I knocked clumps of ice off the scarf protecting my face as our group scrambled back up the snowy driveway to New Age Health Spa in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At last, the sunrise aerobic walk — 45 minutes in 19-degree weather — was over.
As I shed long underwear and fleece in preparation for prebreakfast yoga, I muttered, “I’m never doing this again.” After all, I came here to relax, not to torture myself. And yet, the next morning, there I was.
I repeated the routine all five frigid mornings of my winter spa vacation. Combining the walks with twice-daily yoga and meditation, tai chi, dance-aerobics, snowshoeing, and nutritious meals, I lost 6 pounds.
Looking back, I recognize that this vacation changed me in other ways. I still practice many of the healthy habits I learned during that trip 17 years ago. On wintry mornings, I replicate the hearty breakfasts I ate then, and I still stretch my hamstrings the way the yoga teacher taught.
It turns out that my winter retreat was an ideal time to embrace change.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, vacations naturally lend themselves to behavior shifts — whether quitting smoking, eliminating problem foods, or becoming more active — because many of our usual distractions and behavioral triggers don’t exist.
“Vacations provide an opportunity to form a new cue-routine-reward pattern,” Duhigg explains.
Our brains are wired for routine, he says: The brain receives a cue, which initiates a routine behavior or emotion, which leads to a reward.
Suppose you pass a doughnut shop (cue) on your daily commute. One morning you’ve missed breakfast, so you stop and get a doughnut (behavior). Eat your doughnut while you drive, and find that it’s delicious and a timesaver (reward). So you make the same stop the next morning.
Such a habit loop becomes automatic, he says, so before you know it, you’re stopping for your quick-and-easy doughnut every day.
The same can be true for healthy habits — if we establish positive routines. Unfortunately, in our daily lives, it’s easy to slip into patterns that don’t support our healthy-living ambitions.
On vacation, though, our routines shift. Simply having the time and space to try new activities and different foods can jump-start fresh habits back home, Duhigg notes.
While you can make any vacation a habit-shifting experience, there are a number of health resorts dedicated to this concept, ranging from budget-friendly lodges to luxury accommodations.
Here are examples of vacation getaways that helped three real people kick-start healthy habits they then took home.
Nutritional Support at Red Mountain Resort | St. George, Utah
Spa treatments support dietary change by taking the place of edible “treats.”
Following a difficult surgery in 2013, Donna Svei was in need of a reboot. At 56 years old, she struggled with constant joint pain and low energy, and was eager to lose the weight she’d gained in recent years. For too long, she’d been eating and exercising on autopilot.
So, prompted by her health scare, she booked a month-long retreat at Red Mountain Resort in southwest Utah to get on a healthier track.
Under the guidance of the resort’s nutrition coaches, she embarked on an elimination diet, removing common food allergens from her diet, including gluten, sugar, corn, soy, dairy, eggs, alcohol, and caffeine. In addition to observing an allergen-free, whole-foods nutrition regimen (an effort made much easier by the lack of temptations within the resort environment), she received lymphatic-massage and acupuncture treatments to support her body’s natural detoxification and healing process. She also went for daily walks and bike rides, took Pilates and TRX classes, and learned self-massage.
Svei noticed dramatic improvements during her stay. While walking around the resort’s red-rock canyon setting one day, she suddenly noticed how easily she moved. Joint pain had disappeared, hay-fever symptoms had lessened, and her mental clarity and energy had improved. She lost 6 pounds.
Svei, an executive résumé writer from Sun Valley, Idaho, had assumed her struggles were age related, but her time at Red Mountain helped her make the connection between her daily food choices and physical well-being. “Every body complaint vanished,” she remembers, “even pains so old I barely noticed them anymore.”
Determined to continue her forward progress, Svei began reintroducing foods into her diet to pinpoint specific sensitivities (gluten and eggs are on her permanent “avoid” list) and focused on learning daily food-selection and cooking skills she could use at home to help her fight cravings.
Nearly two years later, Svei is still following her clean-eating routine. “Allowing myself the time at Red Mountain to really establish the habits — with support — was the key.”
