A Fitness Writer Breaks a Sweat on the Job

From an Inside the Times story by John Otis headlined “A Fitness Writer Breaks a Sweat on the Job”:

A curious hodgepodge of items fills the vast basement of an old warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. There is a shelf crammed with large body pillows, a collection of hammers, small stacks of microwaves and coffee makers, and crates brimming with children’s toys.

This is where Seth Berkman does his job as the fitness writer for Wirecutter, an independent product review website owned by The New York Times Company. He is one of about 35 writers at Wirecutter who research and test all types of consumer products, including laptops, chef’s knives and photo-book services.

Lately, Mr. Berkman has been trying out treadmills. Half a dozen of them are lined up in a row facing a wall, as if part of a no-frills gym. He and a rotation of co-workers, many of them volunteering their time, have been testing the treadmills for weeks, evaluating them on features like steadiness and incline control. Mr. Berkman loves every step of testing, whether it is ordering products, setting them up or talking with people who use them.

“I’ve always had this sort of nerdy fantasy of running a general store in the middle of nowhere,” said Mr. Berkman, who also tests other fitness products, including step counters and body weights. “I get the same vibes running a long-term testing project like this, from controlling operations to random interactions and feedback.”

After four or five weeks of testing, Mr. Berkman will write an article recommending a particular treadmill, with both performance and price in mind, based on his experience and feedback from testers. Companies have no influence over Wirecutter’s selections, and writers do not keep any items for personal use after testing is completed (Wirecutter does keep models of its top picks for future testing).

“Our ultimate purpose is to try to help people save time and money,” said Christine Cyr Clisset, a deputy editor at Wirecutter. She said the staff recommends products with a certain type of buyer in mind: “a savvy person who is out there looking for a specific item.”

Though Wirecutter writers can test smaller products like headphones at home, most larger items are shipped directly to the building in Queens. (Wirecutter also has offices upstairs.) The building is a way station of sorts, one where products are inventoried after their use.

For instance, a few months ago, to test exercise strollers, the Parenting team at Wirecutter used small traffic cones to create a slalom obstacle course in the basement. Roughly once a year, the space transforms into a furniture showroom where writers blind-test mattresses.

Mr. Berkman joined Wirecutter in 2022 after years of freelance reporting, much of it for The Times’s Sports desk. Even though he enjoys the physical and mental benefits of exercise, he is no marathoner. Rather, he hopes his reviews offer the perspective of someone who is active but not training for serious competitions.

His fitness reporting requires him to speak with a number of experts, including academics, Olympic athletes, cardiologists and running coaches. He also recruits co-workers from Wirecutter and The New York Times to volunteer as testers.

Jaclyn Reiss, an editor on the team that curates The Times’s digital home pages, and an avid runner and marathoner, volunteered to test treadmills last month. Ms. Reiss said that she often relies on Wirecutter’s recommendations and that she thought testing treadmills would be a great opportunity to try out something she might actually buy.

“I was kind of scouting,” she said. Over the course of an hour, Ms. Reiss jogged on each of the six treadmills for five to 10 minutes.

Occasionally, Mr. Berkman said, testers will point out something relevant to them, such as the rails of a machine being too low for a taller person. This helps Mr. Berkman be more mindful of how a person in that same position might be affected by a specific machine.

“Over time, as you chart what testers like and don’t, you see patterns emerge,” Mr. Berkman said.

More than two dozen people have participated in the treadmill testing, comparing the machines’ stability, noise levels, console placements and screen displays. All of the testers record their ratings on forms, which will help Mr. Berkman make his final selection, along with his own legwork. He estimates that he has run at least 10 miles on each treadmill.

When Mr. Berkman writes about fitness, he feels a sense of responsibility to ease people’s sense of “gymtimidation,” or unease with exercise, which he said some consumers also feel when choosing fitness equipment.

“I think I can provide reporting relatable to both the person who runs marathons in Tokyo, Berlin and New York, as well as someone just looking to slowly increase their step counts,” he said.

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