The Vacation That Will Kick-Start a Healthier, Happier You
By Meredith Bryan and Katie Arnold-Ratliff
From the March 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
A pair of anxious, exhausted, and out-of-shape O editors head to Mexico to learn how to give themselves a break. Spoiler alert: They succeed. Meredith: It's ironic that Katie and I coedit the section of this magazine called Live Your Best Life, because that's not what's going on at 3 P.M. most weekdays, when we e-mail each other from cubicles 15 feet apart: "Coffee?" We shuffle to Starbucks, reciting our worries. For me, these have lately included my wedding, a freelance project, moving, and a slew of new responsibilities at O. My manic schedule leaves scant time to exercise, sleep, hang out with my husband, or anything else that might make me feel less like a bloated robot, so I palliate stress with caffeine and sugar—and my work wife is happy to join me. By 4 I'm stumbling to the office "free" table to scavenge for cupcakes, and if the offerings are good, I e-mail Katie ("OMG an edible chocolate box of truffles!"). In this way our friendship has blossomed, like so many others, over bitch sessions and indulgence of each other's bad habits.
Katie: But our gluttony is anything but gleeful. Maybe it's the fact that I get winded walking up the escalator. Maybe it was the time I realized while buying coffee that my morning cup was still on my desk, not even half empty. Whatever it was, I've begun to see my own caffeine and sugar intake as rooted less in innocent indulgence than the anxiety that constantly plagues me (which gets exponentially worse when, say, my husband is unemployed for nine months, as he was last year). Meredith's hangdog expression—like the one she wore the time we shared, God help us, a chocolate-covered cinnamon roll—indicates that she's arrived at a similar conclusion. Which might be what prompts me one day to send her a very different 3 P.M. e-mail.
"So there's this wellness program in Mexico," it begins. I've stumbled upon a paradise near Playa Del Carmen called El Dorado Casitas Royale, whose Destination Wellness packages seem respectably rigorous (with the $500 three-day plan, participants get up to three one-hour sessions with a personal trainer, unlimited fitness classes, access to the gym, and two massages), despite being situated in a swanky resort. In other words, I sense that it's a place where we can feel good about working out and then feel even better about hitting the beach with a piña colada.
"I've got too much work to do," Meredith replies. I respond: "Which is why you need a vacation."
Katie: I'm making good time on the subway to JFK—until it slows to an inexplicable crawl. I arrive breathless just a half hour before our flight to Cancún. "You're really late," the ticket agent huffs, snatching my passport. Long after takeoff, I'm still stewing: The stressor is gone, but the stress remains. It's the story of my life. My husband found a great job last fall, but I still flinch every time I pay a bill. We joke that I have "financial PTSD," but the truth is, it's not just money that gets me worked up. Spend nine months in a state of sustained panic, and soon panic becomes your default setting. To wit: On the plane, I have to pop a Xanax when I realize that the customs form is in Spanish and that I can't recall, after three years of language classes, what pregunta means. Which is ironic, because in addition to my atrophied body (it's hard to care about fitness when you're fighting to keep your lights on), I'm bringing to this vacation una pregunta gigante: How do I stop feeling like this all the time?
Next: "How can a few months of stress-driven neglect cancel out years of diligent work?"Meredith: After deplaning, we wait for the shuttle to El Dorado. We breathe in the warm air. We marvel at the palm trees. Then we stab reflexively at our phones. I can't believe I let Katie talk me into missing a day of work, but I also can't deny that this fitness vacation has come at a fortuitous time. I've recently assessed the last five months' damage, and it isn't pretty: cellulite, cravings, lethargy. "But I'm an athlete!" I want to protest. "A vegetarian!" How can a few months of stress-driven neglect cancel out years of diligent work? "Wait, is that a martini glass full of salted cashews?" As a concierge at the resort shows me around my gorgeous casita, all I hear is "swim-up bar." I want to be pumped for three days of vegetable juice and cardio in paradise. But instead I'm mindlessly chomping cashews, cursing the hotel's anemic Wi-Fi, contemplating a nap.
