Fitness Vacations: These People Lost Tons At Weight Loss Resorts

Jeryl Brunner - As the new year begins, it's a time of reflection and introspection and a time for rebirth. Travel helps us with that, and nothing more so than traveling to a spa or resort to make over our bodies and our minds. These inspiring people did just that. With fierce discipline and enviable determination, they came, they exercised, they exercised some more, and they conquered. "This isn't just about dieting or weight loss," said Francine Roberts, one of the travelers who changed her life. "This is about becoming a better and stronger me."

Francine Roberts, 53

Where: Hilton Head Health Weight Loss Resort and Wellness Spa, Hilton Head, S.C. 

Weight lost: 61 pounds 

Roberts before. (Photo: Francine Roberts)

When I first decided to go to Hilton Head Heath in 2013, I was in my late 40s and weighed 238 pounds.

I had tried losing weight almost my entire life with loads of different diets. I read books. I tried to eat healthy but also ate a lot of junk. It was always up and down: I would lose weight, keep it off for a little while, and then gain it back.

My health was starting to deteriorate. My knees hurt. My hips hurt. It took me a long time to get up the stairs. The little aches and pains were making me feel and act older, and I knew it was only going to get worse.

It hit me that if I didn't get healthy, it was never going to get easier to lose weight. I felt like it was do or die — my last chance.

My husband found Hilton Head Health. He said, "How would you like to go to a spa or to a resort as a Christmas gift?" He researched, and we chose Hilton Head Health because it was the closest one to where we lived in Leesburg, Va.

I was retired, and my children were in college. The resort is expensive, and the money was a big thing. But my husband and I worked hard, saved, and had some money in the bank. Some people save to have a new kitchen installed. Instead of getting a new kitchen, I went to Hilton Head Heath to get healthy. I decided to invest the money in me.  

Before I got to Hilton Head Health, it was kind of frightening. I thought, "I'm going to be alone." But when I got there, everyone was so nice and reassuring. Everybody was overweight like me, and most of the people there were women. I related to everybody. It was nice being around all those women who knew exactly where I was coming from and didn't judge my appearance. 

Related: 5 Stress-Busting Exercises You Can Do Absolutely Anywhere

Roberts after her 61-pound weight loss. (Photo: Francine Roberts)

I went for morning walks on the beach every day, which was very meditative and got me moving. I had breakfast with my new friends. Then I would take different exercise classes (my favorites were classes on the treadmill, dancing, water aerobics, and yoga), have a snack, and then there were all kinds of lectures on nutrition. We'd have lunch (always a broth soup first and an entrée), an extra two hours of exercise, a snack, and then another lecture and more exercise class. After dinner (lots of fish, chicken, occasionally beef), I'd go to bed at around 8:30 because I was so tired.

I took a lot of cooking classes, which made me realize that I do know how to cook — I just have to do it. I learned that eating at home was my best bet. If you want to have a hamburger, then make it at home. It will be 10 times healthier than any hamburger you can eat in a restaurant.

Also, if you crave something sweet, have something sweet, but make it fruit. Or if you're going to eat something like mayonnaise, eat real mayonnaise and not the low-fat. Because your body doesn't know how to metabolize chemicals and processed foods, but it does know how to metabolize fat. So have the mayonnaise, but have a little bit. Moderation.

I also learned the benefit of moderate exercise. You don't have to train for the Olympics, you don't have to kill yourself, you don't have to sweat all day every day. But you have to stay active, on your feet, and you have to move.

The first time I stayed at Hilton Head, I lost 13 pounds in 14 days. The second time (in 2014), I lost about 24 pounds in 11 weeks. I averaged about two pounds a week, and it stayed off, because when you lose slowly, you're developing new behaviors that are sustainable. If you just crash-diet for two weeks, that's not sustainable, so the weight comes back on. When you lose it slowly, you learn new behaviors and you practice those behaviors. Eventually those behaviors become habits, and that's the way you keep the weight off. The third time I went, in early 2015 for 12 weeks, I lost another 35 pounds.

Going was an investment in money, time, and confidence. But if I didn't make that investment to become healthier, I would have spent that time, money, and energy a few years from now at the doctor's office, buying medication and things to help survive. My advice is spend the money now to get healthy. Because if you wait a few years and develop diabetes and lose a foot, you may not be able to.

