Can Wellness Spas Help You Live Longer?
Published: May 2009
By Shane Mitchell
Do spas actually help you live longer?At two new "health centers" out West, guests check in for the best tests and advice money can buy—all with a massage and a glass of Château Margaux.
Everyone wants to live a long, healthy life—preferably with fewer wrinkles and sagging bits. During the past few years, I’ve certainly tried to slow down the clock by traveling to high-end holistic retreats in Arizona, Hawaii, and California to explore ways of staying young. But I’m just putting off the inevitable—a doctor’s visit, that is.
Luckily, as Mary Poppins warbles, "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." So, as aging boomers begin hearing their physicians mutter about colonoscopies, mammograms, and DNA damage caused by late-night partying or excessive exposure to the sun, a new generation of "wellness complexes" in the United States is incorporating progressive medical services—aimed at prolonging your life—along with spa pampering.
Unlike outpatient facilities, such as the Scripps Center for Executive Health in La Jolla, California, or the Mayo Clinics in Florida, Arizona, and Minnesota, these health institutes have an informal methodology (no scrubs, no tongue depressors). Instead of the antiseptic lip service common with typical prod-and-poke physicals, guests receive "executive checkups" complete with diagnostic tests, consultations with LifeAdvisors, and all the trimmings of a world-class hotel: massages, rounds of championship golf, Italian linens, art installations, and serious wine cellars. Such complexes represent the partnering of genetic science with the holistic world, where impassioned advocates are bringing together top medical research facilities and deep-pocket investors keenly focused on the Me Generation.
Perhaps the most scientifically aggressive of these Next Age clinics is the California WellBeing Institute (CWI), which opened in December. CWI pairs a 270-room Four Seasons hotel and spa with a high-tech medical facility on a 20-acre property in Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles. It’s also the brainchild of David Murdock, the CEO of Dole Food Company, who, having extremely firm opinions about following a healthy diet and fitness regimen, is putting his money where his fork usually goes. "My wife died of cancer," the 84-year-old billionaire states bluntly. "I decided right then I was going to figure out what makes people die young. She exercised but did not eat properly. You can’t get along without both." Murdock plans to open an auxiliary WellBeing Institute, sandwiched between two Four Seasons–managed resorts, the Lodges at Koele and Manele Bay, on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also funding an affiliated 350-acre biotechnology complex, in conjunction with Duke University and the University of North Carolina, to advance research on nutrition and human health.
At present, though, it’s CWI’s three-day Longevity Package (price tag: $2,800) from which guests can immediately reap the potential benefits of longevity science in a spa setting. Prior to check-in, guests at Westlake Village who are interested in treatments at the institute fill in a LifeQuality questionnaire that poses such tricky questions as, "If you continue living as you currently live, how many years do you feel you have left?" Once at the institute, guests meet with a specialist—part concierge, part occupational therapist—who takes them through the hard science. "We can recommend diagnostics to show you indicators that changes might be in order," says David Leary, one of the center’s LifeAdvisors. Like others on the staff, he has solid medical credentials. He was wooed from Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and recently completed a certification program at the University of Southern California that was custom-designed for the Westlake staff. Through these tests, Leary can tell, on a cellular level, whether you’ve been overdosing on Twinkies.
In fact, CWI uses a wide range of preventive tests and imaging technology to figure out just how fast an individual’s life clock is ticking. These include such exotic diagnostics as C-Reactive Protein and DNA testing, sleep telemetry, electronic "Bod Pod" fat analyses, and 24-hour blood-pressure monitors. These are not regular "Say aah" sessions: guests spend several hours with the attending staff, which includes specialists in dental reconstruction, acupuncture, women’s health, dermatology, and medical anthropology. (That means snooping for biochemical dependencies and bad sociocultural behaviors.) These augment services typical of those found at destination spas: consultations with nutritionists and exercise physiologists, workshops on healthy living, or even unconventional treatments such as biofeedback and hypnotherapy. Too intimidating?Just opt for a massage in one of the hotel’s white-marble day-spa suites, which have fireplaces and private plunge pools.
According to Dr. Andrew Conrad, director of CWI and a geneticist by training, "Westlake is meant to be the next health mecca, not some granola-eating torture farm." That means Four Seasons guests won’t be made to feel embarrassed about ordering a juicy porterhouse and a bottle of Château Margaux in Hampton’s restaurant, where chef Sandro Gamba cuts back on butter, sugar, and refined flour. However, guests may be urged to work it off during a tai chi session on the meditation lawn. Conrad, an alternative-healing convert, asserts, "There is no wellness pill. Yoga beats Vicodin."
Meanwhile, over in Arizona, Dr. Andrew Weil will be heading up the newly created Center for Life in Balance at Miraval, which is expected to open at the end of 2007. His bedside manner and best-selling books attract followers who have been through the standard tests and know there’s more to learn about increasing life expectancy. He is also former AOL chairman Steve Case’s ace in the wellness hole. Like David Murdock, Case is emerging as a major player in the sector, buying one brand at a time. These include Miraval, the Gaiam yoga/fitness product line, and RediClinic—a growing chain of retail-based medical facilities staffed by nurse-practitioners. (Think cholesterol tests at Wal-Mart.)
