Although many fitness facilities already require their staff and personal trainers to earn industry-accepted certifications to work with the public, Curves International is now encouraging its franchise owners and staff to obtain a new certification from the Cooper Institute.

The new certification is just one step that Curves has taken to improve its workouts and, some would say, its credibility. The company has also invested $5 million in a five-year study on the effectiveness of its workouts. Baylor University's Exercise & Sports Nutrition Lab is performing this study for Curves, which has 8,400 franchises and 3 million members in 50 states and 28 countries.

“You know [the Curves workout] is a good idea and is working, but to be credible you need to have independent researchers come in and prove the credibility,” said Cassie Findley, director of continuing education and research for Curves International. “We wanted to have proof that what we said was true and was happening and to validate and lend our information to the bigger body of knowledge and exercise and nutrition, particularly with women.”

In addition, Gary Heavin, founder of Curves, and his wife, Diane, gave $2 million to the Thomas Edison State College to establish the Gary and Diane Heavin Family Endowed Fund. The endowment supports the development of new distance education programs and courses in the health services area. The college recently renamed its School of Social and Behavioral Sciences as the Heavin School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in honor of the Heavins, whose financial support has helped the school create its new academic program in fitness and wellness services. Gary Heavin is a graduate of the school.

For the new certification, Curves worked with the Cooper Institute, which developed the Circuit Training and Weight Management Certification specifically for Curves. The certification is not required of franchisees but is highly recommended, said Becky Frusher, communications specialist for Curves. Franchisees must cover the cost of the college-accredited course.

Some have questioned whether making the certification a recommendation rather than a requirement is strong enough to lend credibility to the program.

“If it isn't required, you'd have to suspect that its impact would be minimal to modest at best,” said Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

The certification is broken into two separate classes — nutrition and kinesiology. After students have reviewed the educational materials for the self-paced, condensed course, they meet at Curve's headquarters in Waco, TX, for a weeklong session, which Findley calls a “minimester.” To obtain the certification, students must complete the two classes and Club Camp, a Curves' classroom training program that is offered once a month to all franchise owners. Participants also learn about results of Baylor University's Exercise & Sport Nutrition Lab's study of Curves' workout. Students pay $395 per class, which includes all textbooks, workbooks, CD-ROMs and the exam. Proctored through Thomas Edison State College, the exam consists of 100 questions.

The certification is similar in content to most personal training home-study courses (kinesiology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition and weight management), but it is more difficult than most home-study courses, says Conrad Earnest, Ph.D., director of the human performance laboratory at the Cooper Institute.

A franchisee in Oklahoma who was contacted for this story said that she had chosen to be certified and was excited about the education, while another franchisee in Vermont had never heard about the certification.

For many in the industry, a certification for staff members isn't just recommended — it is required. Doug Maxfield, fitness director at Warner Bros. Studios Fitness Center, said his facility requires fitness specialists to have a degree in exercise science and encourages staff to have additional certifications. The facility pays certification fees to keep staff member's scientific knowledge fresh. However, he hopes Curves' financial success will allow for a better scientific focus leading to continued benefits for their members.

“Kinesiology, physiology and nutrition are the basis of our business,” Maxfield said. “This center was created to enable a positive health and fitness change for our employees. Prospective staff members wouldn't get a second look here without a scientific degree…MBA or not.”

Although Earnest commends Curves' research, he said that smaller, private clubs tend to have higher levels of education for staff.

“I used to work in a club where you had to have a degree, and I think at the time that we gave much better service than the franchise clubs that just get [members] in and sign them up,” he said.

While some have doubts about the effect of this certification recommendation, others say that any step in this direction is a good one.

“I think that it's impressive to be connected with Cooper. They're a great operation,” Symanthia Harper, founder of the Association of Hydraulic and Fitness Club Owners, said. “I think that it's going to raise the level of credibility [for the industry], which is what we want. We want to bring up the market so that people have a healthy respect for these independent gyms.”

Karen Kirby, owner of consulting company Health Style Services, said that if more express clubs had staff certified, it would lend them more credibility since many fitness experts view them as having a “churn-and-burn” mentality — meaning they sign up a bunch of members at an overly reduced price without servicing them with the best equipment, programs and fitness professionals.

“Whether it is ‘express clubs’ or ‘circuit facilities,’ all fitness clubs and studios make a choice about quality offerings,” Kirby said. “Unfortunately, going down the less credible road is much too easy in the fitness industry because most future health club users do not know the difference.”

She hoped more decision makers in the industry would follow Curves' lead in seeking ways to improve the industry's quality and credibility.

The new certification could focus positive attention back to Curves, Earnest said, since recent media attention on plateauing and injury lawsuits have cast some doubt on the effectiveness of the Curves' program (for more information on plateauing see the feature beginning on p. 32). Earnest said these concerns along with other factors are being studied by Curves, and depending on the study's outcome, he expected Curves to adjust its programming accordingly.

“They don't have the cosmetic appeal of a lot of high-end clubs, but they have a nice environment where people can come in and train and get a good health and fitness result without intimidation. Everyone feels accepted. They have that going for them,” he said. “They're trying to ensure that they maintain their place in the market through standard, quality programming.”

And Curves isn't the only one researching its program. In early March, ACE commissioned researchers from the Exercise Physiology Department at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse to determine the exercise intensity and number of calories burned in a typical Curves for Women workout. Researchers tested 15 healthy women with an average age of 42 from two Curves locations in the La Crosse, WI, area. They measured the heart rate and oxygen consumption of each participant during two complete Curves workouts.

“It wasn't so much a decision to research Curves as it was to investigate what's proven to be a popular and effective means of getting these typically inactive women active with this new form of exercise,” Bryant said. “We wanted to document the magnitude of its real effects.”

Researchers found that the 30-minute workout (including five minutes of stretching and cool-down) burns about 184 calories, which is a “good moderate-intensity” workout for those who are not very active, according to a release by ACE. The aerobic benefit of the intensity is similar to walking at a four-mile-per-hour pace on the treadmill.

At first glance, 184 calories burned may seem small, but Bryant cautions that for Curves' demographics, that much of a deficit combined with a healthy diet is enough to lose weight.

“Our project was pretty limited in its focus and scope,” Bryant said. “We were looking at one aspect of the Curves' program. They also have a dietary component that when you look in terms of the program's overall effectiveness in helping individuals with weight control, that's going to be a huge contributor.”

However, researchers did express some concerns about the workout in regards to the equipment not being adjustable and not fitting some perfectly, which caused individuals to sacrifice proper form. Another concern was that some of the women in the study were busier chatting than actually working out.

Final concerns involved the education level of staff. Because not all Curves franchises are staffed with skilled fitness professionals, researchers felt that members may benefit from having their workouts supervised by more highly trained individuals. Researchers concluded that although Curves does offer basic fitness training for its franchise owners, that fitness knowledge may not trickle down to franchise employees. Research was completed before the new certification was announced.