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.
A health or medical spa usually includes some of these traditional elements, but the primary focus is on helping people adopt a healthy lifestyle. At the Cooper Spa, in Dallas, for example, the first day is devoted to medical tests, including a treadmill stress test, that provide a comprehensive health profile for each visitor.
"We found that so many people haven't been active since college," said Tyne. "If you're 45 and your last experience was on the college basketball court, you probably don't know what to do now that you're older and deconditioned. You know you should do something -- but what?"
Spa Vacations: Help From the Experts
At Cooper and other health spas, visitors have access to health care professionals who guide them toward a healthier lifestyle. That may include a bone-density scan (looking for bone thinning) and instruction on weight training, as well as traditional spa services such as massage and mud baths.
Increasingly, spas offer complimentary and alternative therapies and treatments as well.
The Chopra Center at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., for example, offers a "Perfect Health" program adopted from Deepak Chopra's book, Perfect Health.
"The program integrates Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old science of life, into the modern lifestyle," said David Greenspan, CEO of the Chopra Center. "The guests we tend to get are people who are experiencing some aspect of stress or challenge in their life. What we offer them is a physical as well as an emotional and spiritual reconnection with their unconditioned self."
Spa Vacations: Getting Rid of Toxins
The Chopra Center offers visitors "panchakarma," which Greenspan defines as a detoxification process based on the ancient belief that each person is composed of elements of three mind/body types known as "doshas." Visitors determine the unique combination of doshas that shapes their personality, and then engage in meditation, massage, yoga, and other activities designed to "get the stress out of their life," Greenspan said. "We use herbed oils with the massage, and steam so you'll sweat, and nasal cleansing. You are having toxins removed. Visitors meet with the medical staff to get a green light for this, and to determine what kinds of oils and treatments they will have. Within three days they feel incredible relief as the toxins are removed."
Since the Chopra Center became part of the La Costa Resort and Spa four years ago, spa visitors can enjoy the amenities of a traditional spa -- along with the physical and spiritual benefits offered by the Center -- in one place.
"We offer a vacation, but at the same time you're in the process of detoxifying and letting go," said Greenspan. "When you leave, you return to your life with tools and techniques to keep you in that healed state."
Spa Vacations: Finding One That Works for You
Despite the fact that there are so many health spas in the United States, and dozens more overseas, finding one in a location and at an appropriate price for you and your family can still pose a challenge. According to the ISA, the average spa treatment costs about $75, but prices vary widely. A week at the Cooper Spa, for example, costs nearly $3,000 plus lab costs, which may be reimbursed by your health insurance. The 5-day Perfect Health program at the Chopra Center costs about the same.
The most efficient way to compare your options is at one of the web sites devoted to the task, such as www.spafinder.com, or the spa finder on the ISA's web site, www.experienceispa.com. Both allow you to search by location and type of spa.
Three magazines -- Luxury Spa Finder, Spa Magazine, and Healing Retreats and Spas, all available online -- also provide information about what's out there.
When you start calling specific health spas, ask what the price includes. Some spas charge for each treatment, while others offer comprehensive package deals.
And find out if tips are expected or if they're included in the bill.
As long as you can afford it, a health spa vacation, is a great way to improve your health and rejuvenate your spirit. "Our programs are designed to empower our guests to take control of their lives by developing meaningful, long-term habits for healthy living," said Fred Devito, vice president, movement classes and training, at Exhale Spa in New York. "That includes learning better food choices, eating habits, exercise habits, and relaxation and stress reduction techniques. The proof of the value of this is in the results that they produce."
Published February 2007.