It’s my first morning in the gym at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa. I’m working the Recumbent Cross Trainer at a good clip, one eye on my heart rate monitor, the other watching CNN with subtitles. A great ’50s soundtrack is blasting away and I’m singing along with Chuck Berry. Suddenly there is an explosion of joy and euphoria in my chest. I have hit the mythical “runners high.”
It’s not difficult to fall in love with Pritikin. It is the only physician-supervised, health resort program that has been scientifically proven to prevent and reverse the progression of coronary heart disease and other health concerns, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. No idle promise, on previous visits, I have even seen people get off their medications. After 3 weeks, 74 percent of diabetics leave drug free, and 60 percent of hypertensives leave drug free.
First, the mandatory comprehensive round of medical testing and interviews by the team of staff doctors. No rushing, they spend more than an hour bringing to light all our iffy personal habits, every major and minor issue, every ache and pain. They want to hear us kvetch and complain. They are here to help us make it all better. The Fitness Director designs individual exercise programs. Can’t bench press because of shoulder pain? They show us the pain free way. Knees hurt doing squats? A simple move makes it okay. After an ECG, they let us know the range our heart rate should be. With an all-clear from the medical team, we can now enter the state-of-the-art gym and join a group of our fitness-level peers. During and after cardio, blood pressure is taken and recorded. Everyone receives the highly individualized attention they expect.
Meals are the social highlights of the day. I head for the spacious communal table for lunch. I join a non-judgmental, friendly group of about a dozen people, all here seeking a life altering experience. Some are first-timers, some repeaters. A retired dance instructor who finds herself out of shape; overweight mother and daughter committed to becoming fit and healthy; a man who carefully arranges his three cells phones at his place setting, one for each continent; several real estate moguls getting their twice yearly, one-week tune-up; a woman with a weeks’ vacation whose husband is deep-sea fishing; a 300-pound Texan who is sick and tired of being sick and tired.
We’ve planned my daily exercise regime to suit my capabilities and fitness level. Every night I plan to rise early and take part in the Sunrise Stretch on the patio, but I never make it. My guest room is so luxurious and comfortable I hate to leave. It’s unnatural for me to exercise before breakfast anyway, so my workouts begin at 9:30.
Breakfast has always been my favourite meal of the day. I happily request my egg white omelet with tomato, peppers and mushrooms, a gluten-free toasted bagel with non-fat cream cheese and a bowl of sparkly fresh berries with non-fat yogurt. It takes me a few days to accept that the coffee substitute cappuccino with almond milk is satisfying. Around mid-week, I notice greater muscular strength and take my weights up a pound. I’m motivated to attend a Zumba class before lunch, and I have my eye on a Posture, Balance and Stability class. Snacks between meals are encouraged, but it’s unusual for me to eat five times a day. And yet, I am eating more and weighing less! Brown rice with a dollop of vegetarian chili or a baked sweet potato, but my favourite snack is vegetable soup. Even now, months later, I’m preparing vegetable soups with lots of herbs as my mid-day snack.
The chatter at lunch centres around tennis on the brand new courts, golf at the award-winning Doral course, and our physical as well as emotional progress. We talk about a recent lecture on how to beat a weight loss plateau, and share our own experiences. I am waiting for the day when the man with the three phones does not bring them to the table (that never happens). The lunch menu varies from tostada to veggie burger to delicious dishes that use vegetables in ways we’ve never dreamed of. We choose our main courses, our greens and tomatoes for salad and ask to have them chopped, and marvel at the glorious array of fresh fruits.
After lunch, there are cooking classes to learn how to make the marvelous vegetable lasagna, for example; or just having a swim and relaxing around the pool. A class on Dining Out, and how to get what you really want in a restaurant is so informative for all of us. A walk around the gorgeous manicured grounds is a pleasure indeed. Zealots spend another half hour at the gym, spinning or mat pilates, in the weight room or at the aquatics. I follow my heart to the opulent spa and take advantage of all the amenities. Some days, it seems that the afternoon snack time collides with the pre-dinner Happy Hour. Love those veggie-stuffed mushrooms and fruit and vegetable cocktails, and the American staple, iced tea.
The cooking classes are much more than culinary entertainment. Calorie density is important. When we dilute high density vegetables such as potatoes or lentils with tomato or vegetables, the calorie density diminishes. No one has a weight issue because they eat too many fruits or vegetables. We learn to look at packaging, and spot sodium and sugar levels and the word “processed” immediately. It’s fun to go to the supermarket as a group and do some carefully curated shopping with our nutritionist. These are lessons learned that stay with us.
After dinner, I really enjoy the motivational lectures. The psychologist seems to be talking to me directly. “When you open a bag of cookies, is it all or nothing?” she asks. We all know the answer. Cognitive Restructuring Therapy makes sense. We get rid of bad habits by turning our thinking around. Mental Filtering is another phrase I’ve brought home with me. We remember only the one bad thing, when there are a multitude of good things. And for a food and travel writer like me, when I’ve had a great meal that flaunts all the Pritikin food principals, I must make the next meal “clean and green,” and try not to have two “bad” meals in a row. I won’t say to myself, ‘well I blew the diet,’ so I might as well just go back to my old ways. The psychologist is available for a few private appointments, and her time fills up quickly.
Dinner is a lovely relaxing time, white tablecloth, menus and a wait staff who know just what to recommend. Saturday nights are festive, Sundays an impressive brunch is offered. Fresh grilled salmon, turkey chili and vegetable lasagna are some of my favourites. Looking around the room at dinner, everyone seems refreshed and animated. You would think that after a day of activity, most people would be exhausted. Must be the air, the diet, the exercise and the motivation that comes from the camaraderie and instructors that gives us all that magic sense of hope. We are on the way to accomplishing our goals.
I agree with Oprah when she says Pritikin is “the gold standard in health and wellness support.” Pritikin is not cheap, but then, neither is life.