In a weird way, being overweight was a gift. It was like a two-by-four to the side the head that said, "You need to get your life in order." Before Hilton Head, I kept thinking I have to figure out what I want to do with my life. But when I got there, I realized I was asking the wrong question. And around week five or six, that's what hit me: All I need is to remember who I am. And from there, everything fell into place. I needed to be confident in myself. I discovered that we teach people how to treat us. Now I feel like I am the person who I am supposed to be. I realized I am a strong person, and I can do this. It is a struggle, and it does take time, but it's achievable.

Sarah Caron, 62

Where: New Life Hiking Spa, Mendon, Vt.

Weight lost: 150 pounds

Caron before. (Photo: Sara Caron)

In 2003, my girlfriends and I were looking for something to kick-start healthy eating habits. At that time, I weighed about 240 pounds. I wanted to start a hiking and exercise program. So we all decided to take a trip to New Life Hiking Spa in Mendon, Vt.

When we left, we decided that we would hike every weekend and join a gym. We did, and we hiked every weekend. It was awesome. 

However, my attitude had not been corrected. As soon as I reached goal, I quickly gained it all back, plus more. Though I continued to exercise and hike, it was obvious you can exercise all you want and not lose weight if you don't control what you put into your mouth.

By 2005, I was up to 270 pounds. I continued to go to New Life Hiking Spa, and each time I left, I was healthy for a day or so and then I just went back off track. Some years I actually went to New Life three times a season. But if your head isn't on right, nothing works.

In 2007, I went to China with friends. That is what put me over the edge.  I couldn't breathe, I couldn't walk. I didn't fit into the seats in the theater. I decided that this was it. I was going to lose the weight. 

I went to New Life with a new attitude. 

Caron after. (Photo: Sara Caron)

The schedule's very simple. Every morning they offered a stretch class and tai chi before breakfast. After, there were advanced and intermediate hikes, or nature walks for beginners. We'd be back for lunch by 12:30. Once a week there's an outing into the nearby town of Woodstock for a hike and a bag lunch. Then it was back to the spa for 2 p.m. afternoon activities. 

Every day there was also a pool class or strength training or a cooking class. There was usually yoga or Pilates in the afternoon or a fit ball class. Classes went all the way to 6 p.m., when there was a meditation class. I never missed a class.

Meals were prepared, and they accommodated your every dietary need. I never had a lack of food, and I was always satisfied. I ate almost everything they served. If there was something that I didn't like or wasn't sure about, they'd make me chicken. And it was amazing how good the desserts tasted, since they were made with no sugar.

Related: The Best and Worst Airlines for Healthy Food 

Caron hiking. (Photo: Sara Caron)

A big moment for me was when I was able to climb Mount Killington. And doing the advanced hikes. Because there was a time when I wasn't able to walk or breathe.

In two weeks, I lost nine pounds. That time at New Life Hiking Spa was a kick-start and helped keep me motivated. Now I go to New Life several times a season, continue to watch what I eat, and exercise on a regular basis. I just take it one day at a time. I never think in advance because if I did I would never have been able to lose 150 pounds. My weight now hovers between 140 and 142.  

Now my usual stay is anywhere from six to 11 nights. I highly recommend the 11-night stay for anyone who really needs to get on the right path. I lost an average of seven to nine pounds when I stayed for 11 nights. Of course, that doesn't happen now since I don't have the weight to lose. Now it's just a cleaning of my system. I actually look forward to having no sugar when I go there.

New Life is very affordable, and it has kept me in line for all these years. Whenever I stop exercising, I always get back on track when I get there. 

Jack Ezon, 43

Where: The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu, Malibu, Calif.

Weight lost: 50 pounds 

Ezon before. (Photo: Jack Ezon)

When I arrived at the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu in May 2011, I weighed 195 pounds. I'm only 5-foot-7. I was fat.

I have four kids, I was tired, I was working hard, eating wrong, drinking six cups of coffee a day. I was skipping breakfast and not in shape. I couldn't run a single block.

I did all these fad diets like Atkins and the South Beach Diet. I went to a few other "spas" to try and get in shape, and I ended up getting more massages than fitness classes. I signed up for the gym multiple times, but it always faded out after a month or so. Nothing motivated me. It got boring. I would lose 10 pounds and then put on 11. It kept going in circles.

Then I went to the doctor for my annual checkup. I had high blood pressure. My cholesterol was through the roof. My triglycerides were not pretty. My doctor sat me down and said, "Jack, you're 38. You've got four kids. You're medically obese. It's a really bad thing."

