Oprah Winfrey is one of the most trusted people on the planet. She got President Obama elected, didn’t she? When Oprah pronounces one is easily persuaded: which is how I found myself fighting to breathe as I staggered up the ‘easy’ bit of Gros Piton, one of two extinct volcanoes (the other is Petit Piton) that shoot up out of the balmy waters of the Caribbean on St Lucia.
In Oprah’s view The Pitons are ‘one of the top five places to see before you leave this great place called earth’. Petit Piton (2461ft) requires a rope or two, but the ascent of Gros Piton (2619ft) is described as no more than tough hike. I thought if Oprah could do it – and she carries a pound or two more than me – then I could manage the two miles up and two miles down a path shaded by tropical greenery.
A path? Ha! It is an scary irregular staircase of volcanic rock and loose boulders, interspersed with ancient tree roots. It was only when we reached the half-way point – and yes the view was memorable (I think) – that our guide let slip that Oprah hadn’t actually climbed Gros Piton, just appreciated it from sea level. A puce-faced American woman from another group then stumbled into view – heading down. She’d seen what lay ahead. I bottled it, too – about a third of hikers do. There were, I reasoned, plenty of ways other than abject terror to get one’s heart rate up which was the goal of this ‘Spring Clean’ fitness venture.
Forget those risible dreams of a ‘New Year, New You’ of three months past. How rarely they are fulfilled. How quickly we lapse back into sloth. THIS is the time of year, when the clocks go forward, when warm breezes are blowing blossom hither and thither, that a physical overhaul is needed. Your summer wardrobe beckons and you don’t want it accessorised by the pot belly, flabby arms and wobbly thighs.
I decided direct action was needed. The Gros Piton climb is one of several ‘soft adventure tours’ offered by The Body Holiday where the focus is on physical fitness and mental wellbeing delivered through a comprehensive range of daily exercise classes, sporting activities, seminars on stress management and diet, therapeutic and spa treatments, and one to one counseling at Le Sport Hotel on lush St Lucia. The target market is busy individuals of all ages who want to kick start a fitness or weight loss programme, improve an existing one, or try new sports or therapies with guaranteed sunshine and beautiful surroundings as an added incentive.
Each day starts with a challenging 7am walk to wake up the metabolism and finishes with a meditation class. One need never stop moving in between. But attendance at classes and participation in activities is voluntary. I’m a veteran of fitness holidays, most of which require a high degree of physical suffering, inedible food and no alcohol. I’ve been barked at by ex-military types while yomping over rain-soaked moorland. I’ve been hauled out of a dormitory bunk bed at 5am by former PE teachers to run around a freezing barn doing star jumps. I’ve done ‘luxury’ boot camps, and ‘gourmet’ boot camps. Some worked, some didn’t; some left me hobbling in agony. What I hadn’t experienced was a boot camp for grownups, a place where no one bullies or even raises their voice; where how much or how little you do is up to you. Le Sport’s version of Butlins’ Red Coats are the Bodyguards, a bunch of chilled out fitness specialists, on hand to advise and teach when needed but who back off if your preference one day is for the beach, or a hammock in the garden. (And yes, I was ‘guilty’ of some downtime during my stay but it is surprising how disciplined one is when no one is MAKING you do anything.)
I had two goals: to make inroads into the rolls of fat around my middle, and resurrect my stalled training for my first marathon later this year. Felix, a former Mr Caribbean, who oversees the gym was my mentor – or miracle worker. One excess roll of adipose disappeared immediately when he corrected my posture (‘If you want to look old and fat, then slump.’) A schedule was devised with two or three gym sessions a day (45 minutes intense aerobic activity on treadmill, cross-trainer and bike followed by work with free weights) and then whatever classes I fancied. I dabbled in a few (spinning, Bodystretch, Bodyburn, yoga, aqua fitness, pilates) before settling on stretching and core strength classes.
When it came to diet, I expected deprivation. The breakfast menu recommended low-carb, high fibre, GI or cholesterol-busting breakfasts from the buffet, but a full English – or at least the Caribbean version – was available, too. And I discovered that if one stops agonising over what to eat, healthy choices come naturally. I snacked on walnuts and dried apricots or vitamin-rich juices during the day, ate salad for lunch and drank wanter constantly. In the evening, I dined on conservative helpings of chicken, fish, or seafood with a heap of vegetables at one of the three hotel restaurants. And instead of dessert I rejoiced in a guilt-free glass of red wine.
Did it work? I returned home half a stone lighter, definitely firmer, and with the energy and motivation to continue exercising back home. The bonus was the sense of mental well-being. Will it last? I’m hoping that my ‘spring clean’ will be a spring board to a healthier and happier summer, so bring on the marathon!
The Telegraph – Molly Abbott