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My week at the 'Biggest Loser' fat camp

You can watch ‘The Biggest Loser’ on television. Or you can live it, at a resort where guests are prodded and pushed and left panting.
Image: The Biggest Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge
The Biggest Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge in Ivins, Utah, includes canyon hikes as part of its daylong regimen of exercise and lectures.Djamila Grossman for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

“Come on guys! Three more minutes and Day 2 is over!” screamed Sharon, our six-foot trainer, punching the air with her fists and tossing back her slick black hair, which perfectly matched her shiny black tracksuit.

“Or should I make it funner?” she yelled.

Knowing by now that Sharon’s favorite grammatically incorrect word, “funner,” was synonymous for “harder,” no one said a thing. Instead, the 20 of us in Group Orange remained focused on our circuit training activities — running, pedaling, lifting, squatting, climbing, lunging and sweating — the latter being something we were all doing quite well after nearly three hours of continuous exercise.

“Guess what is on TV tonight?” Sharon shouted, standing beneath one of the many inspirational posters on the wall, this one of Heba Salama, a contestant from Season 6 of “The Biggest Loser” who lost 138 pounds and won $100,000. Those who could still breathe yelled back, “The Biggest Loser!”

Barely hanging on to my treadmill, I refused to respond. Right now, I hated my favorite TV show.

That evening, immobilized with fatigue in our matching queen-size beds, I introduced my friend and roommate, Teresa, to the competitive weight-loss show she had heard about but had never seen. After witnessing the contestants pull themselves across a pool on a rubber ball, sprint a mile through the desert and burst into tears in the middle of their “Last Chance” workout, Teresa looked at me and said in her Virginia accent, “Honey, if I had seen this show a week ago, I never would have come here.”

Two days earlier, on my 50th birthday, Teresa and I had checked into The Biggest Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge in Ivins, Utah , one of two residential exercise camps affiliated with the television show (the other is in Malibu, Calif., near “the Ranch,” which is where the actual show takes place). For Teresa and me, a fitness getaway was hardly our idea of a vacation, particularly as our friendship had begun 15 years earlier when we were both living in France , enjoying expensive wines over multicourse dinners. But after sharing concern for our expanding waistlines, I knew exactly what we should do.

Although fitness resorts have been around for decades, I had never, until now, been particularly tempted to go to one. But given my recent weight gain, and the fact that I was turning 50, I wanted to jump-start a program that would make 2012 the year I finally got in shape. So it only seemed fair that I should take a break from my husband and children for a week and invest in my health (and, yes, my vanity). Years ago, my father, my siblings and I fended for ourselves while my mother attended one of the earliest fitness resorts in the country, which Elizabeth Arden had opened at her summer home in Maine called the Maine Chance. There, my mother told me, women padded around in slippers and pink robes, eating low-calorie meals from vegetables grown in the backyard and engaging in calisthenics and leg lifts.

Flash forward 40 years when the words “institute,” “retreat,” “camp” or, more ominously, “boot camp” tagged onto a resort name are code words for “exercise and health.” It might be a spa that also has a sleek gym offering exercise classes along with a vegan menu, or a full fitness program revolving around yoga , tennis, hiking or other sports, like Canyon Ranch, which opened in Tucson in the late ’70s and is now one of the most popular health retreats in the country. The Biggest Loser programs are some of the most recent entrants in the field, and their regimens, I would soon find out, are among the most rigorous.

During our one-week stay, which cost Teresa and me $1,995 each, we were placed on a diet of 1,200 calories a day (the lowest amount allowed without medical supervision). Alcohol and caffeine were not allowed. Each day, which began as early as 6 a.m., we engaged in three hours of exercise — one class took place in the pool — and a two-hour mountain hike. We attended lectures on emotional eating, nutrition, fitness, health management and meal planning. Our day officially ended at 6:15, though there were additional lectures offered after dinner. When we checked in on a recent Sunday afternoon, neither of us had any idea that weight loss was a 12-hour-a-day job. Certainly, our first impressions of the resort gave no indication of what we were in for. Following the winding paths that led to the red brick, Southwestern-style hotel building, we were relieved that the place looked more like a luxury resort than a fat camp. Tanning chairs and overstuffed sofas were scattered around the outdoor pool (later we would learn that Sharon made one class hurdle over them), and there was a bubbling Jacuzzi and a steam room. The resort also had a full spa, though treatments were extra.

“This place doesn’t look so scary,” I said to Teresa, as we plopped our bags down in our room, decorated in burned orange to match the color of the spectacular mountains surrounding our wonderfully isolated resort.

