Finding a better you
She enjoyed her time at the women's fitness club so much that she applied for a job.
Now the manager at Janesville's Humes Road location, Harnack, 25, said the comfortable atmosphere is what attracts her and others to the club.
"It doesn't matter what you're wearing, it doesn't matter if you have makeup on or how your hair looks, you just walk in the door," she said.
Women's health clubs, such as Curves, have "grown tremendously over the years," said Rosemary Lavery of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
"They've tapped into a market that hadn't previously been health club goers," she said.
Wisconsin has seen a 179 percent growth in the number of health clubs from 1996 to 2007, she said. As of September 2007, 610 health clubs operated in the state.
Much of that growth can be attributed to "express clubs"—most of which are women-only such as Curves, she said.
For example, for every two McDonald's restaurants in the United States, there are about 1.5 Curves clubs.
Women exercising on the 30-minute circuit of hydraulic machines at one of Janesville's two Curves said they enjoy the comfortable, welcoming environment of people like them.
"I like the fact that it's women in my age group," said Martha Aasen, 59. "I don't have to look at all the little skinny minnies that don't have to exercise."
Joining the club turned strangers into friends, too, the women said.
"You have more in common with the people," Sheryl Nieman said. "You're not here to impress anyone."
The Janesville Athletic Club and Riverview Athletic Club responded to the Curves boom in 2000 and 2005 by creating the "Women's Workout World" within each facility, fitness director Sue Dooley Conaway said.
"It's heavily used," she said. "Women are really liking the privacy."
Members have requested the area be enlarged at the athletic club, she said. Owners are listening and gathering ideas but have no plans of expansion now, she said.
The popularity of Curves actually helped the athletic club, Dooley Conaway said.
"Curves actually would get women out of the house that would never come to what society has portrayed as a 'scary health club,' and it would get them to a certain amount of confidence," she said.
Then when Curves members wanted more variety, they would switch to the athletic club, she said.
"For awhile, I was probably averaging one Curves graduate per week," she said. "To our business, it's been nothing but wonderful."
She said she's always supportive of people exercising, no matter where they are.
"If you exercise, that's great, and I don't care where," she said.
But Tom Den Boer, CEO of the YMCA of Northern Rock County, said he thinks the popularity of women's only clubs is on the decrease. In his research, he said there isn't a demand for it locally or nationally.
The intimidation of lifting weights next to big, strong men in a weight room at private clubs often is a factor for women. But that factor is virtually eliminated at YMCAs because they accommodate fitness for men, women and children, Den Boer said. Seventy-four percent of the local YMCA's membership is family-based, he said.
The only special room the YMCA has is for youth fitness, he said.
"A special room (for women) is not needed because the market has not demanded it," he said.
But Den Boer recognizes the family-oriented YMCAs are in a different market than private clubs, and he said Janesville is fortunate to have both.
Health experts say the key to exercising is finding what works for you. That's what Harnack did at Curves, and she said she'd never join a regular co-ed gym now, but not because there's anything wrong with them.
"I feel more confident here," she said.
"The bonding that you get to do, making new friendships in a real comfortable atmosphere. I think the ladies really appreciate one another. We're all here for one purpose, and that's to better ourselves, and not just in health.”