Welcoming the not-so-hard bodies

Some health clubs find a growing niche serving middle-aged and older women

Health & Fitness

March 16, 2003|By Jennifer Mendelsohn | Jennifer Mendelsohn,Sun Staff

Nancy Cox is an unlikely gym rat. Standing 5 feet 1/2 inch tall and weighing a not-quite-supermodel-esque 153 pounds, the 65-year-old widow with a shock of dyed-blond hair and frosted pink nails is the sort of kindly grandmother you can picture making casseroles. But Cox, who admits she "can't even walk and chew gum at the same time," has recently become a workout fiend.

"It's absolutely the best thing I've ever done for myself," says the Glen Burnie resident, who has shed 7 pounds since September and developed muscles she never knew she had. "I can't say enough good about it."

Cox is yet another new member of Curves, a Texas-based company that has found phenomenal success by targeting middle-aged women with little or no exercise history and offering them a quick, simple workout program in the kind of low-key, supportive environment where newbies won't be intimidated by hard-bodied regulars.

It's that rare kind of women's-only gym where "skinny" actually has derogatory connotations: think of it as a health club for the soccer mom and Oprah set.

"I feel like if I go to Bally's or Gold's, if it's not Spandex, forget it," says Curves member Ann Brown, 52, of Crownsville. "I like the atmosphere here."

The Curves workout is a no-frills, 30-minute program done to high-energy pop music. Exercisers work their way twice around a circuit, spending 30 seconds at each of 24 stations. (A recorded voice tells users when time is up.)

The stations alternate between so-called "recovery boards," on which users jog in place to get heart rates elevated, and hydraulic resistance equipment, which provides strength training automatically adjusted to the user's fitness level. A four-minute stretch, and periodic heart-rate checks, round out the half-hour. After an introductory fee, monthly memberships run about $29.

At a time when many health clubs have grown into behemoths offering every service under the sun, Curves has taken the opposite approach. Most Curves gyms are 1,000- to 1,500-square-foot storefronts that lack even shower facilities.

"It's not rocket science, but it's really compelling," says Bill Howland, spokesman for the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "Their concept is so far removed from what Americans think a health club is. People think, 'I could do that.' "

Make that lots of people. Recently named the fastest-growing franchise in America by Entrepreneur magazine, Curves claims 5,000 locations worldwide, including 50 in Maryland. Its main competition comes from Florida-based Ladies Workout Express, with 350 locations and another 150 in the wings.

Although Ladies Workout Express recently partnered with fitness giant Reebok, Curves founder Gary Heavin, 47, feels confident about his company's position in the industry. "To our McDonald's, there are no Burger Kings," he says.

A veteran gym operator, Heavin founded Curves in 1992 with his wife, Diane, and began franchising three years later. (It costs about $20,000 to buy a franchise.) Promotional materials say the company is based on "Biblical principles," but Heavin, a devoted Christian, insists that all are welcome.

"Curves has created a culture -- a safe place for women to support each other," explains Heavin. "Women thrive in that kind of environment."

The Glen Burnie Curves, in a nondescript office park, has the cheery folksiness of a church basement preschool. The walls are festooned with brightly colored paper balloons bearing the name of each of the 480 members, Popsicle sticks attached to colored pieces of felt track the number of inches each has lost. A framed copy of the "serenity prayer" ("Lord, grant me the serenity...") hangs in the bathroom. Diet and fitness tips cut from women's magazines dot the walls and dressing rooms.

Inspiring for sure, but does Curves really work?

"You can't go from Curves to the Olympics, but those people aren't coming here," says physician Bayinnah Shabazz, 52, who works out at the Glen Burnie Curves and recommends it to her patients. "These are regular women. They're raising kids, they're working. We've all been eating too much ice cream and french fries. This is a good step off the couch."

Bill Howland agrees. "Are these people really going to reshape their bodies doing 30 to 40 minutes three or four times a week? No. Are they going to reap health benefits? Are they going to lower body fat, reduce cholesterol and improve heart function? Yes. And that's pretty powerful."

Some Curves members, says Howland, will get hooked on the fitness habit and graduate to more serious exercise programs. Others, like Ann Brown of Crownsville, just get hooked on Curves.

Asked if she's turned friends on to the gym, Brown says she's done one better.

"I'm going to buy one," she says with a laugh. "I'm just waiting for the paperwork to come through."

Where to join

There are numerous Curves locations throughout the Baltimore area. To find the one nearest you, call 877-287-8374, or visit the Web site www.curvesforwomen.com. For general information about Curves, call 800-848-1096.

There are two Ladies Workout Express franchises, in Pasadena and Randall-stown, with a third soon to open in Laurel. For more information, visit www. ladiesworkoutexpress. com, or call 800-833-5239.

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