The common image of fitness clubs as opportunities to show off toned bodies and create dating opportunities might be an attractive one for some exercise buffs — but certainly not all of them.
Responding to a demand among women who don’t have plenty of social time to kill, and who aren’t necessarily comfortable with showing off their bodies in front of men, a number of women-only fitness establishments have begun to spring up in recent years. Ladies Fitness Express, a national chain boasting centers on Allen Street in Springfield and on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow, is one of them.
“It’s geared for women 35 and older who don’t necessarily want to spend time at a coed gym, and it’s also geared for the deconditioned woman who hasn’t exercised in a long time and might be intimidated by a gym,” said Beth Donovan, co-owner, along with M.J. Schubert, of the East Longmeadow branch.
To bring in those disenfranchised — but still fitness-conscious — women, Ladies Fitness Express relies on circuit training, an exercise regimen that’s growing in popularity. The idea is to quickly but intensively work each muscle group with very targeted equipment, allowing women to reach their goals in as little as a half-hour per session.
Women who don’t have the time to spend two hours or more at the gym are getting what they need here in 30 minutes,” Donovan told The Healthcare News — and that’s good news at a time when many women are balancing career and family and need more than 24 hours in a day.
Circuit training, to hear Donovan tell it, is what it sounds like: progressing through a circuit of muscle-specific activities.
“It’s a 30-minute workout that impacts every muscle group in the body by focusing on individual muscle groups,” she said. “Some people think it’s no-sweat exercise, but that’s not true. You do perspire when you work out — you need to sweat in order to burn calories — but it’s not like some classes, where you can’t function afterward without showering.”
The key, Donovan said, is a series of hydraulic strength devices based on air resistance. To explain, she compared it to swimming: if a swimmer moves her arm through the water slowly, she creates only slight resistance, but the faster she tries to move, the more resistance the water gives.
In hydraulic circuit training, a women is on each piece of equipment for only 40 seconds, so she wants to create as much resistance while maintaining proper form for the entire interval. The more she exercises over time, the greater resistance she can create, leading to greater results.
The end result is burning between 600 and 900 calories in a session, but weight loss isn’t the only benefit. The equipment can improve bone density, lower cholesterol, and bring down blood pressure. And there are rehabilitative benefits as well — Donovan brings her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to the club to work on her legs.
The program requires no pre-learned skills or a certain strength level, she added. “Anyone at any fitness level can do this. You work with your body’s own resistance. It’s really the up-and-coming thing for women.”
That’s not surprising, she noted, since times have changed in the past 20 years. There are more women in the workforce than at any time in American history, and the number of working women with children at home is also on the rise.
Furthermore, with increasing numbers of Baby Boomers finding themselves caring for both children and elderly parents, it’s easy to see how the time constraints on women have been reduced. The stereotype of an afternoon leisurely spent at the gym is simply a luxury few — especially older women — can afford.
“Women are just as hardworking today as men. They might have big, corporate jobs, and they don’t have time to devote hours to the gym — nor do they want to,” Donovan said. “They want to get a good, complete workout in 30 minutes.”
Proponents of circuit training say it improves cardiovascular efficiency — partly due to the non-stop nature of the half-hour cycle — and also develops muscle strength, increases strength and postural tone, decreases body weight from fat, and improves aerobic function.
Three workouts per week are recommended, although, due to the very specialized nature of each exercise, the entire body doesn’t get worn down, and exercisers can safely run the program as often as every six hours if they like, Donovan said.
Fit for Life
Perhaps best of all, anyone can take part. “We have members in their mid- to late 70s, and we have 13- and 14-year-olds,” Donovan explained. “Circuit training is really the happening thing, and even regular gyms are trying to put circuits into their gyms because they know about the effects.”
The difference at Ladies Workout Express and similar women-only clubs, she said, is the comfort level afforded to their users.
“There are women who like to lift weights with guys, to work out together, but this is not designed for them,” she said, adding that clients have a wide range of body types and don’t feel like they’ll be competing with the firmest bodies. “We get women who are larger, who don’t want to work out with women who are little Barbie dolls. That can be intimidating.”
And with obesity on the rise in America, plenty of people need to get fit, but might not want to begin a club regimen because of body-image fears, so such an atmosphere can be an effective kick-start to turning over a new, fitter leaf.
It helps, Donovan said, that clients don’t have to start on a particular machine, so there are never waits to use equipment, and she and other staffers guide women through the workouts, so they don’t feel they are alone.
“A lot of women don’t work out because they feel they don’t have a place to work out, and this can be that place,” she said. “We care about them, and they feel that when they come in here.