Get in Shape on a Fitness Vacation

Fitness-minded travelers do everything from biking and Nordic walking to pilates and yoga.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Jack Miller, an 84-year-old retired chemical engineer, has taken annual bicycle trips to Europe for the past 23 years. Miller recalls a highlight from a biking trip to the Netherlands: breakfast at a windmill where he chatted with the windmill's owner, who clomped around in authentic wooden shoes. "Biking, even in the wind and the rain, always gives me a sense of accomplishment," says Miller, a widower who lives in Lenexa, Kan.

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The number of seniors like Miller who seek out vacations that involve physical exertion, such as bicycling, hiking or water sports, is rising. And tour operators and spa owners are offering special itineraries geared to older travelers who want to take workshops on yoga, pilates and nutrition.

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These fitness-minded travelers would rather "immerse themselves in healthy living than sit on a beach under an umbrella sipping cocktails," says Cathy Husid-Shamir, of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in Stockbridge, Mass. The center offers more than 750 programs, from the healing arts to canoeing, snowshoeing, bicycling and kayaking.

International Bicycle Tours (; 860-767-7005), based in Essex, Conn., is aimed at the over-50 market. It offers 100 tours a year in bicycling, barge and bike combinations, and Nordic walking. Most trips are to Europe, although a small number are to U.S. destinations, such as Cape Cod, Mass.

The bicyclists ride an average of 30 miles a day, with frequent rest stops. "I have seen people with serious medical conditions on these trips -- body parts replaced, heart stents, quadruple bypass, cancer survivors," owner Frank Behrendt says.

Nordic walking involves walking with a pole in each hand. The poles propel the body forward, burning more calories and using more muscle groups. On a typical day, participants walk six to seven miles, with stops for sightseeing, breaks and snacks.

With a bike and barge trip, the barge allows travelers to sleep in the same cabin throughout the trip, which is more relaxing than moving every few days. Each morning, the barge moves to the next destination, and the bikers meet up with it later in the day.

Combining vigorous activities with relaxation at a spa is another growing trend. "As we age, we've learned that putting health, wellness, fitness and movement into a vacation is a given,” says Susie Ellis, president of Spa Finders (, in New York City.

A case in point is the vacation taken last year by Robert Schwob, 68, a retired biology professor, and his wife, Peg, 69, a retired second-grade teacher. The Minneapolis couple took a one-week Elderhostel spa-and-hiking vacation to St. George, Utah. "On hikes, we could see huge red cliffs with snow caps and evergreens sticking out on top," says Robert, who, with Peg, has taken about ten bicycle trips in the past decade.

The trip included two long hikes in Zion National Park, a three-mile walk through the desert, swimming and water aerobics in indoor pools, gym workouts, and the couple's first spa treatments, including shiatsu massages.

Active retirees like the Schwobs are the type of clients Elderhostel ( is attempting to reach with a growing emphasis on fitness programs. Steve Lembke, vice-president of programming, says that Elderhostel's younger clients, age 55 to 70, are comfortable with "fitness as a vacation concept." Elderhostel offers 44 trips in the health-and-fitness category, including horseback riding in Iceland and trekking Austria's Tyrolean Ranges.

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Elderhostel rates the activity level of its trips on a scale of one to six. Level one is basic -- the ability to handle your luggage and climb stairs. Level-six trips require a high degree of fitness and expertise in the program activities.

One level-four trip is "Active Autumn Hiking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks." The 11-night trip in September starts at $2,072 per person plus airfare. It includes nine hikes of two to six miles each, at elevations between 6,000 and 10,000 feet.

Dog Sledding or Belly Dancing?

Spas, resorts and tour operators now offer a wide range of packages aimed at every fitness level. Here's a sampling of spas and resorts offering fitness programs:

Destination Kohler (; 800-344-2838). Known for its world-class golf location in Wisconsin, Kohler offers its guests many outdoor activities, such as dog sledding, fly-fishing, cross-country skiing, bird hunting and skeet shooting.

"Fitness is on the up, and our guests want to try things they have never done before," says Stephen Beaumont, the vice-president of lodging at the Wisconsin resort. Typical double rooms cost about $350 a night.

The Oaks at Ojai (; 800-753-6257). About 45 minutes south of Santa Barbara, this spa in Ojai, Cal., offers about 15 fitness activities a day. They include advanced mountain hiking, kayaking, in-line skating, belly dancing and yoga. About 60% of guests are over age 50, and many "come here to kick-start new fitness habits and lifestyle changes," says Cathy Cluff, managing director. Rates start at about $200 per person per night.

Red Mountain Resort & Spa (; 877-246-4453). General manager Tracey Welsh says this resort in St. George, Utah, is an "adventure spa. Most of our guests are attracted to an active spa like ours because they want to improve their fitness levels." There is year-round hiking at three levels of difficulty, Nordic walking and kayaking.

One special package is "Stepping Stones . . . Transitions Through Menopause" for four nights starting at $399 a night. It includes a private yoga session, a nutrition consultation, a session with a life coach and unlimited fitness classes, including yoga and pilates.

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies (; 877-944-2002). The institute offers week-long winter retreats in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Costa Rica. Activities include hiking through jungles, bird-watching, horseback riding, ziplining through trees and whitewater rafting, as well as yoga and stress-reduction workshops.

Another campus reopens in late April and is set on 195 acres in the Hudson Valley in Rhinebeck, N.Y., two hours north of New York City. Meditation, yoga and tai chi will be offered there. Accommodations vary from rustic tents to private rooms with baths.

The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health (; 800-741-7353). The center features a program called "Health and Vitality in Midlife." Classes include nutrition and aging well, yoga, mindful living and whole-foods cooking. A two-night stay that includes room, meals, classes, and the use of trails and other amenities runs from $417 for a dormitory room to $937 for a private room.

Before embarking on a fitness vacation, read the operator's Web site and brochure carefully. Call and ask about the level of activity and whether you will be comfortable if you come alone. Find out if special dietary needs are accommodated. Ask whether the menu is totally vegetarian, if alcohol is served and whether calories are restricted at meals.

"Be careful of how the word 'fitness' is used," says Elderhostel's Lembke. "What will you be doing on a daily basis? Are the instructors trained? If they are not, you may get injured. How does this vacation differ from staying home and going to the gym?"

Don't overestimate your physical condition. Don Bryan, 85, and his wife, Laurette, 79, both retired physicians, have been on more than 20 bicycle tours since 1989. To stay fit, the Rockledge, Fla., couple bike for 12 miles before breakfast nearly every day.

The Bryans recommend training for at least a few months in advance of any trip that has strenuous activities. "Once, a group member couldn't even complete a trip we were on," Don says. "She hadn't been on a bike for more than 40 years, and she thought riding a stationary bike at the gym was enough preparation. But it's not the same."

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