Brenda Levinson came back from the spa a new woman.
"I felt really healthy," says the teacher, 28, recalling the afterglow from a four-day getaway to Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, in Lenox, Mass.
Levinson, who braved the upscale retreat's rigorous fitness and nutrition programs with her mother, was in such fine fettle she had a hard time settling back into the sins of daily life.
"A few days after, we went out to dinner with my father," she says. "It was this big Italian meal. My mother and I just looked at each other and looked at the food. We couldn't eat half of it."
Many spa guests end their stays in a similar state of detoxed euphoria. And more people than ever are feeling the rush, using a spa experience as a way to jump-start a resolve for healthier living.
The number of total spa visits, including day spas and extended-stay resorts, rose 16 percent from 1998 to 1999 to an average of 33,000 visits per spa annually, according to a survey conducted last year by the Kentucky-based International Spa Association. Of those visitors, 35 percent were men -- a substantial increase over previous years.
But the fit feeling that follows you home may be fleeting. Whether the focus is on fitness, diet, stress-reduction or a combination of the three, sustaining the momentum of the spa's programs requires planning and perseverance.
Being at a spa "removes temptation -- you're not sitting next to a refrigerator full of goodies," says Walter Inge, 67, a medical writer from Atlanta who spent a week at the Tennessee Fitness Spa, near Waynesboro, Tenn. "Also it helps that you're with a group of people working toward the same goals."
The challenge is to keep the regimen going outside that insulated atmosphere. For dieters, the odds are long -- researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 80 percent to 95 percent of people who diet will eventually gain back lost pounds.
When you return from a spa, you should prepare yourself for an onslaught from work, family and friends. "Expect everything and everybody, including yourself, to try and get in the way of practicing what you've learned" says Ann Gilburth, director of the Genter for New Beginnings, an Atlantic facility that sponsors wellness groups.
Barbara Udell, lifestyle director at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Fla., has heard all the excuses for falling off the fitness wagon.
"It's always, 'I'm taking care of my mother-father-child-uncle- neighbor.' Or, 'I'm in charge of the church suppers,' or 'I travel too much for my job.' But you need to make time for you. I call it being healthfully selfish."
Ellen Wickersham is trying hard to live the lessons she learned from a trip to the Green Valley Spa in St. George, Utah, in February. A marketing specialist for the wellness industry and a vegetarian for 10 years, Wickersham, 52, has always prided herself on her healthy habits. But the spa's nutrition program -- heavy on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables -- made her take a second look.
"I realized I wasn't being good," she says. "I was eating too many refined foods, too much pasta, too much high-fat salad dressing -- little things that taste good but that you should do without."
Those indulgences caused her to gain 15 pounds over two years.
Since returning from the spa, Wickersham has changed her ways. "I used to eat pasta two or three times a week; now I try to stick to once every two weeks," she says. "And I try to use vegetable juice salad dressings that are less than 20 calories a serving."
The diligence has paid off -- Wickersham has lost five pounds. But she admits it can be a struggle. "I continue to work at it. If you go to an Italian restaurant, what do you eat? But I think I'm doing well."
Perhaps the most important key to staying on track, authorities say, is cutting yourself some slack.
"If you have a relapse -- I call it an 'oops' -- you forgive yourself and continue on," Udell advises.