There was little time to unpack. We had to turn in our signed agreements stating that Fitness Ridge was not responsible for any “injury, including death to any person suffered while at the resort or participating in the program.” Though standard for any health club, it felt strangely ominous when I looked at the weeklong schedule we were given. There was no free time unless you counted the 10 minutes we had to change for swim class or jog to our next “mountain” or “core” cardio class.

“I don’t see a rest hour in here anywhere,” Teresa said, sounding panicked.

Our paranoia only grew as we passed not one but three gyms on our way to the office and lecture building where we would have our official weigh-in. One was packed with cardio equipment, another filled with balance balls and free weights, and the last was a basketball court, where I would soon take my first-ever Zumba and kick-boxing classes, the latter with Sharon jumping and kicking around me kung fu style.

Despite our wariness, we enjoyed our first low-calorie meal: a strangely filling dinner of turkey meatloaf with roasted sweet potato fries. At the well-stocked salad bar, the only way to get some vinaigrette was for someone in the kitchen to bring you exactly one tablespoon. The meal ended with two strawberries dipped in dark chocolate. Less is more, we were quickly learning, as we hurried off to the “Welcome/Orientation” meeting, where Teresa and I were eager to size up our fellow campers, literally.

Of the 41 of us checked in (many for several weeks), either cleverly or stupidly for the week before Thanksgiving, there were, not surprisingly, only six men. What was unexpected was how many of the women, like me, seemed to need to shed only 20 pounds or so — only a third of our group looked seriously overweight. Guests’ ages ranged from 19 to 69, and nearly everyone had come alone, happy to bunk with a stranger. But as we stood up, one by one, introducing ourselves, it became obvious that the weight everyone wanted to lose was minor compared with the reasons people were here.

“I wanted some time to concentrate on just me,” said an unbelievably fit mother of four from the West Coast, who ended up spending her week in the most advanced-level hiking group. “I want to get my mobility back,” an older man from England said, breaking down as he described a series of back surgeries he had undergone. (Sharon, whom we did not yet know, quickly ran to his side and rubbed his back, making us believe she was a gentle life coach, not a brutal trainer.) Teresa and I went to bed that night energized by everyone’s commitment to good health.

At 6 the next morning, we were doing sun salutations at the optional Yogalates class. By 8 a.m., after a 300-calorie breakfast (a frittata with spinach, feta and roasted red pepper), we were on our two-hour “assessment” hike. Having been told by an experienced guest that hiking quickly over the sand and rocks would only get us thrown into an advanced group, Teresa and I took our time, breathing in the chilly morning air as we hiked through canyons and valleys. Our plan worked, landing us in a mid-level hiking group of seven women with three guides, one of them a 70-year-old man.

Later that first afternoon we met our trainers — Robin, Tiffany, Nicole and a host of others — the most popular being the handsome Sione Fa, a former TV competitor who is now a trainer for The Biggest Loser Resorts. The most terrifying trainer was, hands down, Sharon.

“And how is Group Orange doing right now?” Sharon asked each time she arrived at one of our classes (the trainers rotated throughout the day). “You didn’t think you had me today, did you?” she asked at one point. “You are paying two grand a week to be here. Now move!”

I was dismayed to see her in the front of our first “treading” class on Day 4, which was by far the low point for Teresa and me. Despite passing out at 9 each night after evening lectures on subjects like “Intuitive Eating” and “Spending Your Calories Wiser,” we were truly exhausted midway through our stay.

“Treading is the hardest class at Fitness Ridge!” Sharon yelled, and within moments we were in the thick of an interval workout in which we had to increase the resistance and speed on our , elliptical or running machines to as high as we could possibly manage. Looking at the monitor on my stationary bike, I had never seen my heart rate so elevated and wondered if I might have a heart attack right there — a worrisome thought as there was no in-house doctor at the resort. But apparently my thumping heart was not a problem. “Get it higher, Jennifer!” Sharon yelled at me after seeing the number flashing on my console.

Tempted to skip a few of the lectures as the week drew on and to lie in those pool chairs we now only dreamed about, we quickly learned that plan would not work, as staff members were taking attendance and tracking down those who were absent. So, whether we wanted to or not, we learned that “weight management” has three elements — fitness, nutrition and emotional health. I quickly became educated by the resort’s two full-time nutritionists on how to eat better. The resort’s executive chef, Cameron Payne, taught us recipes in cooking demonstrations, and in our only competitive event, we had to guess the number of calories in various photos of restaurant meals. Who knew Olive Garden’s shrimp Alfredo is nearly a day’s calorie allowance?

I would have been unhappy about failing the calorie quiz had the prize been a free massage, but instead it was a personal training session. The last thing I wanted was more exercise.

