IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Went On A Smoke-Free, Caffeine-Free, Sugar-Free "Wellness" Retreat Despite Being Full Of Toxins

There was an introductory lecture, which included words like “tonic,,” “fat flush” “hydro therapy,” and, everybody’s favorite, “toxins.” We concluded the evening with some goat’s whey and a probiotic. I set off for my room, wondering what I got myself into.
Publish date:
October 8, 2013
retreats in the woods, life changes

This was me a month ago: smoker, social drinker, caffeine addict (coffee and diet soda), eater of carbs/sugar/salt, sporadic exerciser. Resident of a city full of pollutants (NYC), with a hectic job full of moments of high stress. To varying degrees, probably like many women out there. I was also, apparently, full of toxins. (Be honest, you probably are, too.)

I was perfectly content going about my less-than-healthy lifestyle. Then I won a one-week stay at Mountain Trek, a wellness retreat that’s smoke-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free (fun-free?) -- with much of the day spent hiking.

I had my reservations about going, but still secured time off and made the trip.

I set off early on a Saturday in September. Two plane rides and one four-hour shuttle later, I arrived at the retreat, housed in Ainsworth, British Columbia.

I’ve never been to rehab, but got a very rehab-y feel from the place. People were friendly but spoke in hushed voices. There was a general health-oriented atmosphere of calm and respect.

I wondered if my bags would be searched for toxic contraband, but needn’t have worried (thankfully, because how embarrassing if the two packs of smokes I stashed in my suitcase lining were discovered).

We were given a tour of the grounds, which were set high above the tranquil Kootenay Lake and were as lovely as I expected. The lodge only accommodates up to 16 guests; there were 14 of us that week. There was a communal dining room and adjoining sunken living room whose décor evoked a modest-but-comfy country home. The facilities included a glass-enclosed workout studio, a hot tub, sauna, and massage rooms.

I thought maybe we’d have a special dinner to ease us into the detox, but those hopes were quickly dashed as we sat down to reasonably portioned plates of salmon and veggies.

That first night, there was an introductory lecture, which included words like “tonic,” “fat flush,” “hydro therapy,” and, everybody’s favorite, “toxins.” We concluded the evening with some goat’s whey and a probiotic (everybody’s favorite wellness nightcap). I set off for my room, wondering what I got myself into.

Sunday marked the first full day of the retreat. A typical schedule:

6:00am – Wake to a gentle-but-firm knock on the door (“Good morning, Margarita!”)

6:15am – Dining room for smoothies and a tonic that tasted like spicy ginger water

6:30am – Yoga

7:30am – Breakfast (ranged from a veggie frittata to quinoa with fruit compote/nuts/seeds to sprouted bread with almond butter.)

8:30am – Wellness lecture (some days) -- topics included nutrition, fitness, stress, sleep, etc.

10:30am – Hiking, with stops along the way to have mid-morning snacks (usually fruit and protein, like nuts or a hardboiled egg), lunch (soup), and mid-afternoon snacks (raw veggies and a dip, typically hummus- or almond butter-based)

3:30pm – Return to the lodge

4:00pm – Afternoon lecture (most days)

5:15pm – Dinner (varied from beef stew to steamed chicken to baked falafel, all served with veggies. No dessert, ever; all fruit always served prior to lunch).

6:00pm – 45-minute cardio/strength workout (cardio kickboxing, spin, cross-fit, other drills incorporating weight-lifting, cardio and ab work)

7:00-9:00pm – Massages (three included in every week-long package), hot springs visits, hot tub and sauna (I tried hydro therapy, whereby you alternate hot and cold water, only once; found it torturous.)

10:00pm – My usual bedtime

I didn’t think I’d learn many new things from the lectures. (I’m a smirky New Yorker and have heard it all before, blah blah) I was wrong. There was some affirmation of things I knew (i.e. strength training is important in boosting metabolism) but also plenty to learn. It was also nice to get a trustworthy answer to certain questions I had. (Some grains are good for you! You don’t have to prepare/cook all your food to be healthy!)