Katie: Confession: I'm a yoga virgin. At least until 7:30 A.M. on the first day of the program, when Meredith and I head to the sunrise class. The toned instructor's name tag says MAURICIO. "Breathe in at max," he says about ten times in his thick accent, urging us to fill our lungs to capacity, "and exhale to make with your mouth the sound of the ocean." But I'm busy thinking, I'm going to fall over. We'll be seeing a lot of Mauricio—he and an equally fit guy named Jorge will be our trainers. After yoga, they give us questionnaires about our health. Under concerns, I write, "History of anxiety." Under goals I write, "Lose 20 pounds." Under "How often do you work out?" I write, after considering a harebrained lie, "Never."
Meredith: Depressingly, I can no longer hold the weight of my body in upward-facing dog. After completing our questionnaires (never mind that my weekly mileage has dwindled to zero; I scribble, "Run the 2012 New York marathon" as my goal), we are off to the gym for an eight-minute diagnostic workout that leaves me humiliated. I make only perfunctory attempts at a thigh-decimating frog leap I would've owned in my 20s. My to-do list rattles in my head; I feel slow, spent. I hope Katie's not watching.
Katie: Don't listen to her. Meredith whips through that eight-minute brush with hell like a pro. I, on the other hand, get through one frog leap before my quadriceps mutiny and topple me onto my butt. I sit there, tearing up. My brain screams, "You're failing! Everyone is judging you!" Except that Mauricio is holding out his hand and saying, "Don't quit, Kah-tee." I shamble through the jumps, then press an inflated ball against the mirror with my chest and, while holding five-pound weights, lift my heels. Evidently, my calves are the one area of my body in working condition. When I reach ten Mauricio asks, "Can you do 15?" He sounds giddy; I've proven not to be hopeless. I do 20.
Meredith: At lunch we're reminded that we're at a high-end all-inclusive resort (and not some ascetic weight loss spa), when we pass the all-you-can-eat guacamole bar. Somehow we abstain, ordering greenhouse salads from the Wellness menu. Soon we're bobbing in the ocean with our trainers. Although aqua aerobics seems laughably low-impact, it's at least something we can master. We do biceps curls and sprint across the seaweed-carpeted bottom, and soon we're all laughing—which inspires a strangely poignant speech from Jorge about how everything one needs to survive is free. "Water, the sun, your body," he says, explaining that food nourishes us, but the sun nourishes our food. "You have it all. Be thankful." It's 3 P.M. on a Friday, and we're splashing around in the Caribbean. Thankful indeed.
Katie: We've discovered that the resort's Channel 50 shows an endless subtitled loop of the film American Beauty. As I eat breakfast, Kevin Spacey asks Annette Bening, "When did you become so joyless?" I pause midbite. It's a pregunta I often ask myself.
Today we're riding bikes to the resort's greenhouse. We pass the mangrove ("Do they call it that because mangoes grow there?" Meredith asks; our trainers snicker) that's home to Pancho and Maria, El Dorado's resident alligators, and then gum trees filled with monkeys. "Remember that song 'Welcome to the Jungle'?" Jorge says. We're having fun. I'm finally out of my head! Then my wheel gets stuck, and my bike gets horizontal: I fall. Again.
My knee is one big bruise, but I get up. And though the bumpy road has left me quite sore in the crotch, I keep having fun.
Meredith: Later we head to the beach. On a white stretch of sand overlooking aquamarine waves, Mauricio and Jorge have set up an obstacle course. I'm feeling renewed by our bike ride—"I've got this," I think. We dodge orange cones, sprint ten yards through the water, do a series of lunges while holding dumbbells, and shimmy on our stomachs (soldier-style) to the finish line. This is harder than it sounds, especially in wet spandex and tropical heat. Jorge and Mauricio call out encouragement: "Eh-squeeze your glutes!" "You are good soldiers!" But soon we're being heckled by portly sunbathers and I'm gasping like an asthmatic. I avoid eye contact with Katie lest we decide with a single look to go AWOL. When she announces she's done after six rounds, I manage to do one more. But all I can think is, "Ten was the goal. I did seven."
Katie: Meanwhile, I'm thrilled I even did six. Approaching the spa's beachside palapa for our massages, we're greeted by flickering candles and towels rolled into the shape of a heart. We've inadvertently booked the couples' massage. Our romantic evening continues with a candlelit meal on the beach. We order spinach salads with mango ("Hey Meredith, you think these are from the mangrove?") and just talk—no litanies of worries allowed. A saxophonist stops by to play Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are."
