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A routine designed to appeal to women

Times Staff Writer

For millions of adults, exercising at a co-ed gym is the preferred way to get fit. But for many women, it isn’t. Not only do some women dislike the “meat market” atmosphere of many health clubs, they also feel that these gyms are not addressing the bigger realities of their lives, such as a lack of time and motivation to stick with a workout program.

Gary Heavin realized that and developed a simplified and standardized workout program consisting of a regimented circuit of strength training on hydraulic machines and aerobic exercises that can be done in 30 minutes, three times a week. He put the whole thing in an area about the size of a single apartment and made it exclusively for women.

Called Curves for Women, the concept has blasted off. Heavin’s first Curves debuted in Harlingen, Texas, in 1992, and he and wife Diane now have 3,700 centers across the country with plans for 1,000 more. Heavin also has a new book out, “Curves: Permanent Results Without Permanent Dieting.”

The chain has 139 clubs and more than 41,000 members in Southern California. Although the first Curves opened in the area three years ago, word has spread slowly due to the company’s lack of major marketing campaigns. With the growth of the franchise and now the book, more people are asking just what Curves is all about.

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For all of the company’s success, however, some fitness experts worry that it doesn’t allow much progress for those who want to gain more strength or increase their cardiovascular endurance. The circuit works by alternating 30-second intervals on weight machines and foam-backed boards meant for jogging in place or doing other movements to keep the heart rate up. Moving around the circuit three times takes half an hour, after which comes five minutes of stretching. Participants are not encouraged to go past 30 minutes or attend the gym more than three days a week, which allows muscles to recover from the workout.

An instructor monitors the members, who tend to be middle-aged or older, overweight and infrequent exercisers and who had been unable to maintain regular exercise habits at larger gyms.

Most Curves facilities offer minimal amenities -- usually a bathroom and changing area, no showers -- and run about $30 to $40 a month plus an initiation fee, a little less than most big gym chains charge. But Curves’ constraints so far haven’t stopped women from signing up in droves.

The company’s competition, a similar chain called Ladies Workout Express (an offshoot of Lady of America gyms), has built 350 facilities around the U.S. since 1999. Although these circuit-training gyms are relatively new, the concept of a women-only gym isn’t; Total Woman Gym & Day Spa has been around for 35 years, and many large co-ed gyms have women-only areas.

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“It’s become so clear in the last 10 years: Women were underserved by conventional health clubs,” Heavin says. “This gives them a 30-minute total workout that fits in their schedules in an environment where they can support each other.” That support, he believes, comes from being in a small, “safe” environment where it’s OK to be overweight and not wear makeup.

Curves has tweaked the idea of the traditional women-only gym. Instead of just setting up a conventional health club and inviting only women, the Heavins have pared down the workout to a no-brainer: Come in, do the circuit and leave. It speaks not only to many women’s busy schedules but also to the fact that many people lack the motivation and discipline to set up a workout program and stick to it, the two major stumbling blocks to getting fit and losing weight.

Although the government and health experts recommend at least 30 minutes a day of exercise, all agree that doing some form of exercise that increases cardiovascular endurance and strengthens muscles is better than doing nothing.

“You’re better off doing this than nothing, but you’re best off if you’re able to explore different things in terms of strength and flexibility and aerobic training,” says Robyn Stuhr, an exercise physiologist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. “You could do this for a while, but after about two years, frankly, you need to do something different. You can continue to push the machines harder, but at some point the body becomes used to those movement patterns.”

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Heavin has a long history in the health and fitness field, including working as a trainer, a nutritional counselor and owner of a chain of 17 women-only gyms. Those eventually went bust (Heavin says he made the mistake of building full-service gyms in towns too small to support them), but he tried the concept again, this time paring it down.

While the nation’s obesity levels continue to climb, such gym franchises as Curves and Ladies Workout Express are growing. “The percentage of overweight people speaks volumes,” says Scott Breault, spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-based Lady of America, “but at the same time there’s a large percentage of Americans who know because of those studies that it’s time to get to the gym.”

A Curves spokesperson wouldn’t say how successful the company has been at retaining members at its various outlets, noting that it doesn’t keep such statistics. Nationally, health clubs report an annual retention rate of 60% to 65%. In some larger urban areas, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, those numbers can drop to about 50%.

Holly Dye joined Curves in January after being sidelined by a karate-induced knee injury. Looking for a low-impact aerobic exercise, the 40-year-old teacher from Granada Hills decided to skip a big gym and try Curves. “The commercials for gyms are appealing in that sometimes the offers sound good, but what bothers me is that in those commercials everyone has the perfect body already. I’d like to see more mainstream America. This promotes camaraderie, you’re not isolated, and I like the variety and the rotation of the equipment.”

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Amy Durzi, 27, was tired of the meat market scene at the health club chains she had attended and wasn’t seeing results from her regular cardio and weight workouts. She joined Curves a month ago and found its circuit format off-putting at first: “I thought, oh my God, everyone’s facing each other, but when you’re doing it you’re not staring other people down, you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. Your strength builds as you go, and I walk out of there feeling good, not tired like when I used to leave the gym.”

Durzi, a Sherman Oaks writer, has slimmed down and says she’s never bored by the routine. But she’s held on to her 24-Hour Fitness membership to supplement her Curves routine with something different. “Three months from now, I’ll probably want to do that.”

Although Heavin insists that the Curves regimen doesn’t limit fitness progress, others disagree.

The health club industry isn’t making any radical changes based on the success of Curves and Ladies Workout Express, but it’s definitely taking notes about attracting less-motivated people who haven’t found success in traditional gyms, may be intimidated by them and can’t afford regular sessions with personal trainers.

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“There’s a lot to be learned from the Curves model,” says Brooke MacInnis, a spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. “There is a constant effort to find new members and provide better service and keep in tune with your customers as a whole, so something like this is not being looked over by any means.”


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