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Beauty in Motion: Thinkfit with Smart Bells 

When developing smart bells, inventor and athlete Paul Widerman decided to follow his father's advice. "My father was an airplane designer, and he always said that if something is beautiful, it works better," Widerman recalls. So over the years the weights that are at the core of the Smart Bells system evolved from a plywood prototype to the sleek, plastic-coated, aluminum-based devices they are today. "I sculpted the first one in clay in 1994," Widerman explains. "I wanted to create something sculptural and sensual that people would want to hold."

Widerman, who grew up in Huntington, Long Island, came to the exercise system through his background in wrestling. In addition to competing in the sport from the age of 13, and eventually serving as assistant wrestling coach at Harvard University, his alma mater, for five years, Widerman was also very interested in weight training. Spinal compression problems at 20 led him to yoga, which "really changed how I think and operate," he says. That, combined with some tips from a Russian wrestler, became the basis for an exercise routine with weights that was the forerunner to Smart Bells.

"At first it was senior citizens, women, and kids who got it. The fitness community didn't get it," Widerman says. "It was against the basic premise of weightlifting. In traditional weightlifting you push against gravity, which cosmically is a very egocentric thing. With Smart Bells, as you get better at it, you actually use less weight. It's more like juggling, in terms of complexity of movement."

Once he had the seeds of the system, Widerman began to refine the tool. He moved to Accord in 1991 and enlisted the assistance of local artists - blacksmith Jonathan Nedbor created the original steel model, and sculptor Matt Pozorski provided original molds and design input. Widerman's partner, artist Nancy Ostrovsky, also enhanced the design process, as did students in the Rondout school district. Eventually, the original circle with internal handles was stretched and curved so that it hugs the body as it is used, creating the circular flow that Widerman says is the essence of the process.

Cosmic Energy

Paul Widerman feels there's more to his smart bells design than meets the eye. "Nobody can really explain how it works," he says. "There's a cosmic aspect to it. It's one of the shapes of the universe predicted by the theory of relativity."

The ellipse can be found in red blood cells, he adds, and also resembles the symbol for infinity, something he noticed from the shadow cast by a mini Smart Bell that hangs on fishing line in his office. The realization of these connections has led Widerman to a further study of shapes. "I've been looking at whether there's an archetypical predisposition to respond to shapes," he says. "I've done a lot of work with kids, and they just like playing with [Smart Bells]."

He also brought his observations to a former Harvard classmate, Neil Tyson, who now works as an astro-physicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. "He said, 'This is really cool, you should write a book about it,'" Widerman recalls. A paper by Tyson about the nature of the universe is on the Thinkfit website.

Even the way Smart Bells is used echoes the orbital patterns of electrons flowing around a nucleus, Widerman notes, with the metal it's made of moving the body's energy around. "That's why I can't let go," he emphasizes. "There's something here that's got to be nurtured further."
Smart Bells are now offered in four weights: 3 pounds, 3.5 pounds, 6 pounds, and 15 pounds; about 1,500 to 2,000 are sold nationwide every year. Widerman also does presentations to hospitals, organizations, and conferences, and for the past four years he has appeared at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders. In 2000, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer distributed 2,500 Smart Bells for its Minds In Motion depression awareness campaign, and they have also been used by the Navy SEALS, whose coach contacted him "out of the blue." "Most sales are word of mouth," Widerman explains. "If you see it on a table or in a store, people don't know what to do with it. They say, why should I pay $79 for a weight? They don't realize it's a whole concept."

In addition to Smart Bells, Thinkfit, the company Widerman created as an umbrella for various creative and artistic ideas in the "realms of health, fitness, and human potential," also produces a carry bag, a waist pack, and handmade stands. The company offers American Council on Exercise-approved instructor certification, with more than a dozen trainers in the local area. And, as a token to his success, Widerman recently signed a deal to form a separate company that will focus solely on sales and marketing to larger institutions. "It's a huge relief for me," he says. "Now I can continue to concentrate on the creative aspects."

For Widerman, learning how to combine creativity with business has been a journey in itself. "It's been a long haul, and hard," he acknowledges. "It's an estimated $10,000 to have a lawyer write a patent for you, and you don't know if you're going to get it. The first patent took me one and a half years to write." But experience is a fine teacher, and he was recently able to write four patents in one year and discover a deeper understanding of intellectual property in the process. "It's fascinating to start to really learn how to do it, and to think about the difference between art and design, and how to categorize what you've done. It makes you unafraid to be creative, and freer to openly share ideas," Widerman adds.

It's also something he believes should be nurtured in artists. "It's not common knowledge," he says. "We all know what it means to have an idea; we just don't know what it means to own an idea. But businesses do understand that." For that reason, he emphasizes, creative people, who often undervalue their own efforts, need to be protected. "I really believe the future of our species is at stake," he says. "It's hard to stay positive in this climate, but that's the challenge."

For more information about Smart Bells, go to the Web site, www.thinkfit.com, or call (800) 485-0967.

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  • Mala Hoffman works out with ThinkFit's Smart Bells.

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