Since opening in 1996, Miraval has drawn an outdoorsy crowd interested in dabbling in new fitness routines (Pilates, chi kung) and woo-woo hobbies (drumming, Zen drawing). The spa specializes in advanced bodywork therapies such as Reiki, Cranio-Sacral, and Zero Balancing. The Southwestern-style guest casitas overlook a blooming Sonoran Desert landscape. After a decade, the 400-acre resort is getting a much-needed makeover. Miraval’s CEO John Vanderslice says, "We’re adding residential villas, more guest rooms, a yoga meditation center, and treatment tents with outdoor showers. It’s going to be killer." Case also intends to take the destination spa global. That will include a Miraval Living condominium in Manhattan and another spa resort in Costa Rica.
Although these plans can be construed as fluffing up an aging brand, the Center for Life in Balance will be a comprehensive medical institution, albeit more crunchy than clinical. Housed in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified, eco-friendly annex, Miraval guests will be able to take advantage of Weil’s nonconformist approach to sustaining health. He’s less interested in MRI’s and more focused on listening to what guests have to say about their aches and pains. And unlike the present-day assembly-line approach to medicine, Weil says, he "hopes we’ll be able to change the nature of contact between physicians and patients."
Currently, Weil conducts three-day Healthy Aging seminars at the spa. His program is designed to address "compression of morbidity" (condensing disability into a shorter period toward the end of life or reducing the chance of age-related diseases) by exploring diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and even problematic relationships. Like that of CWI, Miraval’s executive health package will include a cardio-metabolic stress test, diagnostic blood work, nutrition assessment, and an exercise regimen. In addition, the entire staff will be indoctrinated in the Weil Way. "We’ll have doctors from my integrative medicine program at the University of Arizona, including an osteopath and a naturopath and experts in traditional Chinese medicine, cognitive behavior, and ayurveda," he says.
But just how effective, exactly, are these programs?Certainly, both CWI’s and Miraval’s sugar-coated longevity concepts—with their analyses delivered in a warm and fuzzy manner—sound impressive. But the science behind longevity is nascent, and much of it is up for debate. And given the boomer population’s neuroses about their life expectancy, it’s hard not to wonder if these new packages are pricey placebos. It’s worth noting, though, that one of CWI’s primary investors (to the tune of $50 million) is the insurance company WellPoint’s Arcus division, which is charged with promoting preventive care solutions. There’s hope that CWI’s clients, who aren’t exactly the HMO crowd, might drive a trend that will trickle down.
What’s certain is that these programs are effective in at least one way: behavioral modification. Almost all medical studies on longevity point to one thing—people with bad habits have a shorter life span. So while it helps to have newfangled tests that are great at catching potential problems early, guests at either resort have to be committed to making a few adjustments to their routines (stop smoking, stop drinking, stop stressing, eat more veggies) to see results. Even I am forced to admit that a few adaptive changes of my own are in order. Giving up bone-crushing sports and fat-marbled slabs of beef is no longer as hard as I once imagined. But I’ll never quit my eternal search for a wrinkle cream that really works.
Shane Mitchell is a T+L contributing editor.
California WellBeing Institute
Dole CEO David Murdock and Dr. Andrew Conrad have joined forces to create the health center, which is located at the Four Seasons Westlake Village, just north of Los Angeles.
The Center for Life in Balance at Miraval
Former AOL Chairman Steve Case, who has bought a roster of wellness brands, is partnering with longevity guru Dr. Andrew Weil to open the new institute promoting longevity.
California Wellbeing Institute Opened in December: A staff of medical professionals and well-being advisers offer a 360-degree approach to wellness, at a Four Seasons near Los Angeles. Experiences include a two-hour meal preparation with a healthy-living chef for $250, and an $850-a-day program that includes sessions with a LifeAdvisor and a dietitian; three workshops on nutrition, fitness, or inner living; and a spa treatment. 2 Dole Dr., Westlake Village; 888/575-1114; www.experiencecwi.com; three-day longevity programs from $2,800, excluding accommodations.
ON THE HORIZON A second Four Seasons–affiliated WellBeing Institute will open in 2008, in Lanai, Hawaii.
Center for Life in Balance at Miraval Opening in December 2007: Medical service and diagnostics will be offered, along with wellness treatments in a 7,500-square-foot facility headed by Dr. Andrew Weil; Miraval offers Healthy Aging programs addressing similar themes. 5000 E. Via Estancia Miraval, Catalina, Ariz.; 800/232-3969; www.miravalresort.com; four-day programs from $3,106.
ANOTHER OPTION, WITH UPDATED LONGEVITY PROGRAMS
Canyon Ranch One of the original players in the wellness arena has recently recruited former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona to lead a team of preventive-care specialists affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic. Guests of the Arizona and Massachussetts properties will receive lifestyle prescriptions that are based on diagnostic tests and personalized improvement strategies. Lenox, Mass., or Tucson, Ariz.; 800/742-9000; www.canyonranch.com; four-night stays from $4,020.