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Are Personalized Wellness Retreats Worth the Hefty Price Tag?

BodyHoliday

I learned three main things about myself during the BodyScience program at The BodyHoliday resort and spa in St. Lucia:

1. I am kind of a cocky asshole.
2. I have zero self-control.
3. If I were to die in St. Lucia, I would actually sort of be OK with it.

Let’s back up: I was in St. Lucia to experience BodyScience, a detailed, personalized health and wellness program launched late last year at the famous BodyHoliday LeSport (which is already highly regarded for its fitness classes and excellent spa—one treatment per day is included in the price of your stay!). The idea is to combine cutting-edge technology with ancient Eastern preventive medicine concepts to provide guests with a comprehensive look at their current health, their risk for diseases down the road, and their options for improving wellness and longevity. (Sounds like a Once-in-a-Lifetime Fitness Retreat for Women.)

When I packed my bags to experience the BodyScience program (prices for which start at $3,000 per guest, on top of the resort’s $450/night/person fee) firsthand, I thought “I’ve got this in the bag!” I thought, “They’re going to tell me I’ll live to 150!” Oh, how wrong I was.

The preparation
About six weeks in advance, I received a test kit from a Danish laboratory in the mail. The idea was that I could prepare my own samples and send them back to the lab so I didn’t have to visit a medical practitioner in person. Great in theory, semi-terrible in practice: The kit was pretty confusing, and it turns out I’m pretty awful at pricking my own finger to draw blood. But after a couple of attempts, I completed the blood spot card and compiled all the urine samples requested (you pee on an absorbent piece of paper, hang it to dry, and send it in in a little plastic baggie—no vials of liquid required!). The I filled out a long and detailed questionnaire about my lifestyle, symptoms, and family history.

The BodyScience program also had me select a specific track for my experience: I could focus on stress management, weight loss or digestive health, among others. I opted for fitness. TBH, I was pretty pumped to show off what a beast I am in the weight room.

The food
Here’s what I knew about St. Lucia prior to visiting: It was featured prominently on the Jake and Vienna season of The Bachelor, it’s super mountainous, and it’s insanely beautiful. I took a 20-minute helicopter ride from Hewanorra International Airport to the resort (during which I was treated to a stunning aerial view of the absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous Caribbean island and predictable feelings of terror—although I decided, “Ehhh, if I have to die, it might as well be here”). Once there, we got down to the first order of business: eating.

But BodyScience isn’t about mindlessly gorging on tropical fruit and decadent desserts. The insanely talented BodyHoliday culinary team cooks up a special menu for BodyScience guests, tailored specifically to the individual’s program, goals, and current health. The menu is light, fresh, vegan, and inspired by Ayurvedic medicine. It is utterly delicious, truly. And if I had an ounce of self-restraint—or if I could successfully do the thing where you wait 20 minutes to see if you’re actually still hungry—the meals would almost certainly be sufficient. (Check out these Leading Hotels Offering Healthy Food Services.)

Apparently, I’m not the “discipline” type. The first night at dinner, I added a (not-even-vegetarian!) dish from the regular menu to my prescribed lineup of carrot ginger soup, grilled artichoke hearts with red peppers, and lemon and berry Italian ice. On subsequent nights, I broke the big BodyScience rule and indulged in a drink or two (or more, #vacation). I’m not all that proud of this: While I’m not into dieting and am basically allergic to the word “detox,” I think it can be valuable to give your body a break from unhealthy stuff once in a while and challenge yourself to exercise a little control and mindfulness over your food and drink choices.

That only goes so far, though. After one light breakfast of (again, delicious!) grilled grapefruit with a banana and date smoothie, I nearly passed out during a challenging workout. That’s where I realized that sometimes—particularly at breakfast—it’s not just about being disciplined: Listening to your body and giving it enough fuel to power you through exercise, or whatever you have to do, is pretty important too. I will proudly cop to the fact that I snuck into the regular breakfast buffet to pile a (small!) plate with bacon and smoked salmon to supplement subsequent grapefruit-based meals.

