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Today's Christian, January/February 2004

Rolling with the Curves
The world's fastest-growing fitness chain is helping ordinary women get healthy-body and soul.
By John W. Kennedy

Like many middle-aged women, Brenda Handley worked in a sedentary job and gained a few pounds every year. At 5-foot-3-inches, Handley, a student adviser at Texas A&M University, went from a youthful 110-pound fireball to a tired 165-pound desk-sitter.

Three years ago things got worse when doctors diagnosed Handley with ovarian cancer. Six months of chemotherapy left her emotionally and physically depleted. Inactivity led her weight to mushroom to 192 pounds. Her boyfriend left her.

"I was bald, fat, and looked like Uncle Fester on The Addams Family," Handley, now 52, half-jokes. "I felt like a walking refrigerator."

Handley reacted skeptically when a friend invited her to join a Curves for Women fitness center. But she didn't encounter expensive membership fees, complicated dance step routines, or exhaustive workouts. Instead, she found baby-boomer women like herself who had struggled to keep off weight but, through camaraderie, managed to succeed. So far, Handley has dropped 32 pounds and gone from a dress size of 18 down to a 12.

"If it wasn't for God sticking with me and the special relationships I've made with the Curves ladies, I'd still be sitting in my apartment watching movies and stuffing myself with Big Macs," Handley says. Men are looking her way again, and she feels more attractive.

Their stories differ, but more than 2 million women like Handley have found a reason to make Curves a part of their weekly routine. The number of centers has mushroomed primarily by word of mouth, as women with protruding hips and bulging midriffs find a place of mutual support. For the most part, these are women who have never exercised regularly before or were not getting results from other weight-loss programs.

Founded in 1995 by Christian businessman Gary Heavin, the Waco, Texas-based, privately owned Curves International likely will saturate the North American market by the end of 2004, with an estimated 8,500 outlets open in the U.S. and Canada. Currently, 1 in every 4 health clubs in the country is a Curves for Women, and another 1,400 are under construction. The company also has opened centers in six other countries and is described by Entrepreneur magazine as the fastest-growing franchise in the world.

From pain to gain
It's not surprising that Curves's simple formula of easy and accessible exercise for previously ignored women spread like wildfire. Until Gary Heavin came along, health clubs often looked more like nightclubs, catering to the sculpted bodies of affluent 17- to 32-year-old fitness buffs.

Most of the Curves outlets are tucked away in nondescript strip malls, designed to save money for both franchisees and clients. Membership at the clubs, which normally are 1,500 square feet or less, can be as low as $29 per month. There are no showers, massages, or refreshment bars but just a simple, non-intimidating space to do a fast workout.

"I couldn't dream this big," says Heavin, whose 2003 book, Curves: Permanent Results Without Permanent Dieting, made The New York Times best-seller list. "I'm not that smart. But I serve a God who is."

Sixteen years ago, Heavin hardly looked the part of the entrepreneurial genius. Sure, six years earlier—at age 26—he had built a system of health and fitness centers that had given him a million-dollar financial statement and even his own airplane. But the business plan didn't take into account the limits of expanding in the small towns of the sprawling Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Heavin, falling $5 million in debt, declared bankruptcy.

By age 32, he found himself serving a six-month jail sentence for failure to pay child support. But in his jail cell, Heavin read the Bible and recommitted his life to Jesus Christ.

Although Heavin had first become a Christian at age 13, that year his father left the family to move in with a girlfriend. Soon after, his mother died of a stroke at 40.

Heavin and his two younger siblings went to live with his father and the new girlfriend. The next year Heavin entered military school and later enrolled as a pre-med student in college, waiting tables at a pizza parlor to pay his way. But after two years he dropped out, bought a failing Houston health club at a bargain price, and devoted all his energies to making it succeed.

He slept on the club's floor because he couldn't afford an apartment. Although he quickly opened six other locations, the expansion occurred in markets too small to support such a venture and they eventually bit the dust—as did the rest of Heavin's life.

