Facilities are wooing execs with programs that aim for lasting results

Noel Gartman describes himself as a workaholic and a "Coke-guzzling, pizza-eating, non-health nut." Not exactly a spa kind of guy. But last year -- after he was hospitalized for stress-related shingles, after a colleague in his early 40s dropped dead of a heart attack, and after Gartman hit the big Four-O himself, the Birmingham (Ala.) software executive decided he needed to focus seriously on his health. Where did he start? At Canyon Ranch Health Resorts in Tucson, a place where ladies who lunch too much still go to shed pounds, and where hard-driving "Type A"s once wouldn't be caught in the light of day.

But spas like Canyon Ranch, which also has a facility in Lenox, Mass., have been reaching out to executives just like Gartman. In February, Gartman checked into Canyon's 18-month-old Executive Health Program for 10 days of lifestyle therapy. By adhering to the diet-and-exercise regimen he received, he has firmed up his middle and lost 20 pounds. He is also sleeping better and no longer has migraines.

While executive spas offer an escape from the daily grind, you won't be lying on a massage table all day with cucumbers over your eyes, although you will get your fair share of pampering. Just as in the office, participants set goals -- albeit personal ones -- and must work hard to achieve them. Some programs are tailored to the individual; others appeal to teams of executives. No matter where you go, the objective is self-improvement and better health. "An enormous number of executives die before they reach retirement," says Connie Tyne, executive director of the Cooper Wellness Program, a Dallas spa. "We want to make them understand why it's happening."

Of all the plans that are geared to executives, medical spas, which number about 65 in the U.S., are the most popular. At the heart of such programs is the physical exam, a key component in detecting and preventing health problems in stressed-out execs.

Sure, you can get a physical from your doctor, but it's more enjoyable if you integrate it into a vacation. Even better is the amount of time devoted to all the poking and probing. Former guests at Cooper Wellness say the medical workup there is unlike anything they've ever experienced before: It's common to spend several hours chatting with one of the clinic's 19 doctors, each of whom sees just four patients a day. The Cooper exam includes blood work, urinalysis, an electrocardiogram, a treadmill stress test, a chest X-ray, a pulmonary function test, and underwater body-fat analysis.

At most medical spas, you won't be dealing with crackpot doctors. Nor will you be force-fed any information on fad diets. Scientists studying the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Fla., for example, have collectively published more than 90 reports about its diet and exercise programs in top medical journals. "It's all anchored in the latest science," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, associate dean for executive programs at Yale's School of Management and a recent Pritikin guest who has lost 30 pounds.

The reams of information provided on topics such as nutrition and cardio fitness appeal to detail-oriented executives. At Pritikin, you'll sit through four hours of lectures -- ranging from label reading to decoding your lipid profile. Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who credits the Pritikin center with helping him lose 90 pounds in the past 20 months, calls the program "a combination of Harvard and the boot camp of spas."

Yet a heavy dose of pampering sets these spa getaways apart from the medical programs that are affiliated with universities and hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic. Canyon Ranch in Tucson, where the Executive Health Program costs $3,200 for four days, plus meals and accommodations that start at $2,030 per person, double occupancy, focuses on the mind, body, and spirit. In addition to all the health information, you can get a hot-stone massage or a mango-sugar scrub, play tennis, and attend a pottery class. Even though Canyon Ranch's methods are rooted in Western medicine, participants are encouraged to explore alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

Customization is key to the executive spa experience. About a month before your visit to Canyon Ranch, a registered nurse will call to discuss your goals and begin devising a personal health plan. On arrival, expect to spend 80 minutes with a staff doctor getting a physical exam and discussing your medical history. You'll also consult with a nutritionist and an exercise physiologist. Such extensive face time with staff, who outnumber guests 3 to 1, "is crucial in figuring out what makes someone tick," says Dr. Mark Liponis, Canyon Ranch's corporate medical director. "You get to learn a lot about their health and lifestyle."


