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Why Is Everyone Going On Vacation To Work Out?

A dumbell in one hand, a margarita in the other

Late last year, I was invited on a press trip to celebrate the launch of a new fitness initiative that a chain hotel had begun to offer. The itinerary included workout classes on the beach, yoga, temazcal (a purifying, sweat lodge-like experience led by a shaman), spa sessions, and health-conscious meals. I was intrigued, less so because of the property or beach destination (even though both were beautiful), and more because I was suddenly getting a chance to get away from the daily grind of New York City, where finding time to work out sometimes can be a challenge, and spend a few days focusing on myself both physically and spiritually. I wasn't wrong; as Eat, Pray, Love as this may sound, after a few days of beachside yoga, I found myself rejuvenated, like I'd just spent a month on a remote island with no cell service. I drank the wheatgrass Kool-Aid big time.

Months later, and suddenly all the buzzy instructors that I follow on social media were hosting days-long retreats in places in places as far-flung as Mexico, Bahamas, and Spain, as well as in local hideaways in the Hamptons, Martha's Vineyard, and Colorado. Next, a fitness retreat account started following me on Instagram, and all my friends began posting pictures of themselves standing in Warrior I poses with a beach backdrop. (What is this, you ask? That's me doing my regular thing.) It was clear that people were now vacationing to... workout. 

"Fitness retreats are definitely a thing right now. People love to travel, but planning is challenging and knowing the right places to go to can be tricky," says Heather Andersen, founder and head instructor at New York Pilates, who hosts retreats in Tulum, Mexico, and New York. "On a retreat, we do all the work for you; all you have to do is show up, and I think that’s pretty appealing." Andersen's Tulum retreat, for example, includes 20 or 30 attendees and multiple instructors with three Pilates classes daily, morning beach runs, alignment workshops, meditation, activities like cenote swim sessions or sightseeing, and group lunches and dinners.

"We travel to places we know really well, so we can take people to the best local dining, sightseeing, and hangouts. On the last retreat, we spent a week in Tulum meeting new people, taking Pilates classes, running, going on adventures, and having lots of healthy greens, tacos, and drinks. It was equal part working out to hanging out which keeps the mind and the body happy," she says. "Instead of a heavy eat/drink vacay, we build in your fitness, improve your practice, and you go home refreshed with new experiences, a stronger self, and a perky bottom."

While there is a definite appeal in having a vacation that's all mapped out for you—and one that doesn't involve a stuffy itinerary or a predictable and sterile organized tour with 30-plus clueless tourists—according to Taryn Toomey, founder of the cult-status mindful workout The Class, fitness retreats are more about carving time for self-love. "From my experience with The Retreatment, people are looking for the type of vacation that will leave them feeling happier, healthier, and more fulfilled," she says. "We spend a lot of time ‘doing’ for others, and when it comes to time off, it’s nice to leave the kids, the job, and the responsibilities behind, and do the work of filling yourself back up.

Toomey's retreats range from the "more adventurous luxury camping experience to the indulgent delights of white sand beaches and sweeping views" in locations both local (Ojai, California, and Westerly, Rhode Island) and international (Dominican Republic), and include morning meditation, yoga, two hours of The Class daily, activities tailored to the locale (laying on the beach, hiking through the jungles, crystal healing workshops, boat ride excursions...), farm-to-table or seasonal cuisine, and dance parties that Toomey herself DJs. "We want students to feel far from their worries at home and yet close to the comforts of home. We have been lucky enough to find locations that stay true to their local roots but have been designed for the modern traveler," Toomey says.

Stacy Schwartz, founder and CEO of Ketanga Fitness Retreats, attributes the trend to the fact that fitness has become more of a "lifestyle than a standalone activity." She explains: "Athleisure apparel is the new everyday apparel, and meeting up with friends has shifted to meeting up for a class. So when it comes to travel, it makes sense that people want to maintain their lifestyle and interests and get to enjoy their favorite workouts while seeing new parts of the world—along with other people who feel the same." 

