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October 6, 2006 7:43 pm

De-stress at the ‘wellness boot camp’

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If you wanted to come up with the perfect place for a health resort that helps restore the very wealthy’s zeal for healthy living, Canyon Ranch’s perch in the mountains of western Massachusetts might be the right spot.

But the serenity of a stately mansion set amid rolling green lawns and woods was not enough to convince Al Nahmad that a visit would be worthwhile. “I was a little sceptical because I thought it was a spa,” recounts the chief executive of Watsco, a Florida-based distributor of heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

“If I wanted a treatment I’d go for a few hours, not a whole week.”

But five years ago Nahmad signed up for a week-long stay at Canyon Ranch through Chief Executives Organisation, a global networking association of chief executives that holds an annual retreat there. “I kept the company plane nearby in case I wanted to leave,” Nahmad admits.

Within 48 hours, he was a convert to the concept of “wellness” – a holistic approach to healthy living that includes diet, exercise, stress and lifestyle habits.

It is one of the hottest trends among benefits and human resources departments, as they try to move from insuring their staff against illness to ensuring that they stay well. And the arguments for it apply in spades to the most senior executives.

The highlights of Nahmad’s first trip had little to do with massages, but rather an eclectic mix of learning about better sleep habits, a talk about caring for ageing parents, access to a well-equipped medical facility with attentive staff, and a lecture about the geopolitical situation in the Middle East from a State Department official.

Now Nahmad not only spends two or three weeks a year at Canyon Ranch with his wife, who has become a self-proclaimed “health nut,” but sends a dozen of his top-level managers for week-long sessions that cost $3,500 to $5,000 per person.

He considers the visits to be personal development programmes, not reward incentives.

“It’s not inexpensive but it's worth the investment to have key people go,” explains Nahmad. “They learn how to take care of themselves mentally and physically. Managers come out fully recharged.”

In other words, they learn to deal with the physical and mental costs that come with accumulating wealth.

The low-key elegance of Canyon Ranch, where guests potter to breakfast in fluffy white bathrobes, encourages people to choose from a vast menu of services that ranges from medical consultations to New Age alternative medicine therapies, from hiking and mountain biking trips to decadent body scrubs and massages. Through its Executive Health Programme, which has recently become a partner of the Cleveland Clinic, it hopes to cater to stressed-out managers who can afford to pay top dollar for a wellness overhaul.

Tales of executives who succumb to serious illness or worse while steering companies through massive deals, expansions and turnarounds are not uncommon.

With this in mind, the CEO said its annual retreat at Canyon Ranch is akin to a luxury wellness “boot camp” where executives can assess their health with help from a fleet of doctors, physiologists, nutritionists, fitness instructors, psychologists and other specialists.

Days packed with exams and consultations may not seem like a holiday but there are also fun activities such as cooking classes, lectures, sports, fitness classes and even art lessons. Canyon Ranch is a dry facility, so in lieu of alcohol, guests are plied with healthy, organic meals and as much fruit and vegetables they can eat – a novelty for those who either skip meals or sit down to rich power lunches every day.

Sixteen years ago CEO started looking at the needs of chief executives and saw that they were not getting balance in their lives.

“A lot of executives have so much on the line and they’re not focusing on their health,” said Brien Biondi, executive director of CEO.

Health problems are not just the domain of older executives at the top of the corporate ladder. One twenty-something Canyon Ranch guest had developed dangerously high blood pressure and early stages of heart disease as a result of his fast-paced job on Wall Street. His stay woke him up to the heavy toll that long hours, poor eating habits, heavy drinking and lack of sleep were taking on him.

Many illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are related to exercise, diet and stress and should therefore be preventable.

“Our mission is to prevent rather than cure,” said Kevin Kelly, Canyon Ranch’s president.

Prime targets are health-conscious and affluent baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Kelly is overseeing Canyon Ranch’s bid to grow from a health spa to a wellness brand. It has added its brand to spas on the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner and in upscale hotels at popular resorts such as Las Vegas and Orlando, while investing in luxury condo-hotels in Miami and Chicago.

It is also developing web health portals to guide people to healthier lifestyles without forking out thousands of dollars – a trend that can be seen in benefits programmes for employees with less money than the typical chief executive.

This “remote-learning Canyon Ranch” guides progress towards health goals by tracking calories burned, food intake and accessing medical and fitness advice from experts.

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