Making the distinction between fitness tools and ‘gadgets’ can be a challenge

One of the fun things I get to do as part of my job as a fitness columnist at a national newspaper is keep an eye on all the new “exercise equipment” hitting store shelves. Sometimes, these items even make it into my columns. You name it, it’s out there: Electronic self-massagers, an app-powered heating pad, weighted shorts (like a weighted vest for your butt), wrist/ankle weights and every conceivable style of resistance band.

Not all of these gadgets are useless, but the problem is, for the most part, they’re novelty items designed to pique the interest of newbies who have yet to buy in to this whole “exercise thing.” I’ve been invested in fitness for long enough that it’s become second nature, an automated part of my daily existence. Calisthenics are my main jam, but sometimes I do get bored with push-ups and back bridges. That’s when I turn to the training tools that have been delivering results for centuries: barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells.

In my mind the distinction between a tool and a gadget is clear-cut. A tool is timeless and reliable, something that’s nearly essential, an item without which you’re sort of screwed should a specific need ever arise. A gadget is the exact opposite. It’s the difference between free weights (essential for building maximum muscle) and the Shake Weight (essential for absolutely nothing except for comic relief).

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I was reminded of this dichotomy last month when I heard about a new type of swimming goggles. This particular product – the Form Smart Swim Goggles – aims to revolutionize swimming by displaying “real-time swim metrics and guided workouts” on a transparent screen inside of the goggles. Essentially, these goggles become a virtual coach, tracking your progress and providing feedback with each stroke. You can even learn proper swimming technique by following along to video tutorials.

At first glance, the Form Smart Swim Goggles fulfill the first criteria of fitness gadgetry – tons of novel appeal, so much that I was instantly captivated by the idea of adding a daily swim to my training program. But alas, we don’t have a pool, or access to one. So I can’t say for certain whether or not these goggles are merely gadgets or actually essential training tools, however Form chief executive officer Dan Eisenhardt, once a competitive swimmer himself, provides a compelling case for the latter.

“We’ve solved a real problem. If you look at running and cycling, there are GPS and smartwatches with real-time interfaces where you can see what you’re doing in the moment,” Eisenhardt said during a Zoom interview. “In swimming, this didn’t exist until we came along. Imagine on your next run, you put your watch on your ankle – that’s what it’s like for swimmers.”

Eisenhardt touches on a key point here. A tool provides a solution to a common problem, whereas a gadget seeks a solution to a problem that barely even exists. Lots of people want to strengthen their legs and build powerful glutes, a problem that kettlebell swings address with great effectiveness. The ThighMaster? Not so much.

Granted, in the case of the Form Smart Swim Goggles, the problem itself only exists for a fairly small segment of society (that would be swimmers, competitive or casual), but it still addresses a pain point. Tool or gadget? Perhaps like beauty, this designation is in the eye of the beholder. If the idea of strapping on a pair of high-tech goggles makes swimming more appealing, I say dive on in.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue at hand: A quality unique to fitness tools and gadgets alike is that neither really makes the job of exercising any easier. Fitbits are great for tracking your steps, but you still have to get up off the couch. The trap bar is one of my favourite training tools, but it doesn’t make deadlifts feel any lighter. At the end of the day, results come from setting attainable goals and putting in consistent effort. In other words, it takes hard work, and as far as I know there’s no app, gadget or tool to replace that.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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