Since the first Curves opened in Texas in 1992, these women-only fitness centers have quietly been popping up in strip malls and neighborhood shopping centers around the globe. Founder Gary Heavin, who opened his first fitness center for women in 1974, has been training and helping women lose weight for three decades. He contends the solution to weight loss isnt permanent dieting but a simple 30-minute workout done three times a week. For those with a gym phobia, the centers setup—a small circle of 8 to 12 hydraulic weight machines in a large open room—may seem less intimidating than a full-scale workout club crowded with free weights and muscle-bound exercisers. For dieters who dont want to visit centers, the book Curves: Permanent Results Without Permanent Dieting (Putnam, 2003) offers a similar at-home fitness regimen sans machines.

The “magic” of the Curves exercise plan is that you dont waste time trying to fit in cardiovascular exercise before or after you hit the resistance machines. Instead, you do cardio moves between repetitions on the machines. Thats great for the time-deprived exerciser. This type of workout will no doubt help people get in better shape, but health professionals would probably say not to stop there. Current recommendations tell Americans to aim for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise each day, not just three times a week. As for the meal plans, the very low-carb or low-calorie limit dictated by the initial 2-week phase is definitely restrictive. Phase two is more realistic with its 1,600 calories or 40 to 60 grams of carbs. The 2,500 to 3,000 calories allowed during the maintenance phase could be a little high for some women, particularly for those who are petite.

Basic principles:

A 30-minute workout is key. The goal is to build muscle, since more muscle means more calories burned. You spend 30 seconds on each machine, working abs, legs, and arms. To keep the heart rate high, members walk or jog in place between machine stops, repeating the circuit as often as they can during the half-hour. The eating plan offers two options: a low-carbohydrate or low-calorie regimen. Supplements are encouraged, including a multivitamin, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

How the diet works:

The program has three parts: a 1- to 2-week jump-start phase, a second phase that lasts as long as needed, and a weight-maintenance phase. When you hit a weight-loss plateau, you get off the diet and follow a 2,500- to 3,000-calorie metabolic tune-up plan. Eating this larger amount of food helps rev up metabolism, since the body has to burn more calories. Once youve lost weight, you eat the same higher-calorie levels used on the tune-up plan.

What you can eat:

It depends on the plan. Carb-sensitive dieters follow an Atkins-like system that initially limits carbs to 20 grams daily and then raises them to between 40 and 60 grams. Calorie-sensitive types start out with 1,200 calories and then transition to a 1,600-calorie plan. Menus steer dieters toward the right food choices. The low-carbohydrate plan is strict about carbs (natch) but allows unlimited amounts of lean meat; the low-calorie plan calls for precise portions.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Unclear. There are plenty of anecdotal success stories in the book but no scientific findings—at least not yet. Baylor College of Medicine has accepted funds from the company to conduct clinical trials on the program.

Is the diet healthy?

Thats up for debate. Without long-term data on the safety and effectiveness of low-carb diets, its hard to endorse the skimpy 20 grams of carbs allowed on the carb-sensitive plan. Early reports suggest that in the short term a low-carb diet may be OK, but many health professionals are still skeptical. At 1,200 calories per day, the calorie-sensitive plan is probably safe, but that limit may be a bit low for most women, especially on the days theyre doing the 30-minute workout. A diet of 1,500 or 1,600 calories is probably more realistic.

What do the experts say?

Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who does weight counseling at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago, gives Curves a C grade. She says it features some positive messages, and she likes the focus on eating regular meals with plenty of vegetables and mostly lean protein. On the other hand, “the carbohydrate-sensitive plan strictly limits healthy foods such as fruit and whole grains,” Blatner says. “And the diet doesnt offer many real-life strategies for healthy eating and healthy lifestyle changes to help this become a lifelong plan.” Registered dietitian Jane Kirby, who reviewed the program in Dieting for Dummies (Wiley, second edition, 2003), likes that exercise is a part of the regimen but questions why the author puts so little emphasis on calories as a means of aiding weight loss. “Calories in versus calories out is the bottom line for weight loss,” Kirby writes.

Who should consider the diet?

Women dieters, since the fitness centers are for women only. Those who have a limited amount of time for exercise or who usually feel uncomfortable visiting a health club might like this approach.

Bottom line:

While any program that gets people moving is great, the food plans in the initial 2-week phase seem too restrictive.
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