Fitness Vacations, With a Twist

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

More Americans are using their vacations to get healthy

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario,MD

Vacations, that well-deserved time off to escape the everyday stresses of life, used to mean heading to some tropical paradise for much-needed R&R -- rum and relaxation.

But these days, even advertisements for that most decadent recess -- a Caribbean cruise -- show nary an endless buffet or semi-drunk passenger snoozing in a plastic lounge chair. Instead, the trip to Cozumel includes on-board rock climbing, ice skating, and aerobics classes to pump the heart rate along with excitement. And once there, the Mayan ruins have been rewritten to include Mom in a spinning class.

These days, the hot getaway trend is health vacations -- with Pilates replacing pina coladas and doctors serving as tour guides.

"It makes sense, because as baby boomers get older, they want to take better care of themselves," says Harley Mayersohn, spokesman for Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, the granddaddy of health spas since opening in 1979. "We're talking about a demographic that includes some 50 million Americans, and since the average age of our visitor is 46, we're right in that sweet spot."

No Shortage of Customers

Business is booming.

One reason is because it's these health-conscious, stress-ridden boomers who take nearly half of all vacations, according to Mike Pina, of the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group representing hotels, airlines, and other vacation providers.

"People want to be more active, and what we have discovered is that they are looking for vacations that are an extension of this healthy lifestyle," he tells WebMD. "If they are working out, they don't want to lose that momentum when they're traveling, so they pick vacations where they can continue doing it. They want their vacations to include health and wellness, and it's a trend we've seen for several years."

But increasingly, there is more to achieving this wellness than just doing laps around the ship's running track. People are using their vacations to specifically get healthy.

"What we're seeing at Canyon Ranch is what we've always seen, but more of it -- people looking to be healthier," Mayersohn tells WebMD. "People come here for a wide variety of conditions, but for many, they fall into the primary bucket of stress. We know we can't make stressors go away, but we can beef up our resistance to better deal with them. And for us, that's more than just with exercise -- it's a complete mind-body experience. To maintain healthy or deal with a specific medical problem, you cannot neglect the nutrition or behavioral aspect."

So at his Tucson spa, the weeklong vacations start off with a consultation with a doctor. "And with us, it's a complete one-hour evaluation, not the typical seven minute doctor's visit," he says. "Then, vacationers see a nutritionist. Then, an exercise physiologist. In the evening, they get a massage. And what better environment to get all this expert health and medical advice than a luxurious spa?"

In fact, Mayersohn says that the fastest-growing draw of his resort -- long known for its endless offerings of exercise, wellness-oriented lectures, and healthy food -- is its medical practice. "It's really taken off," he says. "People are vacationing here specifically to see our doctors, often for specific treatment."

A Sexual Health Approach

Laura Berman, PhD, LCSW, can relate. The resident sex expert on Good Morning America and host of her own TV talk show on the Discovery Health Channel, this month opened her own spa-like facility to give women with sexual problems a vacation -- in more ways than one.

"Even more so than with men, sexuality in women is multifaceted, and when a woman has a problem with her sex life, it's not a matter of just giving her a medication to cure it," she tells WebMD. "For women, emotional and medical factors are happening simultaneously and interacting with one another. Even if the primary cause is medical, she has emotional issues that can't be ignored. Unlike men, medical intervention alone rarely works for women."

But a multi-pronged approach does.

At The Berman Center, located in the heart of Chicago's "Golden Mile," couples and individual women are treated for five days with a combination of intense medical evaluation and pampered TLC, with hopes of curing low desire, inability to orgasm, or other sexual dysfunction that occurs in nearly half of all American women.

"The very first thing they do is meet with a sex therapist," says Berman, clinical assistant professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry at nearby Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University. "Then they see a physician who does lab work and looks at their hormone levels." The evaluation also includes a look at muscle strength in the pelvic region, blood flow, and sensitivity of the sex organs.

"They see a physical therapist and get a fitness assessment, all while wearing plush terry cloth robes -- not paper gowns -- and being served juices and teas and snacks. And then, we tailor-make a specific plan for them to follow for the rest of the week."

There's Pilates, yoga, and other physical therapy, and not only to strengthen the muscles around the pelvis that control the ability to enjoy sex and achieve orgasm. These programs, along with plenty of classes, lectures, and talk therapy, are also aimed to deal with the stress that can contribute to -- and usually results from -- having sexual problems.

"It's not easy to get into the depths of a woman's or couple's sex life, so we want to make it as peaceful, soothing and calming as possible," Berman says. "That's why they can bring their kids and we babysit them. There's beautiful, nearby shopping and plenty to do. It's a complete vacation that is doing something for their sexual health -- and themselves."

Published March 15, 2004.

SOURCES: Harley Mayersohn, vice president of marketing, Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, Tucson, Ariz. Mike Pina, spokesman, Travel Industry Association of America, Washington, D.C. Laura Berman, PhD, LCSW, director, The Berman Center; clinical assistant professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago. Domestic Travel Market Report 2003, Travel Industry Association of America.

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