Later I flip on American Beauty, and Wes Bentley says there's so much beauty in the world he feels his heart might cave in. I shower outdoors. I e-mail my husband that "my crotch feels like it's been whacked with a mallet." And I feel peaceful.
Meredith: What strikes me about dinner is that I never split a bottle of wine with a friend anymore. Even before my schedule crossed into death-wish territory, I'd spent the past decade struggling to pay rent, get promoted, fit into my college jeans. But at what cost?
Katie: When I wake up, the previous night's serenity is gone. I'm in a foul mood. The happiness you've been feeling is just a vacation-induced mirage! At home, you'll go back to how you were! (It seems even happiness makes me anxious.) The concierge calls to ask if I'll be joining Ms. Bryan for yoga. "No," I growl. Point proven: You'll never change.
But then I meet Jorge at the gym for a one-on-one session. I reach for a mat, but he says, "Let's talk." He tells me about a rough time in his life. He gets choked up. "I'm not your trainer in this moment," he says. "We are just friends. You and Meredith are just two girls who want to feel better."
Now I'm getting choked up.
"You are strong," Jorge says. "I watch you."
He doesn't say that everything is going to be okay—he says everything is okay. I give the workout my full energy. When it's over, the foul mood is gone. I have my peace back. I finally grasp that keeping it isn't effortless: I have to work for it. And I want to.
Meredith: At yoga, it feels like my muscles are lined with razor blades. Later, during my hour with Mauricio, I notice the bags under my eyes. I haven't slept much in Mexico; I've been unable to quiet my brain's endless recriminations. "Did I pay my credit card bills? Did I e-mail that writer? Why'd I eat so many cashews?" Jorge stops by; I tell him and Mauricio that Katie and I are going horseback riding. They manage worried smiles.
"What?" I ask. Jorge tells me, with touching candor, to stop trying so hard—that wellness isn't just about mileage or number of reps. It hits me that my whole life, I've responded to feelings of inadequacy by running faster, pushing harder, staying up later. That attitude may build muscle and get me promoted, but it is not wellness.
I skip the ride and lie facedown on my terrace's daybed. Later, I click past American Beauty to a soothingly idiotic Amanda Bynes movie. I eat a few cashews—just a few. When I meet up with Katie, she says, "You look relaxed." For the first time in months, I am.
Katie: It's fitting that our last workout is a laid-back salsa lesson, because despite our different fitness backgrounds, we've arrived at the same conclusion: Yes, there's toning to be done, but we also need to have more fun. "When you are a child," Mauricio says, "you use your body all the time. You play! You have forgotten how." We show up to dance class ready to remember. As Meredith and I mimic our trainers' moves, we giggle and joke (and regret wearing skirts, since every spin turns us into subway-grate Marilyns).
Weeks later—when we're e-mailing at 3 P.M. to suggest coffee-free walks around the block—I'll smile when I remember bouncing in that murky saltwater, and Meredith yelping at the sight of a two-foot iguana, and the moment during salsa class when I realized we were both perfectly on beat, moving in unison with our trainers, no longer caring how we looked or who was watching.
Four more resorts to help you kick-start a fitness regimen.
The Biggest Loser at Fitness Ridge,Ivins, Utah Brace yourself for 12-hour days of training and calorie-restricted meals. From $1,995 per week; biggestloserresort.com.
Canyon Ranch,Lenox, Massachusetts Choose from 40-plus fitness classes at this luxurious hideaway. From $2,060 for a three-night stay; canyonranch.com.
The Oaks at Ojai,Ojai, California The belly dance classes and hula hoop workouts will leave you panting—and the 1,000-calorie daily limit may take some getting used to—but the hikes in Ojai valley offer views that make it all worthwhile. From $199 per night; oaksspa.com.
Villa Ananda,Punta Burros, Mexico This Ayurvedic spa on the Pacific Coast offers a restorative regimen of yoga, massage, nutrition counseling, and nature walks. $2,450 for seven-day Heart to Core retreat; villaananda.com.