Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Essay: Works for Me

I work out at Curves, a franchised, 30-minute workout studio for women. It consists of resistance training machines arranged in a circuit, with small, padded platforms ("recovery stations") in between machines. At 30-second intervals, a recorded voice (a woman's of course) instructs, "Change stations now!" (You can just here the smile in her voice as she says it.) Thirty seconds on a machine, thirty seconds on a recovery station. Twice around the circuit, a little stretching, and you're done.

Curves was the brainchild of a Texas man, and there is an air of Southern belle about the place. It aims to be welcoming to the over-40, less-than-buff set. There are no mirrors on the walls (although one is exhorted to get weighed and measured every month). You can work up a sweat if you try, most women don't. It's meant to be chummy and friendly; the staff get to know you, and one sees the same faces working out. There are always contests going on and prizes to win to help motivate you to come in three times a week, the recommended frequency.

The fact that I work out at Curves may sound unremarkable, but let me explain. While I'm over 40, I otherwise don't' fit the image. I'm a jock! I was voted most athletic girl in my high school senior class. I played division I field hockey in college. I earned a brown belt in karate. I was a tomboy growing up, and I still play softball. I am a Title IX baby, and proud of it.

So why did I give up the gym, where people really work hard on their bodies, and start going to the foofy girls' workout joint? One motivating factor was money. Curves, being no frills (there aren't even any showers), costs less than half that of the gym. I rarely used the pool or went to any of the classes they offered at the gym. But I also felt like I was getting fat there. I did the cardio workout machines (elliptical, bike, treadmill) quite faithfully, but I've always hated lifting weights and so avoided it, choosing crunches and push ups instead. Still I seemed to put on a few pounds each year.

So, I took the plunge and signed up for Curves. And I love it! I don't actually love going around the circuit and hearing the recorded voice or the same music over and over. What I love is that I do it. I show up, get on the circuit, and before I know it, I've gone around once. The no-brainer aspect is just perfect for me. No mental arm twisting or wrestling over what to do or how long to do it.

It has worked for me physically, too. I have not gained weight since I joined Curves 18 months ago, and I am stronger (playing a game of softball doesn't cripple me anymore). I keep my heart rate up, so I get both strength and cardio workouts. I like working hard and sweating and being an overachiever among this set, too. I do the "advanced workout," which means I count my reps. I love to count. It's measurable, and keeps me competing with myself.

I've heard the complaint that Curves is boring. Of course it's boring! Most exercise-for-exercise-sake is. But that doesn't bother me. I was someone who could run in circles around a track more easily than cross-country (had to give up running due to arthritic knees). I like an exercise where I can easily zone out, because it's a mental break for me. And working out just makes the body feel so much better.

Curves three times a week is good, but it's not enough. I walk and do other cardio in between as much as I can. I don't like the fact they are usually trying to sell you something (like the weight-loss program or their line of clothing) or get you to refer people. I almost didn't start at all because the woman I spoke to on the phone didn't want to tell me the cost; she wanted me in the door to get the whole pitch first.

All those things are minor concerns for me, however. I don't know if it is because I live in New England, but the staff are never overbearing; they let me do my thing and don't insist I get weighed and measured every month. I like that I'm not completely anonymous, either. I'm not just another body, but a customer who is given some consideration.

So, I keep going, even when I don't feel like it, because, however improbable the notion, it works for me.

[For an even-handed evaluation of Curves, see "A Gym for the Non-Lycra Crowd?" from the February 2004 issue of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.]

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

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