Monday, June 18, 2007

The collective amount of effort my fellow teachers and I are exerting to impart knowledge during the four weeks of our summer school program is so minimal that I think the children might actually be getting dumber as the days pass. We're arriving as late as we can, leaving as early as we can, and generally are just phoning it in to collect our summer "bonuses". I'm a fairly ardent champion of educators and the public school education system, because the majority of us work ourselves into exhaustion trying to teach and proxy-parent and support our children, but by all means say what you will about summer school teaching because we are an unabashedly lazy-assed group of people right now.

Which explains why I'm blogging at work instead of using my free time to, like, make a database or look up gross-motor vocabulary words or something boring like that.

Anyway, the long-promised Curves entry is here. I decided, last month, to end my gym membership and open a Curves account for a couple reasons: First, because my gym is a part of our community recreation center, I often found myself competing with county people for machines, equipment space, and privacy every time I visited. (And when I say "county people", I'm referencing the fully clothed people who sit on the weight benches drinking Mountain Dew and listening to Kid Rock on their shared Ipod while I stare at them with murder in my eyes.) Second, because I sort of feel like my body is just needing some sort of remedial exercise rather than full-on Stumptuous-variety weight and cardio routines. I had belonged to a Curves a few years ago, and I knew a zillion women who had amazing results from it, so I decided to give it another chance since they were having a special on membership fees. I worked out with them three times, and as of three weeks later I'm buying out my contract with them and I think I'm going to endure the gym instead. I am nothing if not gleefully mercurial.

So, is Curves lame? Yes and no. Here are the arguments in favor of it:

1) It's fat and female-friendly.

The commercials you've seen are completely accurate. Most of the patrons of your local Curves will be 40-something or older, not in spectacular shape, and 100% female. (There are male equivalents to Curves called Fast Fitness 4 Men and Cuts Fitness, if you're interested in pursuing that, although they also may or may not be lame and I won't be able to inform you one way or the other). A surprisingly high number of runners and naturally fit women do work out there (I assume as a way to build bone and muscle density on top of their cardio), but most Curves gyms are overwhelmingly populated by the aforementioned clientele. And I think that's a major bonus, because the pressure's off to look a certain way, it's okay to sweat, etc.

2) It's Easy.

You truly only have to show up 30 minutes, three times a week. In fact, they strongly discourage you from going more than four times, partly because they're worried about your muscles having time to heal, but also I think because they want to keep the space open for new people. The workout is basically a circuit training course, usually in a small office-sized room. You spend 30 seconds on what are called "cardio pads" or "recovery pads" where you raise and maintain a target heart rate by marching or jogging in place, dancing, or just swinging your arms. You rotate between the pads and hydraulic resistance machines (usually 12-13 of them) so by the end of one rotation you've work most of your major muscle groups, and then you complete the course a second or third time. The course runs anywhere between 25-37 minutes depending upon how many times you go around, and there are usually 3 opportunities for assessing your target heart rate in the course of one standard workout. Curves stresses the importance of a post-workout stretch, so stretching mats and charts are located at the back of most branches and the attendants will get on your case if you skip it to go home faster.

The gym attendants have to walk you through your workout at least twice before they recommend you trying it alone, and someone is always near the machines to correct your form or the way you're moving on the pads. They're pretty vigilant about correct form, and I'm sure that contributes to the longevity of the memberships there; very few people get hurt while working out at Curves. The recovery pads are also handy because you can change up your movement based on how fast your heart is beating at the moment; some women jog full out on every pad, others use knee raises or kicks to give their legs an extra workout, and some just stand and swing their arms to get joints working and blood pumping each time.

Basically the convenience and ease of the workout is its major bonus.

3) It Can Be Very Fun.

