Sometimes I really think I have Wellness Tourette’s Syndrome. I’ve worked in the wellness industry for so long — accumulating nearly three decades of focusing on prevention and studying the effects of bad eating, lack of exercise and even bad posture — that when, for instance, I sit by someone on a plane who is sucking down a bottle of Pepsi and eating a huge croissant sandwich while a can of Pringles sticks out of their purse and then while they are grabbing a handful of processed snacks from the flight they explain, “It’s for my hotel room,” I can hardly hold back. It takes every ounce of strength I have not to just blurt out, “Do you have any idea what you’re doing to your body? Do you want to get diabetes? Do you like how much your knees hurt when you try to stand up?” I am that bad!
So, when my husband and I were invited to a three-night Wellness Retreat at the Four Seasons Westlake — a 12-acre resort just inland from Malibu, California, that was the brainchild of David Murdoch, the billionaire CEO of Dole Food Co. and the Castle & Cooke development company — I wondered what they could teach me about wellness that I didn’t already know.
The hotel opened in 2008 with the expected luxury accoutrements of a Four Seasons, but its real differentiator was its on-property California Wellbeing Institute, which was a sort of next-generation Pritikin-style hotel/clinic/wellness center. Murdoch was inspired to open a wellbeing center after losing his wife to a two-year battle with cancer. In a pioneering move for a US resort at that time, Murdoch encouraged his target market to take a “medical vacation” where they would undergo medical screening and learn about healthy lifestyle habits and which foods aid longevity. In fact, his newfound passion inspired him — then in his early 80s — to also establish the Dole Nutritional Institute and publish an “Encyclopedia of Foods.”
Murdoch turned 100 this year and his 269-room resort in Westlake Village is thriving, with the newest iteration of its wellness hub now called the Center for Health & Wellbeing. Any doubt about how serious they take wellness is assuaged when you see that 80,000 square feet of the property is devoted to its practice, featuring a Wellness Kitchen, a 16,000 sq ft. fitness center, a newly redone 28-treatment-room spa, 8,000 ft of medical offices, a meditation room and a library. The Center employs on-site registered dietitians, exercise physiologists, clinical psychologists and mindfulness teachers to work with each guest to help them set and achieve take-home health goals. The center is flexible, offering targeted retreats to wellbeing overnights to day passes, a la carte experiences, memberships and corporate retreats. The hotel leads everything from Family & Relationship Therapy to a field trip to grocery shop the right way. Prices for our three-night/four-day retreat start at $5,900 per person, so expectations are high.
Every attendee in our travel industry focus group was asked to fill out a pre-arrival health questionnaire and to share their wellness goals. They also asked for the results of a blood test taken in the last year or so, which we found and sent. We received email confirmations for each individual treatment and consultation in our personalized itineraries, which included things like a group Kitchen Class w/ the hotel chef; Intention Setting Yoga; Sound Bath & Meditation; a Guided Hike along the Malibu cliffs; a VO2 Target Heart Rate Assessment; Circuit Training; Body Composition Analysis (done in a futuristic pod); one-on-one Nutrition & Fitness Consultation; a Massage and Beach Yoga.
I was happy to see everyone in our group show up for all the activities, but what really seemed to visibly move the needle for everyone were the presentations by the resort’s professional wellness staff such as:
- Intro to Nutrition — with an unforgettable video that showed the growth of obesity around the world since the 1970’s.
- Secrets to Metabolism — with MRI shots of bone density from a 23-year-old and a 73-year-old triathlete (very similar) and a sedentary 73-year-old (very frightening).
- The Life in Balance Workshop — speaking to our higher selves, it could have been themed, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” or, Why do we let stress rule our lives and why don’t we prioritize the most important things since our time on the planet is so short?
My only real gripe was the amazing food — only because there was SO MUCH of it! The flavors were out of this world, but there were just too many options… which means you tried them all. For instance, the healthy breakfast might have egg frittata, a salad, roasted potatoes, spinach pancakes, seed bread, fruit, a smoothie… Here’s one of the dinner menus: Curried Coconut Carrot Soup, Ancient Grains Salad, Chicken Paillard with Arugula and Lemon Vinaigrette, Mediterranean Sea Bass with Tomato & Fennel Broth, Grilled Cauliflower Steak with Mole Amarillo, Charred Broccolini with Garlic Aioli, Barley Risotto with Vegetables and (I’m out of breath) Poached Pears with Dark Chocolate. And all of it was so delicious and good for you! So unless you really tried, there was no losing the token pound or two, even if wine wasn’t served until the last glorious night where we had a farm-to-table spa dinner in the resort’s greenhouse.
But what I really found so inspiring was the reaction of the attendees. It was like a new light was gradually getting brighter for everyone — whether we were doing circuit training together or having a session alone with a counselor. For instance, my husband — whose weight tends to fluctuate 30 lbs every few years — had spent the last year on a plant-forward diet and had been consistent with a power-walking exercise program. Turns out this visit was powerful validation that he was on the right course. He tried yoga and a sound bath for the first time, and he was so thrilled when, during his one-on-one consultation with the nutritionist, she told him, “You should be so proud. You have changed the trajectory of your life!”
As we compared notes with our fellow guests that last evening, I knew we were all taking something home with us. My little wellness-know-it-all attitude was taken down a notch when I realized I never make time for resistance training. And now, equipped with videos I filmed of my personal trainer doing the workout designed just for me, I was going to start. And I learned that maybe wine at every dinner is not necessary. On our last morning together, I overheard one successful entrepreneur who worked in luxury travel call her daughter in college and say, “We can never ever drink soda again!” When I returned home, I shared our experience with a well-heeled neighbor whose overweight husband already has 7 stents in his heart. She said, “We can afford that. We should go!”
Happily, during those four days, my Wellness Tourette’s had been on retreat, too. My urge to try to save everyone’s life with uninvited wellness tips was gone — since this more gradual and kinder program did it for me.