Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Fool & His Money...

I just finished reading the Wall Street Journal's recent article about The Ranch at Live Oak in Malibu. The author of the piece, Christina Binkley, plunked down thousands of dollars to spend one week at this “120-acre ranch tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains,” a health resort that “caters to wealthy A-listers with Spartan but perfectly appointed private cottages, and niceties such as laundry service and a daily aphorism placed on pillows.”

But at its heart, The Ranch appears to be just another expensive fat camp, with an approach centered around starvation and overexercise.

Among Binkley’s observations and experiences:
  • For one month before her visit, Binkley was told to “prepare with daily hikes and yoga” and to abstain from eating certain foods -- including meat.
  • A typical vegetarian lunch at the Ranch consisted of two baby beets, a baby turnip, “sprigs of red-ribbon sorrel and micro-arugula.” Dinner? “Artichoke heart with fava bean puree, a glazed cipollini onion, pea shoots and tendrils.” Daily caloric intake? 1,100 calories.
  • Guests begin their day with yoga at 5:30 a.m., and then head out on a six-hour mountain hike, during which “[s]everal guests vomited —- repeatedly.” (The Ranch’s program director told Binkley that diarrhea is also to be expected.)
  • Of course, The Ranch provided a mid-hike snack for each guest: 3 almonds and 2 cashews.
  • No rest for the weary: Afternoon exercise classes -- including TRX resistance routines and more yoga -- are mandatory at The Ranch.

But somehow, by the end of the week, Binkley had succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome. Her article ends with a rosy view of her experience.

And sadly -- shamefully -- I know just how she felt.

More after the jump...

Twice -- in 2006 and 2009 -- M and I visited Canyon Ranch in Tucson, a luxury desert resort with "healthy" spa menus and more than enough fitness classes and programs to feed my then-rampant P90X-induced exercise addiction.

(One difference: Unlike The Ranch in Malibu, the classes at Canyon Ranch aren’t mandatory; plenty of guests pretend they don’t exist. Another difference: a stay at Canyon Ranch is even more obscenely expensive; rates are almost double those of The Ranch in Malibu.)

During our first visit to Canyon Ranch, I went nuts. I crammed my schedule with back-to-back workouts, physical assessments and classes, stopping only for brief (low-calorie, low-fat) meals before heading back for more physical punishment. By the third day, I was hobbling around with two pulled hamstrings. (In contrast, M took a more measured approach, exercising only in the morning and then spending the afternoon and evening taking cooking classes and treating herself to spa treatments.)

In 2009, I dialed it back some, but still ended up devoting an unholy number of hours each day to exercise. There were boot-camp classes, crazy cardio classes, boxing classes, weight training classes, bodyweight resistance classes, power yoga classes -- and I wanted to try ‘em all. Result: Achilles injury, exhaustion, and sky-high cortisol levels.

But like Binkley, I left Canyon Ranch on a high. Was it just a dopamine/endorphin response from all the exercise? Was it orthorexia? Or just some weird placebo effect?

Whatever it was, the buzz didn’t last. Back in the real world, I soon came to realize that:
  • Constant exercise does more harm than good;
  • Healthy eating doesn’t mean low-fat eating;
  • Weight loss is not synonymous with good health;
  • One should never, ever make fun of Jason Patric; and
  • Most importantly: It’s INSANE to pay thousands of dollars to starve yourself and overexercise. You can do that at home -- for free! (But seriously: Don't.)
Yes, extreme caloric restriction combined with insane levels of exercise can help you drop pounds, but I think we can all agree that this approach ain't exactly healthy or sustainable in the long run.

The real problem, though, is the dominance of the “calories-in, calories-out” paradigm, and the penchant for stretching that formula to the extremes. As long as people believe that the key to optimal health is to deprive their bodies of food and to jack themselves up with ridiculous levels of exercise, plenty of folks (like me) are going to keep destroying their bodies -- and paying through the nose for the privilege of doing so.