That day I also happened to meet with Alex Glasscock, the owner and founder of the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu. (I work in the travel industry, and we were introduced by a colleague.) He was telling me about this new concept. I said, "I think I need something like this because I'm falling apart, and I'd love to try it."

What makes this program different is the intensity of it. It's for type-A people. The program is really rough. It's not a typical spa. It's boot camp, and it's about 15 hours of fitness a day with about a 1,500-calorie diet. 

The Ranch does not expect you to show up and go through hell. They expect you to prepare and, in fact, send you a whole kit with daily and weekly goals to get yourself ready for the experience. Knowing that there was no option and I would be in a very rigorous program pushed me through the preparation. I prepared for three months for this one week. I began exercising because I knew I'd never make it up the mountain if I didn't. 

I recall going spinning for the first time and wanting to give up, but then thinking, "I just plunked down almost $6,000 for this, and if I don't get through this class, I am going to die on the mountain." And, little by little, it became more bearable. Every day and every week, it was a little easier to  run or spin or lift a weight. I lost 20 pounds following the Ranch's program even before I got there. I also stopped drinking coffee and alcohol and eating meat before I went. So by the time I got there, I had already invested so much into the program that there was just no turning back.

Still, my first day scared the crap out of me. I knew I was going to get whipped, but I was ready to be the iron that goes through fire to become steel.

The way the Ranch at Live Oak Malibu works is that it's a set program. Everybody arrives at the same time. Everybody leaves at the same time. Everybody eats every meal together. So you're with the same 15 people all day. There are no options. It's not like a spa. You can't sleep in. If you don't show up for an exercise class, you don't get your next meal.

A typical day was waking up at 5:30. I'd have about a 10-minute breakfast, which consisted of a half a cup of granola or a shake. Then it was time for about a four- or five-hour hike. Sometimes it was six hours, and I only brought water. No food. The staff would hand out two or three almonds with sea salt along the way (seriously).

The hikes were the most challenging part of the day. The goal was to keep my body at 60 to 70 percent of its maximum heart rate for an extended period of time. The longer I kept going, the more I would burn. The first day was utter torture. To play with the psyche, the staff started with the most difficult hike, which lasted nearly six hours and never seemed to end. I was completely numb afterward. Every muscle ached. I could barely walk back to my room.  

The redeeming factor about the hikes is that they are truly magnificent. Every day was a different location that delivered varied topography and views. Some days were steeper than others, some days were longer than others, but every day presented a gorgeous panorama.

After the hike, it was a little lunch, which was basically some chickpeas and kale. There were no options here, either. Everything was pre-rationed. The chef carefully measured everything that went into each recipe to comply with our strict diet code, which was between 1,200 and 1,500 calories a day. I was set a portion and I had to eat it — no more, no less. I ate every morsel with such care — every chickpea and every leaf separately, savoring every bite. The thing is, though, that while it was certainly dietetic, every single thing I ate was unbelievably delicious and presented like I was at a Michelin-star restaurant. And though I would lick my plate clean (literally), I was actually never starving —a bit hungry (like "sure I could eat"), but never to the point where I was dying for food. It was the strangest thing. They say that is what happens when you feed your body the right stuff. 

The diet was vegan (with the exception of eggs), organic, gluten-free, and specially formulated to detox the body — so much so that we had to brush ourselves with this body brush to remove the detox agents from our skin every morning. 

In addition to the meals, we had to drink some protein shakes and one ounce of water for every pound we weighed daily, which also furthered the detox process. At the advice of some people who went to the ranch, I brought some granola bars and popcorn for emergency, but I did not dare eat them. I was working so hard to lose the weight that I did not want to ever do it again.

After lunch, it was an hour of TRX training, an hour of core exercises, and an hour of another kind of workout. Then there was an hourlong massage, which I really needed because my body was burned out. Then dinner. 

And aside from 15 carefully allotted minutes daily to make a phone call or check email, there was no connection to the outside world. No newspaper, no television, no radio, nothing. They even discourage using your iPod. And not having access to Internet and email detoxified me even more than I would have expected. That was very hard. It was harder than not eating.

Because of the strict rules, you end up getting really close to the people in your group. From the first session at 6 a.m. to the four- to six-hour hike, the three meals, and four afternoon classes, you get to know a lot about each other. You also become really great friends with those on your fitness level, since you hike together for almost 50 hours that week.

