.
It's not clear how many are using the computers for homework; some students have already found that it takes some coordination.
"I can't run and type at the same time," fourth-year student Jessie Nelson said as she checked her e-mail before getting on a cross-trainer machine. "I'd probably fall over."
Sarah Lerczak, a sophomore, said she'll probably stick to watching TV, but likes the e-mail option. "If you have to check your e-mail you don't have to make two stops. You can go right to the gym," she said. "It's a big convenience."
It will take time for students to get better at multitasking, said Kent Kalm, a professor in the university's human performance department, which offers physical education classes. Next spring, students in one of his fitness classes will use the equipment while watching video instruction, taking quizzes and logging their workouts.
"As more and more faculty use a multimedia-based curriculum, I see this as a great opportunity," Kalm said. "I think as students use the 'tech-rec' equipment, they'll probably come up with even more ideas."
Some other campus directors said they'd consider following Minnesota State's lead when it's time to replace their own old equipment. Students are ready for it, they said.
"They've grown up with video games, TV and Internet," said Chris Oelling, associate director of recreation at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Off campus, some major fitness chains have moved toward individualized entertainment, letting people channel-surf on their own TV screens. But nothing like Minnesota State's arrangement has caught on yet.
"People aren't really clamoring for that sort of thing," said Matt Messinger, a spokesman for the national chain Bally Total Fitness. "What they're really looking for is something to keep them interested and entertained."
That's a relief to Stephanie Maks, who worked with CEOs and other busy people in 20-some years as a personal trainer. Maks said she's had to take people's cell phones away to get them to focus on the exercise.
"Part of working out is relaxing," she said. "Don't bring the office with you to the gym."