On a spa day, you may want to do nothing more than get horizontal on a poolside lounger and switch off. But if you suffer with stress, have niggling worries, or feel agitated, you will know how hard it is to simply relax and be with yourself – and your thoughts.
If you find it hard to do nothing yet feel utterly exhausted and strung out, exercise could be your road to relaxation. When you arrive at your spa day, swim some lengths, book an exercise class – or go for a walk or run if your spa has outdoor space – then reward yourself with treatments and spa facilities to relax your limbs and soothe your soul.
We realise getting active and raising your heart-rate sounds counter-intuitive to achieving calm, but there's lot of evidence that suggests physical activity can help people with anxiety and depression as well as improving self-esteem and a sense of wellbeing.
The reasons for this are both physical and psychological. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers, responsible for “runner’s high” and feelings of relaxation and optimism.
According to a government study, to stay healthy the average adult should do 75 minutes of vigorous or 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, plus strength exercises twice a week. Spas often have glamorous gyms with state-of-the-art equipment, so take advantage. Thirty minutes on a treadmill or bike and you’ve crossed off nearly half your quota. Remember to pack trainers and sweatpants as well as swimsuits and make your spa day active. Studies show that exercising just once a week can help with mild to moderate depression – with the important addendum that it should be something you enjoy doing.
You don’t have to work up a sweat or punish yourself to keep fit. Moderate physical activity is anything that raises your heart-rate, makes you breathe faster and feel warmer, so a brisk walk through the spa garden or a few lengths of the pool will do the job. Even short 10-minute bursts of brisk walking can increase mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Studies have also shown that recovery from short bursts of activity can induce feelings of calm and relaxation. And what better place to recover than poolside with a good book.
Some spas, such as Champneys and Ragdale Hall (see below) offer a dizzying array of activities as well as extensive grounds to enjoy and bikes you can hop on; cherry-pick activities that make you feel good.
You don’t have to do a full-on aerobic work-out to help manage stress. There are other techniques – called autoregulation exercises – that help the mind to relax the body by inducing a state of tension-free calm. Deep breathing exercises are one example of this. Yoga is also a good way to engage body, mind and breath, as is meditation. Recent studies have suggested that regular meditation can rewire our brains to deal with stress and improve focus and calmness.
Many spas now have yoga and meditation classes, and some treatments incorporate de-stressing techniques, too.
Perfectionism and exercise can make uneasy partners. If perfectionism is at the root of your mental health issues, be aware of avoiding triggers such as unrealistic goal setting, competitive classes, bragging Instagrammers, and especially weighing yourself. If you notice you are going overboard, take a step back and talk to someone about the feelings that are coming up for you (or being avoided). Try exercising more mindfully in the great outdoors.
Meanwhile, try to work at your own pace or set reasonable tasks. If you go straight from the couch to a hefty hi-impact class, or even a yoga class with a bunch of super-bendy perfectionists, this could knock your enthusiasm and self-esteem.
Know yourself. It’s good to be a beginner, so don’t reach too high straight away. Set realistic goals and build up your ability gradually. Goals could be: I will walk briskly for ten minutes every day, increasing to twenty after two weeks. I will do a couch-to-5K. I will do three hours of different exercises a week – maybe yoga, swimming and Pilates.
Or if you are already fit, perhaps book in for a personal trainer to set new goals, or book lessons (or a retreat) to perfect or indeed learn a physical activity, such as tennis or swimming. Keep a record of your achievements.
Find motivation by joining classes or group activities such as walking: a 2017 study suggested that exercising in groups is better for mental and physical health, too.
Champneys spas excel in health and fitness. You can hire bikes, play table tennis, go for a run or a stroll through the gardens and woods, use the tennis or badminton courts as part of your stay. The class timetable for the exercise studio is so extensive, we felt spoilt for choice. At Champneys Henlow, we opted for a Hatha yoga class followed by a mind-expanding meditation session. Personal trainers are on hand in the gym, or you can book a retreat and set your intention to make bigger lifestyle changes.
If you’re looking to run a half marathon, drop a few pounds, find inspiration to change your lifestyle or learn new skills, Ragdale Hall has an array of retreats and classes to help you on your way. As well as luxurious spa facilities and plenty of outdoor space, Ragdale offers tennis, archery, pitch and putt, cycling, walks and bootcamps. You can book into a Pilates, yoga or dance retreats, or schedule in a class as part of your spa day.
One of the many highlights of this luxurious spa and health club is their large, light and very new gym with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake and gardens. The weight-training area is separate, as is the exercise studio offering every kind of class imaginable, from holistic to HIIT. On top of that, they have a spin studio with a huge projector and sound system to deliver virtual workout classes.
If too many gym bunnies stress you out, this spa offers yoga and Pilates classes instead. Studies have shown that yoga can ease symptoms of depression due to the combination of exercise and meditation as well as breathing exercises. Pilates strengthens muscles as well as improving flexibility, balance and co-ordination. Cardio-based Pilates is on offer, too, so all your activity boxes will be ticked. The studios at the top of the spa barn are light, spacious and very peaceful. Book a session with a personal trainer to set your intentions.
Set on a stunning 20,000-acre estate, the spa is a relaxing space with a Wellness Suite for complementary therapies and one-to-one yoga and Pilates sessions. Work out in the lap pool (all pools are heated with a carbon neutral woodchip boiler), or head outdoors for running, mountain biking or horse-riding. There’s a gym and exercise studio, plus a body-work room for one-to-one mindful movement practise and personal training.
15th February 2019
Clever, inspiring design, sublime views, a vast, clean and empty pool, solitary relaxation areas to read, write or commune with my muse.
Small talk, discussions about spirituality or astrology, any products containing tea tree oil or aloe (sadly am allergic), busy pools where you can’t do laps.
Behind the scenes