'My pants didn't fit': Travelers checking in at fitness resorts to drop pandemic pounds

Abby Ellin, CNNUpdated 2nd August 2021
(CNN) — If the "baking elf" hadn't spent the pandemic whipping up sweet confections, Frances Hohl might not have gained 25 pounds.
But the magical pastry chef -- aka Hohl's 19-year-old daughter, Casmere, who was doing college remotely -- calmed her Covid anxiety by baking fabulous creations almost every night: Strawberry shortcakes and chocolate chip cookies and French macarons and lemon meringue pies. She once even made a wedding cake. Never mind that no marriage was taking place.
Hohl couldn't ignore her daughter's efforts. Nor did she want to. "Wedding cake is my favorite," says Hohl, 56, a writer in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
And that is how, 11 months into lockdown, Hohl found herself at Movara, a fitness resort in Ivins, Utah, trekking through rust-colored canyons with sand so thick she was practically wading in it. Her calves ached. Her shoulders throbbed. Blisters erupted between her toes. Still, in the afternoons she did strength or cardio classes, along with massages and other body treatments -- all in an effort to take off the pounds she had amassed.
"I just felt so uncomfortable in my body," says Hohl.
Many people felt similarly after a year spent ordering takeout, bingeing Netflix and working from home -- often facing enormous stress, anxiety and depression. According to a March research letter published in JAMA Network Open, Americans gained more than half a pound every ten days of lockdown.
Movara Fitness Resort in Ivins, Utah, was recently sold out 18 weeks in a row.
Movara Fitness Resort in Ivins, Utah, was recently sold out 18 weeks in a row.
Courtesy Movara Fitness Resort
And the urge to drop pandemic pounds extends beyond the United States.
Slimmeria, a weight loss, detox and fitness retreat operator in the United Kingdom, has been sold out since May. "I think due to the Covid situation people are taking their health very seriously and started practicing self help," says Slimmeria owner Galia Grainger.
Caroline Sylger Jones, the founder of retreat guide and review site Queen of Retreats, is seeing the same thing.
"Most of our UK and European retreats that have been able to run have sold out this summer, although everyone says bookings are last minute," she says. "Definitely people are looking to lose their lockdown weight and get fitter."
Now that the world is opening up, weight loss and fitness resorts are reaping the benefits of those goals.

Looking to lose the 'Covid 19'

Hilton Head Health, in South Carolina, has seen a 30% increase in new inquiries since mid-February, with a six- to eight-week waiting list. Due to customer demand, The Ranch in Malibu, California, recently launched The Ranch 9.0, a nine-day experience that adds two days to its signature week-long program. And We Care, in Desert Hot Springs, California, is so busy that they're considering opening a branch on the East Coast.
Movara in Utah was recently sold out 18 weeks in a row.
"And there's no sign of it slowing down," says Elaine Hartrick, Movara's general manager. "Guests arrive each week talking about how they've gained the 'Covid 19' or the 'Covid 25' or 'Covid 30'. People recognized obesity as a risk factor for complications from Covid, and they wanted to change their lifestyle so they wouldn't become another statistic. It was a wake-up call for so many people."
Caren Kabot, the founder of Solo Escapes, a travel company that focuses on spa and wellness, says people are also looking to rest and reset after a year of confinement.
"They're like, where do I start? What do I need to do? I say, plan at least one week where you can focus on creating balance in your life while shedding a few extra pounds."
Fit Farm offers fitness and weight loss programs in Tennessee.
Fit Farm offers fitness and weight loss programs in Tennessee.
Courtesy Fit Farm

'It was so calming'

