Slim Pickin's

By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 21, 2004

It started with a power walk before breakfast and continued with seven more hours of exercise, with a break for lunch. Who would have thought a human body could do all that? More to the point, who would have thought my human body could do all that?

I'm not a fitness freak or aerobics goddess. I'm an ordinary mortal who knows bathing suit season is just around the sand dune, so I headed for a weight loss spa for the weekend. I needed help, some kind of attitude adjustment, to get into the spirit of losing a few pounds.

Every winter lately, like the swallows to Capistrano, approximately five pounds return to find me, nesting in favorite spots on my hips and thighs. Even more discouraging this year was the number of shrinking people in my office who are devotees of Atkins or South Beach or the Special K diet. Over the past couple of months, I tried each of those for about 36 hours before screaming in agony and heading for my grocer's freezer section. I wanted some help settling into a better pre-summer pattern of losing weight through good eating and exercise.

In an era when every highway hotel is adding a fitness room and spa treatments, it still is surprisingly difficult to find nearby spas that specialize in weight loss. The big spas offer "spa cuisine" or juice bars, but most still focus more on pampering than perspiration. Deerfield Spa, about four hours from Washington in East Stroudsbourg, Pa., was the closest one I could find.

I arrived Friday about 5 p.m. After dinner -- cucumber salad, salmon, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, and a dessert masquerading as raspberry cheesecake -- and a brief rest, it was time for my Swedish massage, a relaxing head-to-toe kneading with massage oil. Funny, this weight loss regimen wasn't very taxing at all.

I headed for the last scheduled class of the day, relaxation yoga. Just when I would have been reaching for sugary cereal to snack on at home, I was pushing my right arm toward my left in a calming stretch, listening to a tape of ocean waves. I exhaled all my troubles, inhaled peace and goodness and whatever else the instructor told me to do.

It was yoga by lamplight. We faced large windows that looked out to the stars. The building used to be a carriage house. Deerfield opened in 1933 as a country inn and wasn't converted to a destination spa until 1981, with 22 rooms on 12 acres.

Now, instead of harnesses and buggies, guests find the apparatus of our modern leisure life -- stretch bands, balance balls, yoga mats and free weights. It's hard to lose five solid pounds in two days without chopping off an appendage, so many determined guests come for a week. But even for weekenders, the spa promises a regimen of low-cal meals, lots of exercise choices, relaxation, a new way of looking at food portions, and inspiration from others with weight loss goals.

Before Deerfield, I had never been to a spa, but I pictured a sleek, contemporary place, filled with trim bodies and fancy aerobics outfits. Deerfield, instead, is homey, relaxed, small and personal. You step outside and walk across a gravel driveway to the exercise room. Neatly tended lawns surround the facilities. Nearby is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

The instructor ended the class by lighting a candle and having us do a little meditating. The flickering light, reflected by the highly polished wood floor, was mesmerizing. My bed was just a few steps away. The only thing missing was a service to scoop me up and pour me into it.

Saturday was different. I was on a pre-beach mission after all. I had to get my bathroom scale to level off and then start a march downward, instead of continuing the upward creep it had been on since the holidays. The spa was my starting gate.

I began with the 7 a.m. power walk and then breakfast -- a spinach and low-fat cheese omelet, oatmeal and fruit. Delicious, but at 345 calories, it was not quite the lumberjack special. Next was stretch class; Latin dance aerobics class, where we did the merengue and mambo; a sports class with basketball, tennis and soccer; and an aquatic karate class with a taekwondo instructor. And that was all before lunch. Other guests skipped the morning classes for a three-mile hike along the Delaware River.

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