Fans of old Three Stooges episodes and madcap sports-themed features can likely conjure up images of people exercising badly. The use of medicine balls, wall-mounted counterweight systems — and that giant vibrating rubber band that supposedly beat fat off the user’s mid-section and hips – were all depicted as first-line weapons in the War Against Weight.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where non-stop infomercials hawk everything from personal home gymnasiums to sliding exercise platforms to electrodes that let you “exercise” your abs as you sit on the couch and…watch TV.

Everyone knows that gadgets aren’t supposed to get us in shape. Yet we still seem to have a need for them. Now that they’ve gotten even more high-tech and portable, have fitness gadgets finally turned a corner? Are they worth more than what you’d pay that Partner in Willpower, aka a personal trainer?

Electronic Jane Fondas, without the attitude

Glenn Derene, writing at Popular Mechanics magazine, decided to take an old-fashioned look at how some of the latest gadgets stack up – by trying them out himself. Derene divided the gizmos into two groups: Activity Trackers and Exercise Video Games. Here’s what he discovered:

  • The Fitbit One ($100) and the Nike+ FuelBand ($150), two items that are intended to be worn all day to track your every move, came up with different calculations for estimated calories burned as well as actual steps walked. The measurements of footsteps were apart by about 500, while calories burned were more or less a wild guess – with the Fitbit keeping track of active and passive activity, and the FuelBand only giving a ballpark figure for calories shed through physical effort.
  • Aerobic workout monitors such as the Adidas Micoach CONNECT Heart Rate Monitor and Speed_Cell foot pod ($70 each) are slick, but, needing a smartphone to map a running course, a little awkward to use. Derene reported better luck with the Motorola MotoACTV ($150), a “comically large wristwatch” that lets you monitor your heart rate while listening to MP3s and consulting an embedded GPS. While possibly being distracted to the point of running into street signs.
  • Fitbit’s Aria Wi‑Fi Smart Scale ($130), while awfully impressive in transmitting weight and body-fat data to an online account, seemed a pretty penny to pay for something that can likely be done much cheaper and about as accurately. As long as vanity doesn’t get in the way of recording accurate records.
  • When it comes to exercise games, Nintendo’s Wii Fit and Wii Balance Board accessory (bundled for $99) still get the job done, though Derene says he barely perspired while using them. (He doesn’t say how hard he was trying, but he’s a journalist, so, really, how hard could he have been?)
  • Sony’s PlayStation 3 system offers a number of accessories, such as a Move Wand ($30) and Playstation Eye Camera ($40). According to Derene, though, the add-ons aren’t much use if the programs running on it suck more air than the user. Which he seems to think they do.
  • Not so Microsoft’s Kinect ($100), which works with an Xbox 360 system and brings whole-body tracking to a whole new level. The best of the programs that use the tech, Derene claims, is Nike+ Kinect Training ($50), which apparently kept our scribe in gear by varying the routine and telling him that he could do anything for 20 seconds. Feedback of a kind that’s evidently worked for him before.

Don’t replace. Enhance.

And then there’s Nick. As in, Nick the Personal Trainer, a 10-year veteran of a profession that exhorts urban types to wipe that whine off their angst and just exercise – for upwards of $60 a session.

Cost comparisons and kidding aside, here’s where Derene appears to have landed upon a critical difference:

As Nick guided me through a series of stretches, strength-training exercises, and cardio intervals, he listened as much as he talked, asking me about my life and what type of activities I engage in. He walked around me as I worked out and offered detailed feedback and encouragement and explained the significance and benefits of each exercise.

What’s more, Nick didn’t appear to be perturbed in the least by Derene’s investigation into fitness gadgets. In fact, Nick apparently uses at least one of them himself, maintaining to Derene that “anything that promotes fitness is good”.

Proof once more that machines, though useful, are no substitute for what humans bring to the fitness game. Just as the Stooges demonstrated, time and again.

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