On our final day, I had a glimpse of what life on the show must be like. Hoping to promote the resorts, “The Biggest Loser” film crew showed up to make a commercial that included filming our “Last Chance” workout. Some guests showed up in full makeup, while others, like me, jumped rope facing the wall in a corner. As the trainers yelled encouragingly to us, I couldn’t help but feel the glare of the camera on my hips and to notice which guests were running faster or doing more pushups than I was — even though I was amazed by what I was now capable of doing in a gym.

Afterward, we attended “graduation,” at which we were presented with a DVD of us grinning and grunting through various activities. Tissues were promptly handed around, as was a list of our e-mail addresses so we could keep in touch.

But as emotional and moving as graduation was, Teresa and I cared about one thing only: our 8 a.m. check-out the next day, when we would learn our results. Waking early, we decided to forgo breakfast and instead sat in the sauna for 20 minutes, hoping to sweat off some last-minute weight.

When the time came, it was Sharon who escorted me into the room of reckoning. As she read off my new weight and numbers, she seemed more shocked than I was. In one week I had lost five pounds, four inches in my waist and nearly two in my hips. My body-fat percentage was down by nearly 1 percent, getting me closer to the norm for my age.

“These are amazing numbers!” Sharon said, giving me a hug.

Out in the hallway, Teresa was ecstatic about her four-pound weight loss. We vowed to keep up with the program, just as the contestants are supposed to do once they are eliminated from the show. And if we succeed, we may celebrate by going back to Europe next year — not just to eat, but to ski .

Full-scale exercise retreats catering to American guests date back to 1940, when women’s spas began to be replaced by more rigorous, co-ed destinations. It was then that Edmond and Deborah Szekely created Rancho La Puerta, in Baja California, Mexico. Costing $17.50 a week, it involved hiking in the mountains, swimming in a creek and bringing one’s own tent. In 1958, the couple opened a second, more luxurious spa, the Golden Door in California, whose clients included Gloria Swanson, Kim Novak and Burt Lancaster.

The Ashram, opened in 1974 in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains by two Swedish women, one of whom invented the Thigh Master, continued the trend. Their program, a grueling weight-loss and exercise regimen, was a precursor of Canyon Ranch, which opened in 1979.

Below, some options for the fitness-obsessed.

The Biggest Loser Resorts focus on fitness, nutrition and education, but the biggest lure is “The Biggest Loser” contestants, who both visit and work at the resorts in California and Utah. A double room in Utah costs $1,995 a week. One week in Malibu in two separate rooms with a shared bathroom costs $2,595 for one week. ()

Rancho La Puerta still exists and is known for its morning hikes, which its Web site describes as ranging “from a strolling meadow walk to a demanding 11 mile trek.” Guests stay in private haciendas, and classes range from cardio boxing to world drumming. Treatments include everything from shiatsu to music therapy. Rates begin at $3,600 a week for a single room. ()

The Ashram in Calabasas, Calif., welcomes 11 guests each week in its two-story main house with shared baths. Telling visitors on its Web site that “the Ashram has never been called easy,” and warning would-be guests that they must be able to hike at least nine miles a day, the Ashram claims that clients can lose 6 to 12 pounds in a week with a program of traditional and alternative exercise. One week costs $4,500 a person. To ensure that guests “disconnect,” there is no Wi-Fi. ()

Premier Fitness Camp in Park City, Utah, proclaims: “The Beauty of our Resort — as intense as our workouts.” Testimonials on the Web site include one from a guest named Brittany who lost 89 pounds here (though it took 16 weeks). At $3,225 a person in a double for a week, you have to pay a hefty sum to not be hefty. ()

Cal-a-Vie in Vista, Calif., in northern county, has an 18-hole golf course and a five-to-one guest-to-staff ratio (no slacking off here). Programs include everything from morning hikes to meditating in a 400-year-old chapel from Dijon, France. Workout clothes are delivered to your room daily. One week, which includes six therapeutic treatments, costs: $8,095. ()

Canyon Ranch has two resorts: one in Tucson, the other in Lenox, Mass. The original resort in Tucson has more than 40 classes, an 80,000-square-foot spa, four pools and more than 60 wellness consultants. One week in a single room at the Tucson location costs $7,220. ()

The New Life Hiking Spa in Killington, Vt., offers an 11-night program at $229 a night for a single room, including meals, three spa treatments, exercise classes and a chi kung “energy training” class. ()

JENNIFER CONLIN, a frequent contributor to the Travel section, is writing a memoir about raising children in Europe and the Middle East.

This story, "My Week at the Biggest Loser Fat Camp," originally appeared in the New York Times.