A partial list of things I found useful/enlightening:

  • Paying attention to your fat percentage is far more important than your actual weight.
  • You can raise your metabolism by up to 20% by eating within 30 minutes of waking (!).
  • 2/3rds of your calories should be eaten within nine hours of waking (gives you a chance to burn them throughout the day, reduces blood sugars later so Insulin doesn’t store the rest as fat).
  • It’s OK to exercise right after eating.
  • Diet soda and artificial sweeteners really are that bad for you and can contribute to extra weight gain -- especially around your belly (Been sorta in denial on this one).
  • Food intolerances (dairy, wheat, soy, etc.) not only cause icky side effects but can contribute 5-15 pounds of water retention
  • Stress disrupts levels of cortisol, which can promote weight gain; conversely, managing stress can help weight loss.
  • Egg yolks are not evil and whole eggs are perfectly fine to eat a couple of times a week.
  • Coffee on an empty stomach is bad news bears: produces cortisol in many and tricks the body into starvation mode, making it way hungrier later (which can lead to unwise food choices).
  • More than three alcoholic drinks per week can harm the liver’s ability to metabolize fat.
  • To burn fat, you need to exercise for 40 minutes at a brisk pace (think 6-8 level of effort, scale of 1-10) or 90 minutes casually-but-continuously (slow walking).

I did fine on the new regime for the first couple of days, but Tuesday, I started feeling super-cranky and nervous, craving every fatty/generally unhealthy thing I could think of and hating the world (didn’t help that it rained during that day’s hike). I later found out that third day is often referred to as “Toxic Tuesday” due to the changes happening in the body as it gets rid of all the nasty stuff.

Wednesday morning I wasn’t feeling much better (possibly worse), but luckily that’s when we had one-on-one midweek check-ins. My two main goals for the trip were to kick-start a new fitness regimen and better learn to manage stress. I obviously wasn’t doing so well with the latter, because -- to my surprise and embarrassment -- I had an emotional meltdown during my check-in.

Cathy, an incredibly kind and compassionate guide, gave me tissues, calmed me down, told me I needed to take care of myself and relax. She advised that I skip that day’s hike and take time for myself. I did (reading, writing, listening to music, catching up on work emails) and felt immensely better. The rest of the week passed without incident. I also didn’t sneak a single cigarette during my stay.

One of our last lectures was about integrating what we learned into our everyday lives. They told us the best thing to do was pick two of the main guidelines and commit to those. My two: giving up diet soda (I had a bit of an addiction) and dairy (been allergic/intolerant for years but still indulged in it).

We were weighed and measured when we first arrived and again on our last day. In one week I lost 7.2 pounds. 2.6 were water but 3.4 of the pounds I lost were pure fat. I also lost four inches total across my bust, belly and hips, two of those inches coming from my midsection. And my face was noticeably thinner, too (hello, cheekbones!). Normally, it would take me at least a solid month to get those results.

While I was excited to be returning home, I was also nervous. Again, I imagined it felt like getting out of rehab. Would I relapse into a life of Coke Zero, pizza, and inactivity? What if I didn’t have time to fit in both a healthy mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack with all my work meetings? What if I couldn’t keep making time to exercise?

Thing is, I felt fantastic, physically and mentally, and was determined not undo this progress, to keep going.

I’ve been back a few weeks now and here’s what I changed:

  • I always eat something within the first half hour of waking (even though I’m usually not hungry).
  • I bought a package of Pilates reformer classes and go twice a week.
  • I also try to do cardio at least twice a week, even if it means waking up an hour earlier to do it.
  • I plan out my meals/snacks for the day ahead of time, prepare more of my food and incorporate stuff like chia seeds, sprouted bread, sunflower seeds and lots more fruit (mornings only) and vegetables.
  • I try not to eat dinner after 6 pm, even if it means eating all three meals at my desk at work.
  • I’ve reduced my daily cup of coffee to 2-3 a week, drink more green/black tea.
  • No more diet soda. (Sticking to it!)
  • No more dairy.

I don’t think that I’ll bring myself to regularly visit saunas or get massages anytime soon and ditto for meditation (all top recommendations), and I do still smoke and get moderately stressed out, but even so. Given my previous lifestyle and general know-it-all stubborn attitude, I call it progress. While I don’t want to undo all of my hard work from that (tough!) week away, I’m less concerned with getting down to a certain dress size and am more interested in taking better care of myself overall.

So yeah, despite all my skepticism, I guess you could say my life has been changed.