Executive spas also offer an alternative to the standard golf outing for a company group. To strengthen the bonds among staff at Kisco Senior Living, 40 executives from the Carlsbad (Calif.) retirement facility operator went on a high-tech treasure hunt at Red Mountain Spa in April. The group used global positioning systems to find clues on the spa's 55-acre property in St. George, Utah. At the end of the day, some of the participants piled into the spa, which stays open until 10 p.m., for massages and facials. "I was able to leave behind the stress and worries from my job and focus on myself and my team," says Kirsten Jewell, director of healthy strides at Kisco Senior Living.

Make sure you assess the difficulty of activities before you sign up. Red Mountain, which bills itself as "the Adventure Spa," is best known for hiking, biking, and rock-climbing programs. While couch potatoes might enjoy the experience, someone who is already in good shape will make the best use of the surrounding 57,000 acres of parklands featuring breathtaking red sandstone cliffs.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, in Farmington, Pa., meanwhile, lets executives get in touch with their inner Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the resort's distinctive Off-Road Driving Academy, you can drive a Hummer H1 or H2 vehicle through 20 miles of terrain with every obstacle imaginable -- muddy ponds, precarious 31-degree side slopes, and steep inclines (including 22-inch vertical steps). How does that translate into a spa experience? The program "is all about feeling the power that's underneath you," says Jordan Weyand, Nemacolin's director of recreation.

If you are looking for an Outward Bound kind of adventure, New Age Health Spa in Neversink, N.Y., approximately a two-hour drive from New York City, offers an extensive ropes course with a five-story climbing tower. Participants, wearing harnesses tethered to a rope controlled by teammates on the ground, explore their strengths and abilities. Miraval Spa in Tucson has guests work with horses to discover the behaviors that affect their personal and professional relationships, both positively and negatively.


Aside from the activities, the main thing executives care about is grub. While spa food has gotten a bad rap, you won't subsist on tofu and bean sprouts. "The food at Canyon Ranch is to die for," says Betty Price, 57, a government consultant in Vienna, Va., who recently stayed at the Lenox location. She's hooked on the blueberry pancakes and brownies.

Even the low-salt, low-fat Pritikin diet has been overhauled with more protein. Guests dine on roasted lobster, wild mushroom risotto, and grilled bison. "I'm a taste guy, and it actually tastes pretty good," says J. Timothy Gannon, senior vice-president at Outback Steakhouse Inc. (OSI ) in Tampa, who has cut his cholesterol and blood sugar since he started visiting Pritikin in 1998. Keep in mind that some spas shun alcohol and caffeine. So make sure you check the policy if you can't get by without your morning jolt or evening martini.

Before you pick a spa, figure out how much structure you want. You don't have as much flexibility at a program like Cooper, which always starts on a Sunday, and where you'll be assigned to a group of 12 to 18. The group dynamic isn't a factor at Canyon Ranch. You can start and end your Executive Health Program when you please.

Unless you consider self-help to be work, do not expect to have much of a working vacation at some executive spa programs. The exception may be if your getaway is structured as a corporate retreat. Canyon Ranch bans cell-phone usage outside of guest rooms. However, Pritikin and Cooper Wellness build time into the day for guests to get some work done.

You don't have to be a senior executive to attend an executive spa. These programs are simply geared toward busy people willing to spend serious time devoted to their health, under the watchful eye of experts. (Check for a list of programs.) That kind of attention comes at a price: Cooper's program starts at $2,295 for four days. The price includes classes and meals, but not accommodations, spa services, or the medical exam, which alone costs about $2,400. At Pritikin, physician consultations, lab tests, nutrition/exercise classes, stress workshops, lodging, and meals are part of one all-inclusive price, which starts at $3,000 (single occupancy) for one week. Not bad, but then again, the average stay is two weeks.

You might be able to get your company to foot the bill. Larry Malcolmson, president of MD Buyline, a medical database provider in Dallas, sent one overweight employee who constantly called in sick to Cooper Wellness. "He has not missed a day in two years," Malcolmson says, adding that he plans to enroll more employees. (About half of Cooper's guests are sent by their employers.) "You get a big return on what I believe is a cheap investment," Malcolmson says. Even if your company won't spring for your stay, your health insurance may cover the cost of some of the medical tests. Now wouldn't you rather have your blood drawn in a luxurious spa setting than in a doctor's office?

By Lauren Young

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