Travel Tips

Weight Loss & Health Spas: Fat Farms Go Modern

Locations in this article:  Austin, TX Miami, FL Tucson, AZ

Trainer Annette Lang on Health Spas & Weight Loss SpasFrom the old-school fat farms to modern-day wellness centers, the term “health spa” can refer to a wide variety of programs.  

Personal trainer Annette Lang investigates how destination spas have evolved over the years, and what to look for when choosing your own program.

Working as a personal trainer and as an instructor for trainers, I’m constantly confronted with the topic of health spas.

My first memory of spa-like destinations were the “fat farms” that started in the 1950s that became all the rage in the U.S. by the 1970s. Fat farms got a bad name because of the techniques that they sometimes used: Stories circulated about starving guests and making them workout to ridiculous extremes that were more difficult than their individual levels of fitness and health could handle.

Healthy eating at modern spasDoes that sound familiar? The irony is that, these days, some heath and fitness organizations accuse The Biggest Loser television show of the same questionable methods.

My concern is always about how—and what—these spas teach guests in terms of behavior.

When you leave the controlled environment of the spa or camp, and return to your lifestyle with the same stresses and challenges, can you maintain new habits?

Is it valid to visit a spa simply to get a head start, to feel good and maybe lose a few pounds even if you return to your old habits?

Indeed, it seems that the fat farms of yesterday have gone modern.

Find out how Peter stays healthy with his Traveler’s Diet book.

The Oaks at OjaiThe Oaks at Ojai, in Southern California, will tell you how it was one of the original fat farms of the 1970s, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that today. The resort incorporates current terminology of the whole experience, embracing the entire person and teaching lifestyle changes that can be adhered to once back at home.

This seems to be part of the cyclical changes in health and fitness. Traditional health clubs are adopting these tendencies as well, 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.

Stay healthy with tips from our Health & Fitness section.

I wanted to experience at least one day at a spa myself. But where to look?

According to the International Spa Association, as of 2008 it had 21,300 members. That’s a lot of choices!

Free weights - Health spasIn choosing a health spa, it is important to think about the goals you have, and what you would like to get out of the experience. For me, I wanted a place that was close to home, and somewhere I could do a variety of exercise classes in one day.

I chose to visit Deerfield Spa in East Strousbourg, Pennsylvania, close to where I live in New York. The entire facility is smaller and more intimate than some of the larger spas across the country, almost like a bed and breakfast.

In speaking with repeat visitors, I found they were attracted to the small and unpretentious atmosphere; a place you would feel comfortable going alone. Money and location were also factors, but not the most important consideration.

Get more ideas in Spa Resorts: More Than Just Massages.

Spa Cuisine - Greek Salad from Deerfield SpaBoth 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.

A similar experience can be found at Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas where I’ve trained fitness staff in the past. It’s got fewer choices in terms of fitness classes and other amenities, but has the small, intimate feel and offers personal attention to each client.

On the flip side, a prior visit to Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona is an entirely different experience. Canyon Ranch seemed more corporate (if you will … like a well-oiled machine). It’s certainly friendly, beautiful and inviting, but with many more people walking here and there with robes on going to and from various spa treatments, I could see how it might be intimidating for more introverted personalities. That being said, there is the benefit of being able to “lose yourself” in a bigger place, where it’s easier not to be seen and noticed.

Check out this Video Tip: Health Cooking & Modern Spa Cuisine.

That’s when it hit me 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?

Jogging solo - Health SpasWould you prefer a bigger place where you can melt away into the crowd if you want? Or does a smaller place appeal, where it will be more like a girls’ weekend retreat?

For those who prefer a more rounded-out experience where the focus really is on behavioral and lifestyle changes, Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami is one of the most famous facilities. Here, there is huge amount of options in terms of health and wellness, 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.

Learn more: Video Tip: Unusual Spa Services From Around the World.

Vegetables - Healthy EatingWhile eating a delicious dinner of salmon and veggies at Deerfield Spa, I spoke to other women who were visiting a second time. We spoke of how good the food was, but I was skeptical about internalizing habits that they could continue with at home. How could you eat such small portions at home? They admitted that their visit was more of a kick-start, an opportunity to lose a few pounds, and reconnect with other women for a few days They acknowledged that it would be solely up to them to incorporate changes into their normal lifestyle.

This is a very important consideration for me as a personal trainer, and in helping trainers help clients. Most spa marketing material talk about how helpful they are at helping people maintain their results after the visit. But I know from experience how challenging this can be.

Learn more: Travel Diets: Balancing Your Calorie Count on the Road.

By taking yourself out of your normal, everyday life with work and family, and temptations all around, how does what you learn in a contrived environment help you make the crucial changes to internalize and practice once you get back home?

Women on the beach - Healthy Spa TravelsBottom line, when considering a spa for a few days or perhaps longer, evaluate your needs and expectations relative to your financial boundaries …

What kind of surroundings do you want? A place to hike, swim, be more outside, or does that matter?

What do you see yourself doing during the day? Do you plan to exercise by yourself or participate in the classes? Check the class list to see if it is to your liking, and how they describe the difficulty level.

If the class list is not available for the time you are going, ask for one that would be comparable so you can make an educated choice.

More ideas: Video Tip: Girlfriend Getaways: Women’s Travel Adventures

Are you interested in any medical evaluations?

Does the spa sell products that they have a vested interest in?

Gym Women - Healthy TravelsDo you want to learn anything that you can take home with you? Lectures such how to cook with with less sodium or how to order in a restaurant might be something you want to learn while there.

What are your interests in terms of true spa services? Do you want to experience New Age modalities? Make sure the spa has a number of options for you.

Being honest with yourself regarding what your expectations are, and what you hope to take away with you back into your normal lifestyle will help you make the best choice for your spa experience!

By Annette Lang for Visit Annette on the Web and learn how to “move more” at

For more tips on how to stay healthy when you travel, don’t miss our Health & Fitness section.

Previously by Annette Lang on