As he sat behind bars, Heavin finally understood that God couldn't use him until he lost everything: his marriage, custody of his two children, his livelihood, even his freedom.

"Like a wet dishrag, God wrung out everything I was proud of so that I would be totally dependent on him," says Heavin, now 48. "I told God, 'I've lived life my way and it's a mess. Now I'm giving it to you.'"

After his release, Gary and his new wife Diane—who married him just before he went to jail—started planning how to help women exercise and eat properly before they met the same tragic fate as his mother. The Heavins opened the first Curves franchise in Paris, Texas.

On the road back to solvency, Heavin had different priorities. "God made it clear that money was not to become my god," he says. He believes he had to suffer sufficiently to be prepared for the enormous success he's now experiencing.

"To whom much is given much is expected," says Heavin, who now calls Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship with church believers essential elements of his daily life. "God showed me how to handle poverty, and he's shown me how to handle wealth."

Business by the Book
Servanthood may not be today's normal model for business success, but that hasn't stopped the Heavins. In 2003, the couple gave away $10 million—10 percent of their company's gross revenues and 80 percent of Gary's net income—to charities. Heavin matches the first $1,000 that each franchise raises for community causes such as walkathons to benefit pro-life pregnancy-care centers. Such controversial stances have led to criticism, but Heavin is unfazed. "There's nothing healthy about abortion," he says. "I'm not afraid to tell the truth."

Each spring for the past seven years, Curves customers have brought non-perishable goods to their locations to help feed the hungry. In 2003 alone, clients donated 4.25 million pounds of groceries for local food banks.

Heavin is upfront with both Christian and non-Christian franchisees about the biblical principles that guide the company. And accordingly, most Curves locations are closed on Sundays.

Although the cost of opening a franchise recently has risen with the company's popularity, it still only takes a $25,000 investment—which includes all equipment costs—to open a location.

With the U.S. market nearly full, Heavin is excited about expanding internationally. Franchises are opening in Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia. Like McDonald's, Curves aims to be everywhere—although its product has a different effect than a Big Mac.

A Christian Reader original article. John W. Kennedy is a writer and editor in Springfield, Missouri.

Curves Appeal
Why women love this place.

Curves women go to 30-minute workouts three times a week that combine strength and cardio training through hydraulic resistance. Typically, the complete body workout takes place on 10 machines, with exercisers moving every 30 seconds, followed by 30-second aerobic recovery. The workout is accompanied by rhythmic music and a recorded voice that intermittently instructs the women to "change stations now." Unlike other weight-loss plans, Heavin's program is designed to raise a woman's metabolic rate, which means she can still eat 3,000 calories (of the right food) a day while also gradually losing weight.

The atmosphere at numerous Curves locations is almost like a recovery support group. Susan C. Hickman of Springfield, Missouri, joined, as many women do, after noticing that a friend from church had dropped a lot of weight. Hickman, 55, started going to Curves every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to surprise her husband, Bill, who had been mobilized to Iraq with the Army National Guard.

"My objective is to take his breath away when he comes home," Hickman says. "I'm committed to doing this. I can't believe how fantastic I feel."

In the first 10 weeks, Hickman lost 24 pounds, only 10 pounds away from her goal of 150 pounds. Hickman has gone from a size 20 to size 12 dress, aided by a nutritional eating plan that is part of the Curves package at signup.

"I'm not an athletic person," says Hickman, who is a foster-parent trainer. "I would never go to the YMCA because of the coed aspect and because I don't want to do aerobics."

Cathy Buchanan, 34, of St. Augustine, Florida, says she has a lot more energy to play with her two young daughters since she started going to Curves. She lost 29 pounds in seven months, and has hopes of shedding another 31 pounds. Soon after working out at Curves, Buchanan became a part-time employee there, too.

"It's the first job I've ever worked where I can tell people I'm praying for them," Buchanan says. "I never did devotions before but now a lot of women tell me about the Christian books they're reading."
—John W. Kennedy

Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
Click here for reprint information.

January/February 2004, Vol. 42, No. 1, Page 30

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