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Life Tough love at a high-end Arizona wellness retreat

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Under the Tucson sun

Arizona’s iconic red rock country provides a picturesque setting for an evening hike.

At the Canyon Ranch wellness centre, self-improvement goes well beyond yoga lessons and herbal teas. High-tech fitness and medical tests provide a dose of reality that might be hard to hear. But soothing Ayurvedic massages and hiking in the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains will make sure you don't get too stressed out

I am standing in a fitness lab at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, having small electronic boxes buckled to my chest and back. Mike Siemens, the exercise physiologist administering my metabolic test, adjusts the wires, checks the software and activates the devices, which beep in response.

He later tells me: "Your muscle mass is the lowest I have seen in a long time."

Nice. But no surprise. I have spent 30 years sitting at a desk covering the fashion world for a newspaper and then a magazine. Workouts have not been a priority. And I have a fear of weight training largely because I have several narrow-sleeved Chanel jackets I would like to fit into for the foreseeable future.

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Visitors can undergo a battery of tests to determine how fit they are.

But fashion is easily forgotten here in southern Arizona, where urban concerns wane. The dry desert air, the rigid cactuses and the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains make for an intense stillness.

Hiking is one of the region's top draws, and every morning just past 6, vanloads of guests head out for hikes of varying intensities with such intriguing names as Wild Horse, Box Camp or Pontatoc Amphitheater. For those of us sticking around for the day, self-improvement easily becomes the sole focus. With almost 300 medical, fitness, spa and spiritual services on offer – everything from vascular ultrasound to Ayurvedic massage – there truly is something for everyone at this sprawling 150-acre property. While other wellness retreats may specialize in yoga or weight loss, Canyon Ranch does it all and has been for almost 40 years.

A ropes course at Canyon Ranch.

Founders and wellness industry pioneers Mel and Enid Zuckerman, now in their 80s, have retired and the brand is undergoing a refresh. The Lenox, Mass., location has been renovated and new properties are in mind for California and Florida. At the Tucson flagship where tech tools are used to create highly tailored fitness programs, the latest update is the BodPod, an egg-shaped unit you sit in to have your body composition precisely measured.

Guests can roam free or enroll in the Life Enhancement Center program, for those going through some sort of transition – be it a health crisis, retirement or divorce.

Our group is as varied as they come: a millennial navigating a career switch, a handful of lawyers with weight and/or stress issues, a recently retired executive who has lost her purpose in life.

Several cite severe sleep issues and will spend a night having their brain waves recorded in the sleep lab, which is decorated just like a regular hotel room.

The sun sets over Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona.

At breakfast, the sleep-challenged trade stories of adjusting to the CPAP, a forced-air delivery system that combats sleep apnea. But they are a determined bunch, having learned from Dr. Param Dedhia, head of the sleep clinic, that sleep is vital to brain and heart health.

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I spend several afternoons in the Spiritual Wellness Center dealing with the intense grief that has taken root since my dad died almost three years ago. Through a combination of guided meditation and energy therapy, the progress I make is profound.

But it's the tech that provides the cold wake-up calls.

Yoga at sunrise at Canyon Ranch.

I've chosen to have a DEXA scan, which will measure my percentage of body fat and break it down into subcutaneous fat and the more sinister visceral fat that wraps organs in a gel-like substance associated with heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. At the Health and Healing Center, I lie on a table while a scanner glides back and forth above me. It's completely painless, surprisingly quick – and I don't even have to doff my Lululemons.

Next up, straight-talking Mike straps me into the K4b2, a pulmonary gas exchange monitor that will capture how much oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged as my heart rate slowly increases.

I feel a little silly doing an elliptical workout in the gym with a mask strapped over my face, but Mike assures me my fellow Canyon Ranchers are used to such sights. And I am curious to learn how efficiently my "engine" is running, how many calories I burn during a workout and whether they are fat, carbs or a mix.