Red Mountain Resort Weight Loss & Living Well Retreat:
Includes meals, nutrition consultations, personal-training sessions, fitness classes, and cooking demonstrations; starts at $260 per night. www.redmountainresort.com
Smoking Cessation Wellness Retreats at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa | Tampa Bay, Fla.
Habit shifting may feel easier in a tranquil setting.
Why can’t I get marooned on a desert island?” wondered Betty Lowe, 49, a French teacher from Delaware, Ohio. Desperate to give up cigarettes after vocal-cord blisters curtailed her love of singing, she’d tried hypnosis, counseling, nicotine patches, and more. She finally realized that what she needed was to have her cigarettes beyond reach.
She settled on Smoking Cessation Wellness Retreats, a weeklong program at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa in Florida that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of quitting. Better than a desert island, the beach resort offered palm trees and a relaxing place for Lowe and a group of nine others to kick the smoking habit while away from the stressors of home.
Founder Yvonne Testa, a certified addiction specialist, leads the retreats. “Our motto is ‘Move a muscle, change a thought,’” she says. “While people withdraw from nicotine addiction, they deal with their cravings by swimming in the mineral pools, kayaking or swimming with manatees, taking a fitness class, or taking a steam bath or sauna.” In addition, Testa organizes group meals and supportive check-ins each day.
“I’m not a groupie,” says Lowe, “but it’s nice not being alone with your cravings and fears.” On the third day of the retreat, the group gathered in the Tranquility Garden for one last puff and said goodbye to their cigarettes. For the remaining four days, Lowe soaked in the resort’s mineral pools and had detoxifying spa treatments — a sea-salt rub, an herbal wrap — to speed the nicotine’s exit from her bloodstream.
“I had fewer chemical-withdrawal symptoms because I was on vacation,” recalls Lowe. “But when I got home, I was confronted by all my old triggers.” Suddenly she felt anxious and nauseated, with hot flashes and chills. She phoned Testa, who convinced her that the urges to pick up a cigarette would pass. “Yvonne told me to do anything else but smoke: Wash the dishes. Bike around the block.”
Over time, Lowe felt less of a compulsion to smoke when she got stuck in traffic or after a tense parent-teacher meeting. She now feels a new sense of hope about her life. “I’ve got grandbabies coming and a life to live. I can move forward now.”
And someday she expects to start singing again.
Smoking Cessation Wellness Retreats at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa:
All-inclusive, six nights/seven days with clinical staff, educational classes, and private consultations: $1,250–$1,550. www.smokingcessationretreat.com
Hello, Active Life
Skill Building at New Life Hiking Spa | Mendon, Vt.
Active vacation experiences can inspire lifelong passions.
Standing atop the 4,235-foot summit of Mt. Killington in June 2013, Jim Reynolds had never felt so proud. Just six months earlier, he’d stepped on the scale in his doctor’s office weighing 280 pounds. Now 50 pounds lighter, he had conquered the toughest hike offered by New Life Hiking Spa in Mendon, Vt. — the one he’d been aiming to complete since his first trip to the resort back in 2007.
A 45-year-old software developer from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Reynolds had been a yo-yo dieter for years. He repeatedly launched all-out efforts to lose weight — and inevitably lost the enthusiasm and momentum to stick with the extreme changes. The pounds always piled right back on.
“I realized that I needed to start making interim goals,” he recalls.
At New Life, daily hikes for people of all fitness levels are complemented by healthful meals. Guests can also choose among pool workouts, weight training, yoga, and kayaking. Spa treatments and cooking classes are also available.
Over the course of his seven (and counting) annual visits, Reynolds has taken a variety of classes, intent on developing habits and tricks that he can also use at home. A dessert lover, he learned how to make “ice cream” by blending frozen bananas and ice cubes; he discovered that a hiking buddy kept him accountable, so he found a friend to join him on his treks at home.
Over time, Reynolds’s health-supporting retreats helped him cultivate skills he has used to create — and maintain — a healthier life year-round (he went on to lose another 50 pounds in 2013). These trips also serve as his reward for keeping up with his new habits, an incentive to continue building on what he now considers a lifelong commitment.
New Life Hiking Spa: All-inclusive hiking and weight-loss vacations: $220–$260 per night. www.newlifehikingspa.com
Photography by Red Mountain Resort.