The new generation of weight loss spas.
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Remember those old-school, horribly named "fat farms" of the 1950s through the 1970s? Not only was their name offensive—their science was junk too. They relied heavily on now-discredited weight loss methods, from ultra-low-calorie diets to extreme workouts. Thankfully, according to the travel experts at, today's versions of the weight loss vacation take much different approaches.
Geared to shed the fat-farm stigma and focus on a more holistic approach to health, today's spa vacations are now committed to wellness as well as weight loss. But, New York-based personal trainer Annette Lang wanted to investigate, how are these spas teaching guests behavioral changes that can be sustained after the spa vacation is over? "When you leave the controlled environment of the spa or camp," she asks, "and return to your lifestyle with the same stresses and challenges, can you maintain new habits?"

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From a personal trainer standpoint, Lang has seen traditional health clubs evolve over the years, targeting the whole person and not just the fitness component. "Spas are no longer about busting your butt—unless you want to!—but allowing you to make the kind of experience you need as a person."

The Oaks at Ojai in Southern California, one of the original weight loss resorts of the 1970s, makes a point of how much the model has changed. They incorporate current terminology of the whole experience, embracing the entire person and teaching lifestyle changes that can be adhered to once back at home.

At the Deerfield Spa in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Lang saw an intimate, unpretentious facility with a high level of repeat customers. "The women I spoke with had weight loss goals that they had battled for awhile, and felt they got extremely valuable help with eating, nutrition in general, and fitness goals. Most classes had both a beginner to intermediate level, and there were mostly two to choose from during each time slot."

Read more comparisons of wellness and weight loss spas

And Lang found similar experiences at other spas. At Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas, she saw fewer classes and other amenities, but greater personal attention to each client. At larger wellness spas like Canyon Ranch Tucson, what is offered is an entirely different, yet still modern, experience that caters to more extroverted personalities. That's when Lang realized how important it is to assess what type of place you want before you go. If you are already an avid exerciser, will a smaller place with fewer classes be too easy? Would you prefer a bigger place where you can melt away into the crowd if you want?

For those who prefer a more rounded-out experience where the focus really is on behavioral and lifestyle changes, Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami is one of the most famous facilities. You'll find a huge amount of health and wellness options, beginning with a full medical analysis. In addition to personalized medial evaluation and exercise classes, nutritionists also teach guests everything from learning what to order when going out to restaurants to how to read labels in the supermarket.

Watch Dr. Oz's lesson in how to read a food label.

Other notable health and wellness destination spas around North America:

California Health and Longevity Institute, Westlake Village, California
Located in Southern California, the institute offers comprehensive wellness programs that are tailored to individual needs. Guests stay at the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village and participate in medical and fitness evaluations, nutrition workshops, hands-on cooking lessons, fitness classes and personal training, and much more.

Red Mountain Spa, Ivins, Utah
This destination spa combines fitness and spa programs, outdoor activities and New Age elements that align perfectly with its Mojave Desert location. Guests are invited to take daily guided hikes, go horseback riding or rock climbing or stay indoors to participate in dozens of group fitness classes. Holistic health programs include life-coaching sessions, "life path" readings, and learning how to balance emotions and work stresses.

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico
Considered one of the leading wellness resorts in North America, Rancho La Puerta incorporates healthy-eating education, hands-on experiences, and a huge variety of indoor and outdoor activities. Nutrition education is a key component here, with a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen in the midst of the resort's six-acre organic farm.

Miraval, Tucson, Arizona
This desert getaway is all about balanced living and integrated wellness programs to learn techniques you can bring home with you. Whether you're into outdoor yoga, art therapy and Native American talking circles, or prefer to focus on more mainstream activities like spa treatments, cardio/strength training and cooking lessons, it's all available here.

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When choosing a facility for your wellness vacation, consider these questions:
  • What kind of surroundings do you want? A place to hike, bike and swim—or do you prefer to remain indoors at the gym and spa?
  • Do you want a girlfriends getaway, or do you prefer to travel solo? Do you want be part of a large community of guests, or a more intimate experience?
  • Do you prefer to exercise by yourself, or participate in the classes? How advanced are your classes?
  • Are you interested in any medical evaluations?
  • Does the spa sell products in which they have a vested interest?
  • Do you want to participate in educational classes and seminars to learn behavioral changes?
Being honest with yourself regarding your expectations—and what you hope to take away with you and back into your normal lifestyle—will help you make the best choice for your spa experience.

What would you look for in a wellness spa vacation? Share your experiences—good and bad—in the comments area.

Keep Reading:
Pick your perfect vacation destination
Oprah and Gayle's perfect girls' getaway to Miraval
Exercises to bring the spa experience home with you
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.


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