Later, Mike administers the balance assessment I signed up for because I am embarrassingly wobbly whenever I try to stand on one leg in a yoga or Pilates class. I stand on a spongy grey plate on the Biodex machine, which evaluates where on my feet I am bearing my weight, my right-versus-left-leg stability and whether my balance is affected by vision or other factors. Then I lunge left and right on a sort of Y-shaped yardstick and sit on a computerized leg-press machine that measures discrepancies in leg strength.

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Relaxing in a living room at Canyon Ranch.

The next day, I sit down with Mike to go over all my results. There are so many pages of numbers that I feel like I'm with my investment adviser getting the annual report. But his message is clear: I need to gain four pounds of muscle if I don't want to end up in a nursing home because I can't lift myself out of a chair. My "balance age" is four years older than my real age. I rely heavily on vision for balance, which means I should be extra careful at night. My left leg is like a wet noodle, putting me at risk for a fall. And my cardio efficiency is in the 50th percentile, which means I should be pushing myself much harder to get maximum benefits from exercise.

The good news is my visceral body fat is low. But if I don't bulk up with weights and buy a nightlight, I will be a frail old lady blowing my children's inheritance on nursing care.

I leave with a detailed fitness plan: interval training with a heart-rate goal of 150 to 160 and a "prescription" of weight and balance exercises three times a week. Thanks to the motivational lectures I've attended – along with visions of myself with a lap blanket and dried pablum on my chin – I am psyched to stay on track at home.


If you go

Hiking at Canyon Ranch.

Canyon Ranch is located 40 minutes from Tucson International Airport. As a ranch van shuttles you to the property, you'll pass the Pima Air & Space Museum, so keep an eye out for President John F. Kennedy's Air Force One.

Accommodations are ranch-style rooms that are comfortable but scheduled for renovation. All-inclusive packages range from $800 to $2,000 (U.S.) a night per person, while the Life Enhancement Center package is $7,630 for double occupancy and includes $1,290 to apply toward spa, sport and integrative wellness services.

Prices include all meals and snacks (don't miss the chocolate-dipped frozen bananas.) Many fitness classes and lectures are included.


Wellness tourism hits its stride

Strength training with a personal trainer at the Canyon Ranch gym.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism was valued at $563-billion (U.S.) in 2015 and growing at the rate of 14 per cent, which is more than double overall tourism expenditures.

With self-improvement vacations increasing in popularity, destination spas have evolved into a diverse lot.

Some are purposefully low- or no-tech with a focus on mindfulness and meditation. Mii Amo spiritual retreat in Sedona, Ariz., offers hypnosis for past-life regression, aura-soma reading and Native American-inspired therapies. Some treatments are only available during the new or full moon, as these periods offer the best results for manifesting new intentions or releasing angst. Farther south at Miraval, the mantra is "living life in the moment." Activities aimed at restoring balance include cardio drumming and a class in which you paint artwork directly on a horse.

Tech is used to enhance "inner focus" at resorts such as the Golden Door in San Marcos, Calif. Amid a full menu of mindfulness offerings is a one-on-one biofeedback session involving the Heartmath emwave2, a handheld device that helps reduce stress by illustrating your heart rate and rhythm with coloured lights.

Retreats that are more fitness- and nutrition-focused view tech as a component of hard-core diagnostics.

Cal-a-Vie Health Spa, outside San Diego, has a partnership with WellnessFX, a Web-based service that provides direct-to-consumer access to advanced blood testing, personalized consultations and health and habit tracking via smartphone or computer. Guests can opt to have a blood test that measures cardiovascular, metabolic, hormonal and nutritional health. A Cal-a-Vie dietitian uses the results for diet and lifestyle planning.

At Aqua Malibu, a 12-point medical exam includes blood work, carotid artery screen, continuous glucose monitoring and a DEXA body composition scan. That's because serious weight loss is the mission at this luxury boot camp opened by Dr. Robert Huizenga, medical expert on The Biggest Loser.

A state-of-the-art blood workup includes inflammatory markers, comprehensive cholesterol analysis and insulin and blood-sugar sensitivity at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami. And after all that, if you are still tempted to cheat on the famous Pritikin diet and duck out for some fast food, a vascular ultrasound will show you exactly how clogged your arteries are.

The writer was a guest of Canyon Ranch. It did not review or approve this article.


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