Ezon after. (Photo: Jack Ezon)

I also learned to focus on nutrition and not calories. I learned so much about eating for nutrition. Your body sends pangs of hunger when it does not have the vitamins it needs. They also taught me that 100 calories of kale are not equivalent to 100 calories of potato chips. I can have a bag of potato chips, but it won't fill me for more than an hour. And if I eat a bag of kale, which might not be as exciting, I'll be full for six hours. And healthy food need not be bland. I had some of the most delicious food I've ever had.

Keeping up was really tough, but during that intense week at the Ranch, I got through it and learned so much about health and staying fit. Obviously, what they do there is not a way of life, and they don't want it to be. But it's supposed to be more of a jump-start and an inspiration. And that's what it was. When I came home, my wife didn't recognize me. My pants were falling down, and she's like, "What happened?"

Related: 10 Great American Hikes That (Almost) Anyone Can Do

Ezon, fitter. (Photo: Jack Ezon)

The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu cost me about $5,800 for the week. I saved up for it. It's an investment. People spend more on medical bills. My blood pressure went down. My cholesterol went down significantly, like 148 percent. I ran the New York City marathon last year. It's giving yourself a new lease on life. So what price can you put on your health, your longevity, and your wellness? How do you put a price tag on that? People spend that kind of money on just sitting on a beach for a week at a luxury hotel. You have to decide if you really want to jack it up and really improve yourself. It's a small investment compared to what you're underpaying to try to fix yourself. In fact, I loved it so much, I saved up again. Me and my siblings sent my mother there for her 60th birthday. She loved it.

I don't want to have to go back myself though. I remember hiking up that really hard mountain one day. I said to myself, "It's not worth the cookie." It's not worth it. I don't want to come back. I think about that all the time. 

Luckily, the Ranch provides you with a program for re-entry. I must admit I was nervous going home lest I ruin what I had accomplished. I basically continued on five hours of fitness a week and stayed on a vegetarian diet, which I pretty much continue today. I learned to be a B+ in life. Never try to be an A+, since it is not sustainable. So have that glass of wine or pizza, or even indulge on Thanksgiving, but pop right back up the next day and compensate. A+ addicts tend to just give up after two days of gluttony and just stop watching themselves. The Ranch philosophy allows for a reasonable way of life and something I think about every day.

My advice for others is that experience is not just about the seven days at the resort; it is about the whole journey. Go there if you're really focused on changing yourself, and if you are, embrace it. Don't fight what they're doing. Don't lazy out. Just stay on course. 

Tom McGee, 53

Where: The Biggest Loser Resort, Amelia Island, Fla.

Weight lost: 38 pounds

McGee before. (Photo: Tom McGee)

In 2001 and 2002, I was a  9/11 responder at the World Trade Center, working 16 hours days, seven days a week, for 10 months straight. Then I fell into an elevator shaft and broke my back in three places. They put me in traction so I wasn't able to move. During that time, I was diagnosed with lung problems and laid up for six months. I wound up gaining a lot of weight. 

I was 210 when I was at the World Trade Center, the weight I had been all my life. When I got to the Biggest Loser Resort early last year, I weighed 357 pounds. I needed to get away from my old life and become reprogrammed if I was going to get healthy.

I feel I didn't have much of a choice but to go to the resort. I was sluggish and tired, and I needed to change my life drastically. I knew it was a lot of money. I had $20,000 put away, and I spent $12,000 of it to go there for six weeks. Between my back and lungs, I'm 100 percent disabled from my job and on disability, so I had the time to go. I bounced it around for a while with my wife. We thought it was definitely going to be worth it if I could get the most out of it. And I did.

When I arrived at the Biggest Loser Resort, I didn't know what I got myself into. I thought, "This is just a luxury resort. I'm wasting my money." It was too nice.

But as soon as the classes started and I saw everyone, I realized it wasn't like going to a gym where you're with 18-year-old kids and people who have been pumping iron forever. I was with real people with real problems. Everyone was at the point where they were willing to spend that kind of money to get better. They were willing to do whatever they could. It was a last-ditch effort to get themselves back on track.

First, the staff gave us an assessment run. For one hour I had to skip, walk, do whatever I could, to try to get to two and a half miles. At first, I was only able to do a mile, maybe less. I had to stop about seven times. My lungs were killing me. I had back problems. I couldn't breathe. 

