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For many people the word "spa" conjures images of mud packs, pedicures, facials and other cosmetic indulgences.

But today, many health spas are offering more: an approach to physical health and personal well-being that visitors can take home when the vacation is over.

At a health spa, you can play a brisk game of tennis, but you'll also get help in developing an ongoing fitness plan. A relaxing massage might be accompanied by instruction in yoga, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

And expect the restaurant at the health spa to offer nutritious, well-balanced, and tasty meals that provide a model of how to eat well every day. Spas have been growing at an astonishing rate. Since 2003, the number of spa locations worldwide has shot up 39%, to 13,757, according to the International Spa Association. Spa visits in the United States have been increasing at the rate of about 9% a year.

And health spas have led this boom, growing from 3% of the market two years ago to 7% today.

"They come here because we offer a serious medical lifestyle program," says Connie Tyne, CEO of the Cooper Spa in Dallas, Texas. "We're not about pampering. There is pampering for people who want it, but the focus is on how we can help you so that when you leave here, you can live healthier. You'll have the tools you need."

Spa Vacations: The Long and the Short

The ISA defines a spa as "an entity devoted to enhancing overall well-being through a variety of professional services that encourage the renewal of mind, body, and spirit."

According to the ISA, spas come in a variety of shapes and sizes:

  • The club spa focuses on physical fitness, and helps visitors develop the exercise habit.
  • The day spa offers a quick get-away, with services provided on an a la carte basis. More than half of spa visits are to day spas, according to the ISA.
  • The destination spa is a full-immersion spa experience, usually lasting about a week, that aims at permanently enhancing each visitor's life. That can mean instruction in physical fitness and wellness, including how to prepare healthful food.
  • A mineral springs spa includes a source of mineral, thermal, or seawater for use in hydrotherapy.
  • A resort or hotel spa has become a favorite of business travelers looking for an opportunity to dissolve work stress with a vigorous workout or a relaxing massage.
  • The cruise ship spa, as the name implies, takes place on a ship devoted to providing an array of spa services. While the food served on a cruise ship spa is nutritious, it is also famously abundant.

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