If you, unlike me, are a social animal, then Curves would probably be right up your alley. Most branches seem to have a constant rotation of promotionals, special days "Like Wacky Wednesday", and giveaways or contests to keep people interested in coming back. At my old Curves, the attendants would read trivia questions or have impromptu horseshoes games to give away door prizes, etc. They are instructed to keep a flow of conversation going at all times, and so there's usually chatter going on pretty much all the time, and they try to get everyone involved. If you're into a friendly, family-type atmosphere at your gym, then this is a really good selling point for Curves.

I think, really, the appeal of Curves stands on its ability to attract women who might be insecure about their bodies and get them to really come to love working out until it starts working for them. I know at least a handful of women who've lost 100+ pounds by changing their diet and working out with Curves, and several more who've lost between 25-50 just by going. It's a slow and simple method towards fitness, but it seems to be working.

Now, on to the cons:

1) It's Expensive For What You get.

I think if I saw a commercial that asked, "Would you like to lose between 1-2 lbs. a week and keep it off for only $40 a month?" I would probably keep watching to see what was for sale. (Keep in mind, I'm also the person who watched the Magic Bullet infomercials religiously EVERY SINGLE TIME they were on paid TV on Sunday mornings) Curves can certainly make the above claim and even have it be true, but there are a few hidden catches to the equation: First, the sign-up fee ($159.00) is pretty steep, (unless you catch them during a promotional or know someone who knows someone) especially for a gym you're just trying out. Most normal gyms offer a trial membership or a money-back guarantee if you're not into it, but Curves doesn't. I got around the sign-up fee by informing the manager that a nearby branch offered discounts to teachers, and she chose to honor it. The cost of membership each month is around $45.00 unless you sign up for direct debit on a yearlong commitment, and then it's only $39.99 a month. If you want to get out of your contract and you're on the yearlong plan, you'll have to pay $10.00 a month for each remaining month on your contract, but they can only charge you up to 5 months regardless of how short your tenure with them was. One caveat: SAVE EVERYTHING they give you. I've read a ton of stories where women who've tried to break their contract for legitimate reasons like pregnancy, medical concerns, or change of residence have been really burned by their Curves managers bending the fine print to their own advantage. Remember, each Curves is a franchise and if they don't retain members, they get shut down so they'll fight tooth and nail to keep you and your money.

The other reason I'm including this is a con is because every Curves branch is different, and some might not have the business hours or the space to be worth your $40 bucks a month. At mine, for instance, they're only open from 6-11 am and 3-7 pm most business days, a few hours on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday. If you have more than one job, or work odd hours or long hours like I do, it can become extremely tedious trying to find a time to actually get in to work out. In the end, that was a major deciding factor for me, because I just couldn't get in to go.

2) It Can Be TOO Easy.

I think Curves is an incredible opportunity for extremely out of shape, sedentary women to make gradual lifestyle changes and incorporate exercise as a habit in their new active lives. I think the workout can change bodies and it can be extremely invigorating for a certain kind of people, but I don't think it's going to work for everybody.

The problem with the Curves workout is twofold:

First, you don't spend enough time actually exercising to really get your body into fat-burning mode. Research has indicated that you have to spend approximately 20 minutes exercising just to switch from burning sugars into burning fat, and a typical Curves workout stops five minutes after that.

Second, the workout is entirely dependent upon how hard you want to work. The machines use hydraulics, which means the air that builds up inside the machines dictates the amount of resistance you'll have as you push and pull them. So, if you want to build up resistance and work your muscles harder, you have to use the machines faster. That's great, but as I've found as I'm exercise, if you're working faster you lose the range of motion needed to really work the entire muscle group, so you're effectively losing out. Also, your cardio workout is completely dependent upon how fast you move your body on the recovery pads. Obviously, you can slack off on a treadmill or a bike too, but I've noticed that if you're the only person on a pad who's really running or jumping hard and the rest of the ladies are kind of treading water, peer pressure will win out and you'll end up slowing your movements to seem less conspicuous. It's just one of the hazards of working out in a circle where everyone can see everyone else.

