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An electric workout through pedal power

Gyms hook up exercise bikes to TVs, laptops, and batteries to let their patrons power the place.

User-generated: Kendra Johnson demonstrates the pedal-powered laptop that she designed with seven other MIT students as a class assignment for the school’s alumni gym.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor

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After classes, Sally Peach, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a long list of to-dos.

She wants to hit the gym, tackle school work, and, as captain of an intramural soccer team and member of a campus health advocacy program, she has plenty of e-mail to respond to every evening.

“Though I know I am being productive, it feels like a complete waste of time to sit there and do just [e-mail replies],” says Ms. Peach.

So, once she arrives at the gym, Peach makes a beeline for a special stationary bike that has a laptop built into the front. The computer is not plugged in. There is an empty space where the battery once fit. But when Peach starts pedaling, the computer fires up. Her spinning workout powers the laptop – and lets her cross off two tasks at once.

Pedal power has been a small-time alternative-energy source for ages. Many innovators have tried to tap the simple motion to power devices – especially those engineered for developing countries, where power grids are unreliable. But few designs have stuck. People aren’t willing to exert much energy just to run simple devices.

But in gyms across the country, ecoconscious patrons are asking why cardio equipment needs to drain power, when the exercisers are already eager to burn calories. Now, fitness centers are beginning to experiment with ways to put muscle strength to good use.

“The idea pretty much sold itself,” says Adam Boesel, a personal trainer in Portland, Ore.

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