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Getting the Go-Round

Health Wanted


Published November 16, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" has always been one of my favorite workout wailers, a tune injected with just the right amount of insolence and independence to inspire pumping iron, and pumping my legs on the treadmill.

But when I hear this song blasting from a boombox at a fitness center off Burlington's Flynn Avenue, something seems wrong. Instead of David Cover- dale's soaring roar, there's a catlike voice whining out the lyrics to a grating techno beat that seems to scrape the walls -- which are painted lavender, with line drawings of leotard-clad women sweating and shaking it.

Nobody else here seems to mind: A half-dozen women are busily pushing, pulling and kicking on one of several black-and-white contraptions, or prancing on gray, rubber squares. Two thirtysomethings who look like sisters are stepping in sync between sets, doing The Pony and a Russian Cossack dance, gossiping as they gasp for breath.

This is Curves, the fitness phenomenon that has lured more than four million women to worship within its female-friendly walls at more than 9300 locations worldwide. Now copied ferociously, the waist-management chain is even growing faster than Americans' waistlines: It took McDonald's and Subway 25 years to open 6000 franchises; Curves took just seven. So when I learned that, not surprisingly, one has opened near my house, I decided to take advantage of the free-week trial advertised in a flyer.

One of the most striking features of Burlington's Curves -- which is tucked inconspicuously in an industrial complex, along with Ashley Furniture and Vermont Hardware -- is the gym's simplicity. There are no mirrors, no elliptical machines and, of course, no men. A room smaller than many kitchens holds just a tight circle of equipment. A quote on one of those lavender walls reads in part, "Remember where laughter's hiding . . . it's hiding inside of you."

Actually, it's hard to not to giggle at the scene, which looks like a cross between the hokey-pokey, Arnold Schwarzenegger's home gym and musical chairs. A woman named Sue offers to hop in front of me on the circuit to give me pointers. "Keep your arms more rigid," she says as I attempt the bicep curl and tricep-extension machine. The Curves concept revolves around 10 pieces of hydraulic-resistance equipment, which are designed to reduce injury while strengthening muscles and maintaining bone density. Thirty minutes, or three circuits, is considered a complete workout.

That amounts to 30 seconds at each station. Just when I'm getting the hang of the first machine, a disembodied voice announces, "Change stations now," and I find myself on one of the gray mats. These are called "aerobic recovery squares," where members can maintain an elevated heart rate in between sets. (The music remains elevated, too -- Curves dictates that all songs must have at least 140 beats per minute. That explains the techno beat.)

What am I supposed to do? Jog in place? Dance like a chicken? Since we're arranged in a circle, the other women and I can't help but look at each other, though most of us avert our eyes; I pretend to examine the T-shirt selection on a shelf. I know that Curves is designed to make women feel at ease, but I've rarely felt as uncomfortable as I do when I eventually opt to jog in place. Thirty seconds later, we change stations again. Before I know it, I've completed a full circuit -- without racking weights or racking my brain for exercises.

"You don't have to think about anything," explains franchise owner Amelia Chapman, 25, in a phone interview later. "That's what I like about it -- you come in, do your thing, and you're done in half an hour."

Chapman has owned this franchise, which used to be located on St. Paul Street, for more than three years; she says she knew "not really anything" about owning a gym when a friend of her father's mentioned the concept. "The next thing you know," says Chapman, "I'm going to Waco, Texas, for my certification."

Waco is corporate headquarters for Curves, whose co-founders, Gary and Diane Heavin, began franchise operations in 1995. New franchisees attend a "club camp" where they learn the ropes from Gary Heavin himself, explains Chapman. "It was actually pretty cool," she says. "He lost his mom to obesity when he was a kid and so he said, 'I'm not going to lose another person that I love.'" Training was "pretty intense," she says. "They definitely show you everything."

Well, maybe not everything. Last year, many Curves franchise owners and members across the country were up in arms over reports that Heavin, a born-again Christian, was funneling profits -- at least $5 million, by some counts -- to anti-abortion groups. A columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle called for feminists to consider "just plain walking" as an alternative to attending the "Wal-Mart of gyms." The scuttlebutt gained weight as women began quitting Curves outlets -- Chapman says she lost one member -- and franchisees panicked.

As it turns out, the rumors had been inflated. A Curves press release issued the day after the Chronicle column reported that Heavin had actually donated part of his personal wealth to three Texas nonprofit groups "that contribute to the overall health and wellness of women."

That was enough to make many Curves members feel good about feeling better. "As a pretty liberal, Democratic, Jewish woman," says Lisa Ryan, a 48-year-old mother of three who belongs to the Flynn Avenue Curves, "I find that this exercise works for me."

Like many women, Ryan joined Curves because she was intimidated by mega-gyms full of men and über-toned women. After nearly three years of Curves and cutting processed carbs and other junk from her diet, she's lost 55 pounds, and kept the weight off. "My children used to be afraid to go behind me up stairs," Ryan says. "They'd say, 'Mom, your rear end is so big; it's really frightening.' Curves has changed all that for me."

A traditional gym is not an option for her, Ryan says. "I'm not very coordinated. I'm very comfortable at Curves, and if I keep trying to go a little bit faster or work a little bit harder, then it works for me."

Does it work for me ? I'm not sure. When the disembodied voice tells me to test my heart rate, I'm below where I should be for my age, so I figure I might need a tougher workout. But there's something about moving through the circuit, listening to my fellow Curves girls chat about their days, that's both soothing and refreshing. I even start to enjoy my dorky jogs in place on the recovery squares. And although I don't think my muscles are developing, after a few days, strangely enough, I feel sore. And I want to go back for more.