In shipshape after week aboard

The Baltimore Sun

In a few weeks, I and a band of older brothers age 60-plus plan to assault the coast of Newfoundland on a weeklong hike averaging about 15 miles per day. Concerned that I'd be the caboose, I decided I had better get shipshape ... and fast.

Among my considerations was a crash membership at the local Y or some other fitness center. But, in my mind, none offered a complete wellness program that extended much beyond intensive exercise.

Fortuitously, Royal Caribbean recently inaugurated an integrated fitness program with its launch this year of the 3,643-passenger Liberty of the Seas.

The line's Vitality program marries lectures on health and nutrition with an exhaustive roster of exercise classes, personal training, designated dietary choices, massages and spa treatments and even shore excursions.

When it comes to athletic prowess, no other line compares to Royal Caribbean. It's twin 153,000-ton megaships - Freedom and Liberty - are crammed with sports activities such as rock climbing, wave surfing, ice skating and boxing in a professional-sized ring.

It seemed a perfect fit with my objectives. Within a week of learning of the program, I was hooked and booked.

I had some doubts, though. Was cruising really the way to go or simply self-delusional? After all, cruises are for indulgences - eating that extra slice of devilish dark-chocolate cake and lying beside the pool sipping pina coladas - not for hard work and self-denial. Most importantly, was Royal Caribbean's Vitality program more hype than a hip way to total wellness?

The weeklong program delivered on its promises. After investing three-plus hours in the gym every day except for two, I lost four pounds, compared with an average weight gain of a pound-and-half per day for most cruisers. Almost all the loss was fat, not water. In fact, I added five percent more muscle mass.

I know this because, before planning a tailored fitness program for me, my experienced trainer from South Africa, Nick Andersen, assessed the state of my wellness, which included a complete metabolism and body-composition analysis. After the consultation, Andersen mapped out a daily three-hour regimen that began at dawn with a stretching session, an hour on the treadmill or elliptic trainer, and tai-chi or yoga, as well as an hourlong personal training session on most days ($65 per hour).

My success hinged not only on Andersen, but also on numerous health tips provided in a half-dozen shipboard lectures on wellness.

For instance, I learned that, by simply bypassing the elevators and taking the stairs on this 14-deck vessel, I could burn 300 calories a day on average if I climbed eight decks five times. As a result, I never stepped into the elevator.

In another session promoted as "Eat More to Weigh Less," about a dozen participants were advised that the ideal balanced diet includes consuming about 40 percent of your calories as carbs (about a fist-sized portion), 30 percent as protein (a palm-sized portion of lean meat or fish) and another 30 percent as fat (about a pinkie's worth).

Such advice made it easier to bypass temptations at the all-day buffet and the nearly round-the-clock availability of pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs.

Selecting menu items designated with a Vitality symbol also helped diminish the urge to splurge. Not surprisingly, the choices pinpointed grilled fish and chicken and volumes of vegetables. But there were tasty treats, such as curried vegetables and spicy pasta dishes, among the choices.

Another plus for the Vitality program as a blueprint for developing stamina and flexibility was the mix of free and fee-based exercise classes, including free early morning and afternoon aerobics, stretching and meditation sessions, as well as inexpensive hour-long instructions in tai chi ($10), Pilates ($15), yoga ($15), cycling ($10) and power boxing ($15).

On Liberty's itinerary in the Western Caribbean with stops in Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Mexico, and Labadee, Haiti, Royal Caribbean's private beach resort, about a half-dozen excursions warranted the seal of approval from the Vitality program, designating them as physically more strenuous than the other hundred or so options for less fitness-focused passengers.

My choice was to glide from treetop to treetop through the Jamaica's jungle canopy in a harness. For a guy with vertigo, I thought I deserved two Vitality points for my participation.

In fact, to motivate attendance at the lectures and exercise classes, Liberty's personal trainers reward participants with circular Vitality coins after each session. At cruise end, participants can redeem these coupons for free merchandise. I got a tote bag, water bottle, key chain and pedometer for all my hours of sweat.

But the piece de resistance was the massages. After hours of working muscles to soreness, a good laying on of hands is downright necessary. I surrendered to a relaxing seaweed wrap and massage ($194) and followed up on succeeding days with a hot-stone massage ($193) and, finally, with a deep-tissue massage ($120) that had my muscles screaming, but eventually pacified.

At the end of the cruise, I was a certifiable gym junkie. I was so taken with the ship and its amenities, I only got off the ship once in seven days and that was to soar through the treetops.

Maybe on my next cruise, I'll learn to ice skate or box, but whatever I choose, I know I won't be the last one up the hills in Newfoundland.

Sam Bleecker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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