Diabetes Forecast

Need a Break?

A wellness retreat can turn around that fitness rut

By Carolyn Butler ,

It's a beautiful early spring morning in Vermont, and I'm running my first lap in, um, several years, racing my new friend Anna at a somewhat brisk pace while trash talking ("You are so going to lose!"), breathing absurdly hard, and laughing, all at the same time, when something revolutionary occurs to me: Exercise can be fun!

I'd come to Green Mountain at Fox Run, a fitness and weight-loss retreat for women, looking for change. After a long winter of slacking off exercise (and indulging in a bit too much ice cream), I knew I needed a kick in the pants--something to signal that now is the time to jump-start my new commitment to health and well-being. I wasn't disappointed.

This practical residential program, which focuses on a "non-diet" and fitness approach, is definitely not your typical spa. While massages and other body treatments are available, Green Mountain is one of a breed of modern health retreats focused on laying the groundwork for real, sustainable lifestyle change, marrying holistic wellness education with a good old fashioned dose of exercise boot camp--in this case, housed in a barebones, 1970s-era former ski lodge. Think grown-up summer camp (with much tastier, healthier meals) crossed with a hardcore crash course in nutrition, fitness, and behavior modification, and you'll get the idea.

For those who can afford the time and money, a visit to a health retreat can be an effective way to break out of an unhealthy lifestyle--the daily grind of work that has you accustomed to a poor diet, too tired to even think about an exercise regimen, and generally uninspired about your prospects for wellness. A typical day at Green Mountain, for example, involves shuffling from hiking, "ab attack," outdoor interval training, and "yoga-lates" to seminar-style, "core curriculum" classes on subjects including "The Metabolic Basis of Weight Gain and Loss," "Mindful Eating," and "Understanding Emotions That Lead You to Eat."

"At spas they pamper your body. Here we pamper the mind," says executive director Alan Wayler, PhD. "[Green Mountain] is not for people still stuck in the diet mentality who are looking for a quick fix; it's about a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle that you can take home with you, and that takes work." One of the most important aspects of this education, he adds, is learning to love working out: "Exercise is the magic bullet. It has a profound effect on weight, but more important is what it represents in terms of quality of life. Getting your arms around the joy of exercise--how good it makes you feel, never mind all the health benefits--makes a profound difference."

One thing's for sure: By the time I have wrapped my own arms around near-constant workouts for several days, starting with a power walk down and then up the sadistically steep front drive at dawn and then lifting, stepping, and otherwise sweating my way though weight training, aerobics, and "mind-body" class, they are sore and aching--right along with the rest of me. But it's true that I also feel exhilarated and just plain happy, motivated to try to boost my heart rate into its target zone each and every day, from thispoint on.

And how about results? While scales are verboten at the spa, after just a day or two I start to feel a clear difference in the way my clothes fit and, even more important, in my energy levels and general outlook on life. Some 4 months later, I am still referring to my trusty Green Mountain binder and following many of the program's principles, both in terms of nutrition and fitness. The main lesson I learned during my all-too-brief stay? Weight loss really isn't about the numbers, it's about how you feel, and 4 months later, I still feel pretty darn good.

A Focus on Diabetes

All Joanne Waterman remembers about being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in March is how confused and helpless she felt. "The doctors told me that I needed to lose weight and exercise, and that was it: I wasn't given any tools to do that," recalls the 51-year-old ferry terminal assistant from Haines, Alaska, who had an A1C of 11.4 and was immediately put on the maximum dose of metformin. "I don't know if [my doctors] thought it's common knowledge about what you need to actually do to make real lifestyle changes, but I was left out there to stumble along."

Instead of stumbling along on her own, however, Waterman did some Internet research and ended up flying across the country to Green Mountain. "I knew I wanted to get a strong foothold on the life changes I needed to make to get things in better shape, which I'd known I needed for a long time but had ignored really well," she explains.

For the past 5 years, Green Mountain has offered "Living Well: A Woman's Healthy Lifestyle Program for Mastering Type 2 Diabetes and Pre-diabetes," a joint venture with the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard Medical School. This one-two punch combines the former's core lifestyle management curriculum with the latter's expertise in diabetes management, with a strong bent towards the behavioral and emotional aspects of living with the condition. (Aimed at both the newly diagnosed and others interested in working on their management skills, the session runs about $3,200 for the week.)

"We want to convey to patients that you're more than just your A1C number, and that quality of life is a huge part of diabetes management," says program director Alan Wayler. "We've found that knowing what to do isn't the problem for people with diabetes--it's figuring out how to put it all together and maintain your daily life. Telling someone 'Go out and join a gym, eat better, lose weight'--that's pointless in the absence of getting immersed in an environment where you can get a taste of eating well, moving your body, and some of the emotional issues [that come with diabetes], without having to be good or perfect and the burnout that accompanies that."

That's certainly been Joanne Waterman's experience. Sweaty and tired but still smiling after a long day of swimming, hiking, and aerobicizing in her fourth week at Green Mountain, she beams as she describes how her blood glucose is down to right around 100, compared to the mid-to-low 200s she'd seen with medication alone. "I don't know if I've lost weight, but do I know there are changes in my body? You bet," she says. "The way I can walk up and down stairs, the way I can hold my legs up doing crunches now ... I'm motivated. I feel good, and I want more. I walked a mile and a half this morning--now I can say, 'That's a piece of cake.'" And she's not stopping there, either. "I haven't thought about riding a bike in quite a few years, and now I'm thinking about it," she says."I want to get out and try it--and that's huge."

The Successful Spa-Goer

There are several spas across the country that offer medical programs. Before you sign up, it's key to do your research. Ask for references and talk to people who have gone through the program themselves, both recently and at least a coupleof years out (to see if it's made a lasting difference). Check too for the staff's qualifications; if you're looking for a medical experience, you'll want to make sure that there will be doctors on-site during your stay (even more so if the program is touting itself as diabetes-oriented). Talk to your own providers about what you're planning to do and get their feedback. You may also want to figure out exactly what you'll be paying--what's part of the package rate and what's considered "extra" (for example, are massagetreatments included, and if so, how many). Finally, think carefully when you pack--you'll want to plan for the terrain, weather, and the kinds of activities you anticipate trying.



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