The medical exams and results
What I was most looking forward to was meeting with BodyHoliday’s on-site naturopathic doctor, Mahalingam Lakshmanan (AKA Dr. Maha), at the wellness center. Dr. Maha had the results of my urine and blood samples, and performed a few additional tests in person, including an Electro-Interstitial Scan (EIS), which supposedly measures resistance to the flow of an electrical current throughout the body (using electrodes attached to the forehead and sensors underneath the hands and feet), and an iridology test, in which a high-resolution photo of your eyeball is taken so experts can analyze the pigmentation of your iris.

Soon, it was time to discuss all of my test results. This is where I was pretty sure they were going to tell me I was invincible, what with all my usual kale eating and deadlifting and yoga-doing and sub-20 BMI-having. Guess again.

In this discussion, I learned that I apparently have moderate tachycardia, an elevated resting heart rate, some arterial stiffness, and a vascular age of 37 (I’m 29). I also potentially have an evolving insulin resistance, putting me at a 73 percent risk of developing diabetes (OMFG). If that weren’t enough, I also have markers that indicate elevated risk for hypothyroidism, immune depression, kidney strain, gall bladder problems, and something called “nervous irritability.”

Humbling, to say the least. Upsetting, to be a little more accurate.

Desperate to calm my irritable nerves, I couldn’t resist running back to my room later and researching these tests, as I was a little skeptical. (For one thing, Dr. Maha—who is a very nice guy!—measured my “resting heart rate” after we’d been talking and he’d had me stand up and move to a different chair. For an accurate RHR reading, you really need to do it first thing in the morning upon waking, so you’re truly relaxed and at rest. I was also a little anxious, because doctor’s offices aren’t the most chill places to hang.)

It turns out that there's very little evidence showing that the EIS test, upon which so many of the alarming results were based, can accurately detect the functionality of various organs in the body. There aren't many studies about the device, and those that exist are small or poorly designed. Moreover, the device has been registered with the FDA but has not been approved (I realize that the BodyScience test is not being conducted in the U.S., but that's a reasonably good marker for the validity of a medical device).

Phew.

Upon further discussion with Dr. Maha and with Nyjon Eccles, a U.K.-based Integrated Medicine Physician who consults for the BodyScience program and met with me via Skype, I realized that an important distinction for programs like this is that the emphasis is on something Western medicine just doesn’t discuss a whole lot: prevention. Sure, we talk about living a healthy lifestyle, but when it comes to disease, we pretty much wait until we have a diagnosis to do anything about it. So while I’m skeptical about the testing—and about introducing unnecessary anxiety into an otherwise pretty-damn-healthy life—I can get on board with recognizing that no one’s invincible, and being educated about what could (maybe, possibly) be lurking in your genes and cells could help you live a longer, healthier life.

I didn’t purchase any of the supplements the docs suggested I add to my regimen, since I prefer to get my nutrition from food, but I do still work to incorporate more heart-healthy foods like berries, fish and nuts into my diet, and to avoid eating too much sugar and simple carbs. That whole self-control thing is getting just a tad better. (Are Personalized Fitness Assessments Worth It?)

The workouts
Knowing that my cardiovascular system may not be quite as on point as I had assumed, I was glad to meet with a smart trainer, Mike, who had some good ideas for getting my rickety old heart pumping—admittedly my least favorite type of exercise. Mike took me to an unbelievably beautiful beach near the resort, which just so happened to be at the bottom of a long flight of stairs. Then (you guessed it) he had me jog up them, run up them, and even box-jump up them, walking down in between to let my heart rate settle.

On another day, we jogged around the property, stopping occasionally to try the resistance-training and balance-challenging equipment sprinkled throughout the jogging path, including pull-up bars, a sit-up area, and a terrifying rope bridge I obviously refused to walk over.

I am simply never going to be a runner—in addition to my hatred of steady-state cardio, I have some recurring injuries that make jogging risky—but I have added a 45-minute Sunday elliptical session to my weekly routine. I watch an episode of Gilmore Girls on Netflix and try to keep my RPE (rating of perceived exertion) at at least a 5 (out of 10), where it’d be hard to have a conversation with anyone.

The bottom line
Overall, my experience of doing an intensive, uber-personalized wellness retreat was valuable. It may have had its scary (or skepticism-inducing) moments, but I came home from St. Lucia with a new awareness about my body, new and appealing goals to work towards, and actionable lifestyle guidelines that have been surprisingly fun and helpful to follow.

And my risk for cockiness? I’m happy to report that it’s at an all-time low.

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