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Women-only express fitness clubs booming in Ohio

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Sep. 28--Gay Biffath has one thing on her mind when she hits the gym.


"A lot of people go to the gym looking for a significant other. Not me. I want to get in, get fit and get out,'' the New Albany resident said, pausing between weight machines during her 30-minute workout at Contours Express in Gahanna.

"Plus, I don't like working out in front of a bunch of gorgeous men that are all buff. ? I'm here for me.''

Many women in central Ohio apparently share the sentiment: The area's women-only express-fitness franchises are booming.

The Columbus area already is home to more than 30 Curves Express locations. Contours Express, a relative newcomer to the industry, opened its fifth area franchise, in Gahanna, last month.

Slim and Tone, with two clubs in Franklin County, will open 15 more throughout central Ohio in 2006.

A lack of time has drawn many women toward the shorter workouts, and the settings feel almost intimate compared with the big co-ed centers, said Barb Varcho, who opened a Fit and Slim studio in Powell last year.

"So many women have had a bad experience in a gym, like feeling like they weren't getting the personal attention they needed to see results,'' she said. "We offer women a customized fitness program rather than just a fitness club.''

The express-fitness clubs typically range in size from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, while more traditional fitness clubs range can be up to 40,000 square feet.

They offer circuit-training machines and cardio stations. Women hit each station for 45 seconds, then move on to the next, completing a workout after going around the circuit twice. The 30-minute sessions are designed to burn about 600 calories.

Clubs such as these can keep their overhead and payment plans comparatively low because they typically have no shower, no locker room and no pool.

Franchise fees for a club and equipment are low, ranging from $29,990 for Contours Express to $31,900 for a Slim and Tone.

For women who are turned off by traditional health clubs, they're a good fit, said Brooke Correia of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

"It's a club of peers in a small facility that's not daunting. It doesn't offer a lot of bells and whistles,'' she said, but, instead, "camaraderie and support.''

The $14.1 billion health-club industry counts 53 percent of its 39.4 million members as women, Correia said. That's created a big market for women-only centers, which number 9,500, or about 25 percent of the nation's workout centers, she said.

The clubs offer "minimal competition'' to traditional fitness clubs because of the market they attract, Correia said.

"The larger clubs may market their services more widely to reach that audience, but in the long run, it benefits the larger clubs because some of the (express-club) clients may reach a plateau and want to move on to a larger facility,'' she said.

Dana Rocco, a district manager at California Fitness, which has eight co-ed centers in Columbus, agrees.

"About 65 percent of our membership is women over 35 because we have fitness classes and circuit training, and they realize we are a fitness club and not a body-building center,'' he said.

Correia said the express-center business model has tapped into "a ready demographic that was looking for it.''

Take the example of Kasey Skobel-Conyers and her sister Niki Skobel, who opened the Contours Express in Gahanna last month. While many big health clubs have walls of mirrors, theirs offers words of encouragement, painted boldly across its walls: "Commitment -- an agreement or pledge to do something in the future; results -- something beneficial obtained by commitment and hard work.''

Plus, many women don't like to watch themselves work out, Skobel-Conyers said.

Such sensitivity has worked for Delaware resident Mary Kay Fannin. She wanted to lose 75 pounds at a Slim and Tone and increase her energy level in a "supportive environment.''

In nine months, Fannin said, she's lost 33 pounds.

"I knew that I had to make a change -- lose weight and get fit,'' she said, as she bounced from a mini-trampoline to a weight machine. "The encouragement here is tremendous. The trainers know just how far to push you.''


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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