Tiffany Benjamin, 41, took that further and booked a month-long stay at Fit Farm, in Castalian Springs, Tennessee.
"We e-learned three kids and stayed inside for a year and several months, and I just ate and drank and gained about 60 pounds," says Benjamin, who runs a foundation for a company in Indianapolis. "I wasn't feeling great, my pants didn't fit. I hadn't lifted anything other than a donut box. I thought, just to go someplace to not have to pick up anybody's socks and to be given a schedule of what to do sounds great."
Each morning she woke up at 6 a.m. for a pre-breakfast workout, along with eight to 10 other guests. The remainder of the day consisted of five to six hours of workouts and workshops on everything from nutrition to the 5 Love Languages, along with three healthy meals and two snacks. Think adult summer camp, but with cooking classes, interval training and unsweetened bug juice.
The camaraderie was as important as the physical fitness. At all of these resorts guests eat meals together, and work out as a group.
"Everybody was sort of on the same mission, no matter where they were in terms of health and weight," says Benjamin. "We were there to be kind to ourselves and each other. I watched the sunrise over the horizon. I petted a horse. I went hiking. It was so calming and I didn't have to make a lot of decisions."
Fit Farm retreats take place at Rock Springs Retreat Center in Castalian Springs, Tennessee.
Fit Farm retreats take place at Rock Springs Retreat Center in Castalian Springs, Tennessee.
Courtesy Fit Farm

Pandemic stress takes a toll

Stress and anxiety are two of the biggest reasons why many people gain weight in general, and specifically during lockdown, says Katie Rickel, a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief executive of Structure House, in Durham, North Carolina.
"Stress, habit and boredom, and that describes the pandemic," says Rickel, adding that Structure House is booked solid three months out. "All the reasons people went to food was accentuated. Covid also sensitized people to just how delicate our health is and helped people reprioritize just how controllable health behaviors are."
Jacob Norry, 25, went to Structure House for five weeks in November. A graduate student in marine biology in Fort Lauderdale, Norry has struggled with binge eating for years. Last August he broke his ankle and his weight shot up to 280 pounds. He fell into a deep depression.
"Covid didn't help," he says. "I live alone and not having people come over was hell."
A family friend suggested Structure House, which offers treatment for compulsive overeating, and Norry decided to go. He lost 20 pounds, most of which he has kept off.
"They really help rebuild your relationship with food," he says. "When I went into Structure House my goal was, 'I want to get back to 175.' Now my goal is, 'I want to be healthy.'"
Participants exercise during a Fit Farm retreat.
Participants exercise during a Fit Farm retreat.
Courtesy Fit Farm at Rock Springs Retreat Center

'We needed something different'

Getting healthy is what brought Laura and Danielle Prioleau to Movara. The mother-daughter duo from Twentynine Palms, California, spent nine weeks there.
"Before the pandemic I had lost nearly 60 pounds and was doing really well," says the twenty-something Danielle, who is completing her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy.
"But during the pandemic I gained weight and wasn't really getting out. I wanted to support my mom and make this a joint effort. We both wanted a lifestyle change and were tired of the dieting rigamarole. Nothing was sticking. We needed something different."
She was able to work remotely; her mother, a comptroller for a non-profit organization, took time off from work to go to Movara. "Being at home, with three kids who came home from college -- I was just cooking and playing board games," says Laura Prioleau.
Laura has lost almost 35 pounds and Danielle has dropped about 30 pounds.
These vacations don't come cheap. Rates for a new participant at Structure House start at $3,050 for a one-week visit, and about $2,500 a week in a shared one-bedroom apartment if you stay four weeks. The Ranch runs $8,600 for seven days and $10,800 for nine. At Fit Farm, a double starts at $2,399 for one week. Movara begins at $1,995 per person in a shared room ($2,569 in a single) for a week.
But many people who can afford this kind of retreat feel they're worth the investment -- though there are no guarantees they'll keep the weight off.
Because though most resorts offer some kind of return-to-the-real world program, let's face it: It's easy to eat healthfully when someone is cooking for you, leading you on hikes, and removing temptation. The challenge comes when the fairy dust settles and the real world kicks in.
But some people prevail. Hohl lost nine pounds during her month at Movara, and her body fat percentage went from 43.7 to 39.6.
When she returned to Colorado she did the Movara Home program and lost another 11 pounds. (It also helped that the "baking elf" got a full-time job, which cut down on her kitchen time.)
Hohl hopes to return to Movara next February for a reset. "I've gotten so many comments from family who last saw me before I went away," says Hohl. "They could tell I was just much happier and obviously smaller."