San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Girl Thing: Curves Fitness Centers

Once I stopped feeling like a manic hamster going round and round its wheel, doing supervised exercises in a circle for just 30 minutes at a time has become addictive.

It’s obviously addictive to millions of other women, too, because the women-only fitness-center chain Curves is the world’s largest and fastest-growing franchise in history, according to Entrepreneur magazine’s 2004 and 2005 Franchise 500 rankings.

The concept appears simple to the point of Zen: eight hydraulic resistance machines are interspersed with non-slip square mats forming a circle into which you slot upon arrival.

Around you go, working the machines that focus on leg or arm strengthening, alternating with instructor-led aerobic exercises on the mats. Each “staging post” lasts for 30 seconds, and a session involves three circuits.

There is absolutely no time to get bored. An automated voice breaks through the heart-pumping disco music to signal when to continue to the next station, and once during every circuit you stop and check your heart rate with a simple 10-second pulse count, finger on carotid artery.A large, color-coded wall chart indicates how much effort your heart is making, so no thinking is required either. After the final round, you are encouraged to independently follow a 12-step series of stretches from a wall chart to cool down and consolidate the effects of the aerobics by another 19%.

Simple it might seem, but an enormous amount of careful analysis has gone into making the Curves concept work.

Curves allows women of all ages, sizes and fitness levels to gain strength and muscle tone for improved health, and often substantial weight loss. Natalia Schwerdtfeger, manager at the Santa Ana branch, told me about conventional gyms refusing women deemed “inappropriate” for the idealistic image being portrayed – read: too old or too fat. Curves takes in all comers into a fresh, light environment where no one looks down on your lumps and generous proportions.

Upon signing up, and each month afterward, you are weighed and measured. If wanted, a complete weight-management program can be individually structured with common-sense diet plans.

Argentine transplant Schwerdtfeger and her team – nutritionist, swimming instructor and aerobic dance teacher – are all professionals in their various fields, and are responsible for updating client information, providing weight-loss guidance, cajoling their ladies around the circuit and promoting Curves.

Clever, almost aggressive marketing pervades here: Curves T-shirts, water bottles, tote bags and caps are on sale; members earn free months by introducing friends; and mini-specials such as rope skipping or hulahooping for a 30-second slot earn “Curves dollars” to exchange for merchandise.

While this might appear somewhat glitzy, the underlying mission is totally serious.

When, at the age of 13, Curves founder Gary Heavin discovered his mother dead from heart failure, he decided to study health and nutrition, creating a fitness system specifically geared to women’s physiques and outlooks that would help prevent poor health and potential illness. Heavin and his wife Diane developed the franchise-based approach that has become a global empire with more than 4 million members.

In Costa Rica, 10 Curves locations already operate, with another scheduled to open this year.Members pay an initial registration and monthly fee for three weekly sessions. While the cost is higher than that of some traditional gyms, the close client monitoring and supervision virtually constitute having a personal trainer thrown in.

Does it work? After one month, I felt stronger and more limber and toned up than I have for a long time, and my fellow circuit hamsters are happily coming back for more turns on the wheel, too.

Curves operates in Alajuela, northwest of San José; Cartago, east of San José; the southern suburb of Desamparados; the eastern suburbs of Curridabat and Sabanilla; the western neighborhood of Rohrmoser; Coronado, northeast of San José; the northern district of Tibás; the western suburb of Escazú; and Santa Ana, southwest of San José. For information, call 800-MUJERES (685-3737) or visit


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