In the past, I had been to four different gyms and hired personal trainers. They do nothing compared to what they do at the Biggest Loser. At gyms you pay by the hour and someone shows you how to use the weights. At the Biggest Loser, they took care of my physical and emotional well-being. It was amazing. If I had a problem, they had someone who could actually talk to me — not only the staff, but the people who were also going through it.

The trainers were amazing. One of my favorites was Betty. She's about 4-foot-nothing. She weighs about 90 pounds, and she's the toughest girl I've ever met. I'd be on the treadmill with my eyes closed. I'd open my eyes, and all I could see were ankles. Betty would be standing on the rails of the treadmill yelling down at me. She was amazing. She made the experience funny and fun. I didn't know if I could do it, but I told myself the classes were only 45 minutes. Once you got to the point of "Can I really do this?" the class was over and you were on to the next one.

The workouts were original. There was one called the "12 Days of Christmas." It sounds nice, but it was hard. First, you have to do 10 pushups. Then 10 pushups and 10 tire flips. Then 10 pushups, 10 tire flips, and you run a quarter mile. It went like that — until you do all 12. I didn't think I could ever get past it. When I first started doing it, I thought, "All right, I can get to the fourth day of Christmas." And then it was, "I can get up to the sixth day." When I got to the eighth day, I was thinking, "There's no way I'm not going get to 12 of these. But I was with a group of really good people, and they inspired me. They all cheered me. Ten of them came with me up the quarter-mile hill, even after they were done already. Then there was a kid who was last. I was exhausted after I ran up that hill. But when it was his turn, I ran up with him. We took care of each other.

Before I got to the Biggest Loser Resort, I never had breakfast — I had a cup of coffee. I might have lunch around 2, a small dinner at 6 or 7, and then at 8 or 9, I'd pig out on crap. The Biggest Loser taught me how to eat correctly. 

I'd get up in the morning, have a meditation class, work out, and then I had breakfast. I'd do another class, then we'd have a snack, which would be an ounce of cheese or a piece of fruit. We had nice-size lunches with soups, a lot of beans. We stayed away from the carbs — like breads. I'd have a good-size salad for dinner and protein like salmon. Or instead of having a rib-eye steak, I'd have sirloin steak. It's a better cut, with less fat. I'd eat more lean meat like pork. I could have as much salad as I wanted as long as I didn't have too much dressing. The food was incredibly good. I ate more at the resort than I did when I was home.

The first weigh-in that we did. I was so excited. I got up early, and I thought I'll weigh in and have breakfast. So I weighed in and was very excited.

I lost one pound.

A pound. I said, "Are you serious? A pound. I could lose that at home. I worked so hard for a whole week, and I lost one pound." I was so upset. There was a woman, and she wasn't really putting in a lot of effort. And she only lost a pound. She was yelling, and screaming, and saying they fed her too much. I thought, I really worked my butt off and I only lost one pound.

Then one of the sat down with me and said, "Tommy, look at your chart." They said, "You gained more water mass because you've been hydrating. You gained eight pounds of muscle. So you didn't just lose one pound, you gained eight pounds of muscle." She was trying to explain how I'd lost fat but gained muscle, and that was what I was seeing on the scale. She said, "This is amazing. Athletes don't gain eight pounds of muscle in a week. This is incredible." I thought, "I lost a pound," and she's saying, "Don't give up. Try and just keep going, keep going. 

The following week I lost 11 pounds. 

Then the following week I lost 17 more after that. And the weight just kept falling off.

McGee after. (Photo: Tom McGee)

Not only did I lose weight, I also gained 52 pounds of muscle while I was there. My muscle mass went from 15 to 52 pounds. But it was more about how I felt. Before I got to the Biggest Loser Resort, I wasn't able to touch the middle of my back with my arm. I wasn't able to do a sit-up. I did 100 sit-ups the day I left — I wasn't able to do one when I got there. I was taking water aerobics and Zumba classes and doing things I was never able to do. When I left the resort, I did the same two and a half miles I started off with in 52 minutes. I felt like a million bucks. It was such an achievement.

My whole family was amazed by the transformation. My attitude was different. I brought home all the recipes with me so I like to cook now, the way our nutritionist showed me.

When I came home, I felt like a different person. I was stronger, lighter, happier, more in tune, and more motivated. My family was inspired. I keep hearing Betty in my head: "You can do anything for three minutes. You can do anything for 30 seconds." When you want to quit, you can't because Betty's yelling at you, "Don't give up. You can do it." It really stuck with me that you can do anything for a minute. So just keep going.

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