We meet over drinks the first evening. Half a dozen women in the hotel bar swap tales of accidents and operations that have left us all trying to recover from damage to spines and hips. Later, we compare scars and admire the handiwork of several amazing surgeons.
We are here at the Anantara Vilamoura Argave Resort in Portugal for a Back Pain Retreat, a healing holiday run by Restore and Reform.
The ‘holiday’ part is the sunshine and luxury of the hotel, plus the opportunity to book some spa treatments.The ‘healing’ is the top-quality physiotherapy, targeted Pilates classes and an amazing soft tissue massage.
At the start of the course, we are all invited to try to bend and reach toward our toes. I can just about get to below my knees - not surprising since I have several pieces of metal in my spine after an accident where I broke my neck and back. The aim of this exercise is to allow us to redo the test at the end of the course, so we can see how much more mobile we are.
A little knowledge…
My first session is a Postural and Biomechanical Assessment with Michelle Lewis, physiotherapist and co-founder of Restore and Reform. For a full hour, Michelle observes how I walk and move. This is far more thorough than the two ten-minute physio sessions I had just after the accident.
Michelle tells me that the almost constant pain in my right foot is caused in part by the fact that my hip, knee and ankle are all out of alignment and my calf muscle is tight. She explained that I had become so used to being in pain that I was ‘guarding’ - unconsciously holding my body awkwardly to avoid anything which might cause pain.
Just knowing this is a big help. Michelle designs a programme of soft tissue release and Pilates exercises that can get me started on the road to recovery.
Lucy Nifontova is the other co-founder of Restore and Reform. It was her long-term back pain and eventual spinal surgery which inspired her to set up these healing holidays. Lucy teaches Reformer Pilates exercises. These are carried out on a sprung bench, which allows the muscles to be worked without bearing your own weight. That is challenging as I find it almost impossible to lie flat on my back. Session one is spent working out what I can and cannot do. By session two, thanks to Lucy’s experience and patience, I am doing very much more than I expected.
My treatmentis with Abi Smith, a soft tissue therapist who has worked with British Olympic athletes. Abi is so attuned to my pain she pulls back before I say “ouch!”. Most of my pain is in my foot, but she focuses on releasing tension on my upper back and hips, explaining that getting my posture right is key. I had no idea how much tension I was holding in my upper body. By the end of the session, I could stand upright and noticed I was breathing more easily.
As well as the one-to-one sessions there are several group classes each day. Mornings start with a stretch class on the spa veranda, enjoying the early morning sunshine and the views over the Vilamoura valley. As the classes become more demanding, the group become more supportive. We groan and moan through the gradually increasingly tough exercises and share our sense of progress.
I leave the Restore and Reform programme with a detailed exercise sheet and some feedback for my trainer at home. I also leave with much improved mobility and confidence, and a hotline to those three amazing women who run the course. I know I can ask for help anytime.
Did it work?
My party piece back in the Good Spa Guide office is to show everyone that I can now reach my toes. I can breathe more easily thanks to the work Abi did on my thoracic spine area. I can lie flat on the floor… yep that was impossible before. It’s not easy, but at least I can do it! I can almost (but not quite) sit cross-legged.
But its not just that I am more mobile. Understanding what is happening to my body had psychological benefits, too. I had almost convinced myself that being stiff and creaky was normal at my age, but knowing that there are solutions and ways of coping has lifted my mood immensely. I plan to go back and do another healing holiday with them soon.
A seven-day Restore and Reform healing holiday at the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort costs from £1,900 including treatments, classes, hotel accomodation and breakfast. Read our review of the Anantara Spa.
Holidays are also held in Kent where costs start at £760.