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I Went On A Health Retreat And When I Saw The Program, I Thought I Was Going To Die

Recently, on a Saturday morning at 6:30am, I was being whipped in the face by hail.

The location was Inverloch, Victoria; the temperature was seven degrees (but felt like minus two).

And as the locals lay all warm and cosy in their beds, they may have heard three women in their 30s screaming as they ran through slush, puddles and mud, battling torrential rain and hail on their way to a murderous-looking beach.

Welcome to the beginning of my first fitness retreat.

I never really thought I’d be one of those people who goes on health retreats. I don’t prescribe to the value of vitamins, nor do I follow exercise and food trends.

Image: Supplied

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that only adequate sleep, healthy food (that looks like real food) and regular, science-backed exercise -- and not internet pseudo-science -- are the key to living a good life.

With the global health and wellness industry now reportedly worth US$4.2 trillion (of which ‘wellness tourism’ makes up $639 billion) and its number of disciples growing, this very lucrative market is ripe for abuse.

So how did I decide that this particular health retreat was not pure quackery? Well it was run by a woman I’ve come to trust completely -- my personal trainer of two years, Elka Pettifer.

A clinical Pilates instructor and former professional dancer, she understands the body like no one I’ve ever met, and has the ability to tell what’s wrong just by looking at the way you walk. Her training programs are also based on science-backed research.

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So when she suggested I join her on a fitness retreat, I thought: 'why not?' The cost wasn’t prohibitive (a quick Google search shows most retreats cost well into the thousands), I knew the person hosting it well, and I trusted her expertise.

The downside? It was going to take place in winter, in one of the coldest parts of Victoria.

While I’m usually quite happy to slug it out at the gym, I have a few key fears when it comes to exercise: getting up early in the morning, and being out in the rain and cold.

As a child, I was often told that being cold and wet would lead to the flu or pneumonia, and that not getting enough sleep would result in an early death.

So when I first saw the weekend program, I thought I was going to die.

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Saturday morning included a 5:30am wakeup for meditation (as a former insomniac, I have a fear of early morning wakeups); followed by a six kilometre run to the beach (hail was predicted); a dip in the freezing ocean (enough said); strength conditioning for an hour; HIIT cardio; pilates; assisted-partner stretching; and yoga.

Sunday was much the same.

So with my best friend in tow (she is as mad as I am) we dutifully got up at 5:30am, went on the run and faced our worst fears.

Yes, I got rained on -- even hailed on. Yes, I dunked myself in the freezing ocean, thought I was having an asthma attack, but still went back into the water three more times. I even swam a lap, and experienced the rather bizarre feeling of utter peace and mental dissociation from the material world.

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I also felt, for the first time, pain-free in my hips. It turns out cold water stimulates the body,  reduces swelling and combats inflammation, and aids recovery after exercise.

Other reviews of studies focusing more broadly on health retreats suggest there are many positive health benefits from these experiences, such as positive changes in metabolic and neurological pathways, weight loss, lower blood pressure and abdominal girth, and improvements in quality of life and wellbeing.

And while fitness and health retreats still belong largely in the complementary medicine category, I now believe that incorporating them into a broader healthy lifestyle is highly beneficial. It took me out of my routine, pushed my boundaries and tested how strong I was (mentally and physically).

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The popularity of these retreats shows people are increasingly looking beyond medication to feel better and healthier, which, in turn, is encouraging smaller operators to offer more affordable fitness retreat options.

The trick -- as with all health-related matters -- is to choose the right retreat for you, one that is structured off the back of science and not food and exercise fads which are as yet unproven.

For me, the weekend proved both mentally and physically restorative, and has changed the way I approach many things, including my fear of rain and the cold.

At the very least, I’m able to say I swam in a freezing ocean and lived to tell the tale.

Featured image: Supplied