The Learning Curve For Women’s Weight Loss Programs

Dr. Westcott

Since the early days of the fitness movement, YMCA’s health clubs and exercise centers have attempted to attract overweight women into their weight loss programs. Unfortunately, the exercise approach to reducing body weight has been largely unsuccessful, especially in comparison to the 35 billion dollars spent each year on various diet programs.

With a little introspection, we can identify several reasons why overweight women were reluctant to join exercise programs in fitness facilities. First, unlike fitness professionals who thrive on physical activity, most overweight women are simply not exercise enthusiasts. That is, given a choice of 10 things to do during the course of a day, exercise is unlikely to make their list. Some have had problems with school physical education classes, others have had unsuccessful experiences in sports, some have had disappointing results from previous exercise programs, others feel self-conscious in exercise attire, many prefer not to perform physical activity in the presence of men, and some just don’t like to sweat.

Consider how you would feel auditioning in front of the symphony orchestra when your only prior instrumental experience was a poorly pitched flutophone in third grade. That’s essentially the same perception most overweight women have when confronted with the thought of public exercise performance. Needless to say, it raises their anxiety level and reinforces their avoidance tendencies towards physical activity programs.

Second, many women face time challenges due to the cumulative effects of work, family and social commitments. They have very small time margins for exercise, and comprehensive fitness programs are just not feasible. And the after-exercise ritual of a shower, shampoo, hair-drying and make-up period is absolutely unacceptable for time-pressured women of the 21st century. Even the traditional warm-up, cool-down and stretching components of a standard exercise program can be problematic for busy women from a time perspective.

Third, although the process is unhealthy and the result is temporary, dieting is a more acceptable weight-loss alternative for the vast majority of overweight women. It has virtually no time requirement, and may actually save time by reducing eating duration. Dieting does not require physical effort, and represents a passive approach to weight loss. Dieting, unlike exercise, is typically perceived as a temporary tactic that may be discontinued when a desirable body weight is attained.

With three strikes against them, most fitness professionals have given up on exercise-based weight-loss programs for women. Enter Gary Heavin, founder and CEO of Curves® For Women. Gary understood the shortcomings of standard diet plans, as well as the physiological and psychological benefits of proactive exercise programs. He also recognized the importance of strength training for replacing muscle and recharging metabolism in middle-aged women. But he went one step farther than the rest of us in the fitness industry. Gary designed a combination circuit training program that alternated short bouts of strength exercise with aerobic activity for a relatively brief weight-loss workout.

Unlike other strength training programs, Curves® uses hydraulic resistance machines that are easy to perform, eliminate eccentric muscle actions that can cause delayed-onset muscle soreness, and facilitate time-efficient exercise programs. Although this type of resistance equipment might seem too soft for exercise enthusiasts, it feels just fine to inexperienced women who appreciate quick and easy bouts of strength training. Without question, the simplicity of the exercise protocol and the brevity of the training session are key factors in attracting previously sedentary women to the Curves ® program.

Another aspect of the Curves ® workout that affirms the new participants’ exercise efforts is the limited instruction and supervision during the training sessions. Our research on the physiological and psychological responses to a beginning strength training program clearly indicates that a less intense instructional approach may be more beneficial from an exercise adherence perspective (Westcott et al 2003). In our study, the beginners who received more exercise instruction performed better physiologically (greater fitness gains), but those who received less exercise instruction did better psychologically (more exercise enjoyment). While both training outcomes are important, it is essential for new participants to enjoy the exercise experience and feel comfortable in the exercise environment. Their perceived level of competence and confidence in performing the workout seems to be an important consideration for training compliance, and too much corrective feedback or even detailed directions may have negative consequences.

In my opinion, Curve® is extremely well-suited for introducing inactive women to an appropriate beginning exercise program that should positively impact their personal health, fitness and appearance. However, without an option to progress to more challenging exercise programs, the beneficial training effects may plateau well below their potential. In other words, the Curves® approach provides a good start, but a higher-level graduate program would appear to be advisable for continued progress and participation.

Healthy Inspirations® Study
Casey Conrad, founder and CEO of Healthy Inspirations® recently conducted a research study to determine if a more challenging second-level strength training program would benefit her members. Like Curves®, Healthy Inspirations®, members begin with hydraulic strength exercise because it is quick to learn and easy to perform. However, upon reaching a plateau in their introductory program, participants are encouraged to use weightstack machines (Nautilus 2 ST line) for their strength training component.

Weightstack machines provide a solid resistance with both concentric and eccentric muscle actions on every repetition. Repetitions are performed more slowly on weightstack machines than on hydraulic equipment, which produces more muscle tension and enhances the strength-building stimulus.

In this study, the subjects were 32 Healthy Inspiration® members (23 women and 9 men) with a mean age of 49.9 years. They all trained three days per week for a period of seven weeks, using eight standard weightstack machines that collectively addressed all of the major muscle groups. Each strength exercise was performed for one set with a weightload that fatigued the target muscles within eight to 12 repetitions. The resistance was increased by approximately five percent whenever 12 repetitions were completed.

My fitness testing staff conducted the pre and post-training assessments on the research program participants. As presented in Table 1 the 32 subjects averaged 4.5 pounds less fat weight and 3.0 pounds more lean (muscle) weight, for a 7.5-pound improvement in body composition, and a 2.5 percent reduction in percent body fat. They also experienced small improvements in resting blood pressure.

Table 1. Pre and post-training data for participants who completed the seven-week strength training program (32 subjects, mean age 49.9 years).

Fitness Component Pre-Training Post Training Difference
Weight 187.5 lb. 186.1 lb. -1.4 lb*
Percent Fat 28.2% 25.7% -2.5%*
Fat Weight 53.0 lb. 48.5 lb. -4.5 lb.*/font>
Lean Weight 134.5 lb. 137.5 lb. +3.0 lb.*
Systolic BP 139.6 mmltg 136.9 mmltg -2.7 mmltg
Diastolic BP 83.8 mmltg 83.0 mmltg -0.8 mmltg.

*statistically significant .05

I commend Curves® For Women on an excellent introductory exercise program that has been exceptionally well-received by previously sedentary women of all ages. The brief and basic circuit training protocol using hydraulic resistance machines provides a quick and easy workout that produces good results during the initial exercise sessions. Generally speaking, the Curves® program offers beginning participants effective, efficient and enjoyable exercise experiences.

However, when the women reach a fitness plateau, a more challenging resistance training protocol may be appropriate to elicit further improvement. Based on the results obtained in the Healthy Inspirations® research study, this approach has merit. The 32 second- phase program participants switched from hydraulic resistance equipment (concentric muscle contractions) to standard weightstack machines (concentric and eccentric muscle contractions) for a seven-week training period. The relatively short exercise sessions (8 machines, 1 set of 8 to 12 repetitions each) produced significant improvements in the subjects’ body composition, including 4.5 pounds less fat weight and 3.0 pounds more lean (muscle) weight.

Although weightstack machines provide solid resistance and more challenging muscle contractions, most people adjust quickly to this type of equipment and appreciate the two- phase exercise actions (concentric and eccentric loading). Based on our research, individuals who begin exercising with hydraulic resistance equipment should consider switching to standard weightstack machines upon reaching a training plateau in order to facilitate further progress.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., CSCS, is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA.

Special thanks to Rita LaRosa Loud, Karen Leary, and Bill Cyr of the South Shore YMCA for conducting the pre and post-training fitness assessments.

Westcott, W., Annesi, J., and LaRosa Loud, R. 2003. Effects of exercise focus on strength training performance. Fitness Management in press.

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021