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Fitness centers work to help beginners feel at ease.

Joann Goodman remembers the first time she ventured into a gym. It was in the 1970s, when leotards, tights, and leg warmers were in vogue. But it wasn't just the fashions that made Goodman feel like fleeing.

"I hated getting undressed in front of other women," says Goodman, now 55. "And I looked around and wondered, 'Where are all the fat people?'"

Goodman not only hated that gym experience, she also says she loathes exercise. Yet the former social worker began working out regularly about 1.5 years ago, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. "I've dropped 75 to 80 pounds, my diabetes is in check, my arthritic knees are better, my blood pressure is down, and in terms of my emotional health, I can't even describe the change," she tells WebMD.

Her success has come from working three to four times a week with a trainer in an Austin, Texas, exercise studio called Goddessfit. Studio owner Connie Barron describes the purple and turquoise décor as "colors that would make a man run for cover." Sessions are private and tailored to individual preferences. For example, once Barron learned her exercise-phobic client enjoyed dancing, that became the basis of Goodman's aerobic workout.

Barron's studio is just one exercise emporium that is working to help take the intimidation out of fitness, especially for beginners. That's quite a change for an industry long known for its ads showcasing perfectly buff bodies.

Redefining the Market

One catalyst for this change, experts agree, has been the runaway success of the Texas-based Curves for Women gym franchise.

Business analysts had proclaimed the fitness industry oversaturated when Curves began franchising in 1995. Yet Curves has since redefined the market by catering to a group that previously shied away from gyms: overweight, middle-aged women -- no men (or mirrors) allowed. Today, the chain that made the 30-minute workout famous, boasts of more than 7,000 locations.

The circuit training program at Curves alternates 30-second intervals on resistance machines with bouts of light aerobic exercise. The full workout -- twice around the circuit -- takes 30 minutes.

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