Are Health Spas a Healthy Choice?

Where we obsess about exercise and calorie counts

Posted Feb 15, 2012

Four women friends, two from the East Coast and two from the West Coast, meet for a long weekend every winter. Usually we go to a health spa, for two reasons. Usually the East Coasters need to escape the frozen tundra or "winter mix" and see the sun, so we need someplace that's likely to be warm. And we pick a place where we all can enjoy whatever form of exercise or movement is our usual practice, or something we might like to try. Mothers often have trouble looking after their own welfare like this, but we don't. We treat ourselves, although often the talk focuses on husbands and children. We eat healthfully.

All of us know we are incredibly blessed to be able to spend money like this on ourselves. We appreciate service employees and tip generously.

Lately, however, two complications have arisen. One is out of our control. Global warming. That is, the weather has gotten unpredictable. Where it's supposed to be warm, it isn't, and vice versa. This year, our East Coasters have had a very mild winter, and we met in Miami Beach, where it was uncharacteristically cold and windy. We took a tour of Art Deco buildings in sweaters and coats.

The other complication is the whole spa thing, with its magnetic attraction to people who obsess about diet and exercise. You see the whole range of eating disorders at a health spa. For someone whose daughter got started on her eating disorders by engaging in the very behaviors so obviously on display, I have to think, "What am I doing here?"

As Lisa wrote in Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia, she started with dietary restrictions. Red meat, fried food, carbohydrates, meat in general. One by one they fell away while she studied food labels and calorie counts. Then she ramped up her exercise regimen. As she writes:

"I had soccer practice twice a week, which never wore me out. So, after practice I either went back to the gym or ran a few miles. I felt like a failure if I didn't burn at least eight hundred calories. I even left practice early to go to the gym. Occasionally I would cut class if I knew ahead of time that I would not be able to fit the gym in that day."

This kind of behavior is hard to miss at a health spa. This year, as always, there was a severely anorexic, extremely fit, elderly woman. Her agility in the Stretch Class was remarkable. But when she got up and walked around, she was painful to look at, with pencil-thin bowed legs and a haggard expression, perhaps because she wasn't as elderly as anorexia made her appear.

As always, too, there were lots of competitive workouts. Mostly women, but also men, compared schedules like this:

"I'm going to do Stretch, then Zumba, then kick-boxing and an hour on the interactive exercise bike. What about you?"

"Oh, the Zumba class was too basic." (To which you could imagine them adding Even Better Abs, and More Ripped than Ever.)

Looking over the menu, all of us could count each calorie and gram of carbohydrate, protein, fat and fiber. Chicken stir-fry comes out to 375 / 42 / 32/ 8/ 5. Let's snip the calories by substituting tofu 365 / 43 /19 /14 / 6.

Sorry, not healthy. This kind of restriction breeds hunger and rebellion, of the kind we've seen often at spas. As soon as you get on the plane, where are those salted peanuts? This year, many of our spa-mates gathered at the French bakery across the street.

I know many people love the attention by exercise physiologists and nutritionists you can get at a spa, um, health and wellness resort. It can be a beneficial kickoff to a whole new regimen followed religiously once you get home.

Or not. As for us, next year we're going to another lovely hotel or charming resort in an interesting place. Exercise equipment optional.

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