The Smartbells choice: A new form of exercise developed locally

(Violet Snow)

More versatile than dumbbells, Smartbells are not metal shapes that ring but modern exercise tools. They can be used solo, in pairs, or in groups for a form of movement that engages the whole body, especially muscles in the shoulders that rarely get a workout. Invented by Paul Widerman of Accord, the devices are used in an exercise class led by Woodstocker Angel Ortloff for the oncology support group at the HealthAlliance Hospital (formerly Benedictine Hospital) in Kingston.

“It’s not about weight training. It’s about flow and movement,” said Widerman, a fitness expert and former Olympic wrestler who attended a recent Thursday-morning class at the hospital’s Mary’s Avenue campus. An early version of Smartbells has been used by the Yankees, the Mets, and the Navy Seals. Pilates and tai chi teachers have also embraced it as a training tool. But Widerman is most excited about bringing more recent, lighter versions to elders, who gain flexibility and strength in hips, shoulders and other joints through the pleasurable movements facilitated by Smartbells.

Years after inventing the saddle-shaped, two-handled design, Widerman was inspired by a Valentine’s Day window display to tweak the shape by making it resemble a heart. To the “Heart” variant he has added aerodynamic properties that help the user glide it through space. The shape also has a metaphorical resonance that adds energy: a sense of opening the heart.


The design was further developed by staff at the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz, where prototypes were made on the center’s 3D printer. Major contributions were made by jeweler and designer Cat Wilson, who had studied with a high-ranking martial artist and had a good feel for the use of the device. She and Widerman created a couple of dozen different variants before settling on the current design.

“There’s a vortex of creative people here in Ulster County,” Widerman remarked. “I feel pride as an inventor to be here with the support of the artistic and design community.”


The exercise session started with seven class members — plus Ortloff, Widerman, dancer Eli McNamara, and myself — linked in a circle. We were  each holding the handles of two Smartbells. The opposite handles were held by our immediate neighbors. The group swayed together, our tendons receiving a gentle stretch from the interconnecting Smartbells. We pulled gently to one side, then the other, as we stretched our necks in the opposite direction. We lifted the devices overhead, working our shoulders.

Then each person stepped back with a single Smartbell to begin the core routine of solo exercises. Grasping the device by its center post, Widerman demonstrated how to swing it up and around to orbit the head, articulating the wrist and creating a satisfying circular flow. He led the way through a series of movements, all easily followed by the group members, half of whom are former cancer patients.

Ortloff used to be a potter, and the repetitive work on the throwing wheel was stressful for her shoulders. After her surgery for breast cancer, exercise with Smartbells helped her regain her shoulder action. Now as a massage therapist, formerly at RiverRock Health Spa in Woodstock, she depends on her shoulders for her work. She appreciates the flexibility and strength Smartbells have brought to her upper body.

In addition to leading the exercises for the oncology support class, Ortloff does a daily half-hour Smartbells session at home with her husband. “It took years to convince him,” she said, “but he started to feel the difference, too. His shoulders and hips have improved — it really helps the joints. We do a core routine, and then we do floor work as a pair.”

McNamara, a Rosendale resident who recently completed yoga teacher training in Thailand, said, “It activates muscle groups I never use, even in yoga. As soon as I started moving with it, my body said, ‘Yes!’”

Widerman is still discovering new ways to work with Smartbells and Hearts. Experimenting with holding Hearts in his hands while swimming, he found the weight gave added resistance for training, while the holes allow water to flow through, with the shape gliding easily through the water. The contours allow the Smartbell to sit comfortably on the back and other parts of the body, offering massage applications.

Research has not yet been done to explain why Smartbells are so effective. “We’re ahead of the curve,” Widerman remarked. Studies showing that movement crossing the midline of the body, as Smartbells are designed to do, connects the right and left sides of the brain, enhancing motor coordination and learning. Movement that crosses the midline is prescribed for children who are having trouble with reading and fine motor skills.

In fact, Widerman originally created the mid-sized, 1.5-pound Hearts for kids. But he has found them ideal for elders. He worried participants in the oncology support classes would have trouble working with them for an hour or more, but it turned out, he said, “It was hard to get them to stop.”

Mid-sized Smartbells, suitable for all fitness levels, will soon be manufactured in High Falls and will be available online, along with videos demonstrating how to use them. For information on Smartbells and the Heart, visit The Thursday morning exercise class for the oncology support group at HealthAlliance Hospital (Mary’s Avenue campus in Kingston) is open to the public at a cost of $8 per class or by donation. To inquire about joining the class, contact Doris Blaha at 339-2071.