Ultimately, the women who've had phenomenal success and have attributed it to Curves have also employed some extra cardio/weight/yoga work to their routine and have made significant changes to their eating habits. Curves does offer supplements and a high-protein, low-carb eating system but they're not mandatory to follow and again add cost to your membership fee. So the bottom line on this one is that Curves help you form the healthy habits that will eventually lead you to doing some real body sculpting in the future, but I don't really think it's a cureall by itself.

3)Miscellaneous Issues.

This one is kind of a sticky one for me, and I apologize if I offend anybody with what I'm going to say, but...

Curves founder Gary Heavin is a widely-known opponent of abortion rights, and is fairly public about using his corporation's money to support pro-life organizations and fundraising. Essentially, that means that the money you pay to Curves will probably end up, at least to some extent, going towards those particular causes. Some Curves also collect direct donations of money or shopping items to help pro-life charities or clinics, and mine has literature on how to become a pro-life advocate. Please understand I'm not trying to push an agenda one way or other; I just hope you'll be aware of where your money is going, no matter where you put it.

And finally, in a slightly related way, there's a reason why Curves is the fastest growing franchise in America, and it's because they treat their branch managers and owners very aggressively. I've heard lots of complaints about branches being abruptly shut down due to a handful of dropped members even though they were thriving in all other areas, and I've seen other gyms completely crowded to the point of not being able to use it because the managers weren't sure if a second branch in another location would do as well. My basic thought on this is that the franchise owners know what they're getting into before they plunk down the first payment, and that they're hopefully skilled enough to understand how to run a successful business that makes their corporate parent happy. But still, the effects of franchise aggressiveness can kind of trickle down to you, like when you find your gym abruptly locked up with a "CLOSED" sign taped to the door, or you have to wait fifteen minutes to work out. It's a possibility anywhere, and not just at Curves, but it's still something to consider.

So the bottom line for me was that Curves WAS a little lame, but mostly because I like to work out by myself, to mix up the activities a little bit, and to let it be a more holistic experience than a room full of women dancing to 80's music can really provide. I think for a woman who needs to feel good about working out before she's ready to commit to a traditional gym, this is the absolute perfect solution to that. But maybe it's kind of like those Lean Cuisines we all have stockpiled in the freezer: they're a great idea for when you want to be healthy without having to think about it, but using them as a lifetime solution probably isn't the greatest idea.

Anyway, check it out on your own if you're trying to decide whether or not to join.

Whatever you decide, congratulations on at least considering a healthy lifestyle, and let me know how it's going.


VeggieB! said...

good for you! maybe this will help you feel better about the "xxl" workout pants thing. which, by the way, i HAVE, and they're not so embarrassing. more embarrassing is NOT advertising to the world that yes, I'm aware my ass has it's own orbit, and yes I'm working on it. these xxl workout pants say I do.
btw-when you get brave enough to join a "real" gym in kc, Scott Fitness is FANTASTIC. the best part is all the cool classes you get to go to, and it's only $30 monthly, i think.

Christine said...

I think with any gym you get what you give. You have to make it worth your money and make the effort to make the changes. I have never been to Curves - but I am supportive of any gym if it fits into your life and lifestyle.

Lauren said...

I think it's awesome that you gave curves a fair evaluation. I for one hate HATE them because I had a bad experience working for them and getting fired for completely bogus reasons.

Erin said...

veggieb!...Dude, link your blog to your profile so I can stick you in my "Good People" sidebar. You deserve to be perused, lady.

Anonymous said...

Exercise is really important to everyone. Going to the gym is one way of achieving it so continue what you are doing..

Try also to know some more other tips to gain a healthy, balanced, drug-free lifestyle.

elasticwaist said...

Thank you for this really smart, comprehensive write up about Curves. I sent it to my pro-choice friend who goes to let her know she's funding the anti-choice movement with her too-easy exercise!

ps you look hot and curvy in your pic!