She launched Ketanga, a travel agency that specializes in organizing fitness-based vacation packages—ranging from boxing and salsa dancing in Puerto Rico to sports conditioning and surfing in Costa Rica to wine tasting and yoga in Sonoma County, California—after finding a gap in the travel world. "I was getting more and more into fitness, and I was looking for a vacation that would combine touring with being active and doing workouts. But I had a hard time finding anything that fit the bill beyond a yoga retreat, and I was really looking for something with higher intensity fitness like boxing or HIIT," she says. She decided to create her own trip to Europe and find ways to stay active herself. "I dropped into local studios, went on bike tours instead of bus tours, and made up workouts in local parks. When I came back, the idea of putting together more structured fitness retreats just seemed to fall into place. I wanted to build something that I would have signed for up as a participant if someone else had built it."

So far, Schwartz produced about 30 different retreats. In order to ensure each retreat is unique, she works with vetted instructors who have different fitness and wellness specialties. While the locations and types of fitness vary, the focus always remains on working out, participating in local adventures (zip lining, hiking through the rainforest, waterfall rappelling), and relaxation (having a cocktail by the pool, reading in a hammock, or going dancing at night). A typical day on a Ketanga Fitness Retreat could include a morning workout, local activity, a nutrition or mindful workshop, a sunset workout, and an evening activity.

The pro list in praise of fitness retreats is long, according to the experts, and doesn't just include getting more fit. "The advantages of fitness retreats include the access to the top industry leaders in a fully immersive and community centered environment. Attendees not only have very dedicated training from these experts but can connect with them one-on-one for questions, sessions, or just to intimately be a part of a dinnertime conversation," says Abby Morgan, director of brand marketing at FP Escapes, apparel brand Free People's new wellness retreat-focused travel organizer. With Instagram-perfect wellness retreats in picturesque locales like Nicaragua and Montana, FP Escapes "aim to nurture an intimate group of travelers in search of authentic experiences of culture and self." "Each trip is based on three aspects: move, gather, and connect," says Morgan. "Movement instructors are devoted to maintaining and teaching an active lifestyle and help to guide each traveler on their own personal practice. Free People’s Gather philosophy celebrates seasonal, vegetarian, and wheat-free fare with a focus on nutrient-rich ingredients and simple preparations. And lastly, the ability to connect a community of inspired travelers with the brightest minds in wellness, travel, and creativity."

In addition to the qualified instructors, Schwartz points to four more advantages of going on a fitness retreat: (1) "Group travel, in general, is a great way to vacation alone without being by yourself. And adding the niche of fitness means you will be with other people who have similar interests." (2) "Another reason is that you get a full vacation without coming home feeling bad about yourself from overindulging, which happens often! So people get to enjoy their vacation, do the things that they enjoy, and come home feeling great about themselves inside and out." (3) "It's also a great way to kick-start a new fitness/wellness routine or mix up your current one. Sometimes people come on a retreat because it is led by their favorite instructor, and sometimes people go because they want to try a new type of working out or mix it up by working with a new instructor. And finally: (4) "To treat yourself. We all spend so much time working in the office, but also in our relationships, and overall there is a lot of pressure on us every day. So I love when people decide that’s enough and it is time to do something for their own self-care."

Toomey agrees with that last point, adding that a retreat is great opportunity to look inward. "During The Retreatment, we work on getting to know all parts of oneself—thoughts, patterns, positive and negative stories—parts that may have you spinning or drowning. We do this through intensely challenging the body in a way that not only lengthens and leans the muscles but creates space for one to process through the body," says Toomey, whose regular workouts encourage people to physically let their frustrations out by screaming and are known to bring people to tears. "When you do this kind of work without the distraction of your everyday life, one is able to keep stripping the layers back, often getting to the root and healing from that space. One can return home with more tools, more patience, and overall, a healthier vessel."

Traveling solo is not a requirement if you wish to participate in a fitness retreat, by the way. The balance of activities and free times makes it just as easy to be alone and make new friends as it is to spend quality time with whoever came with you. "Do what feels right for you. Some people want to do this work with their closest friends and use it as a time to reconnect. Some want to come with their partner and work through things together. Others want this to be a solo journey," says Toomey. "There’s no right way to retreat. It just has to be right for you."

And, if you are worried that a fitness retreat must also mean an alcohol-free one, let me assure you that all experts I've talked to said they believe in balance and that alcohol is allowed on their retreats. "It’s pretty hard to go to Mexico and not have a marg," says Andersen. "We believe in a work hard, play hard mindset, and that’s how we vacation, too." They instead focus on proper nutrition. All of the retreats offer clean and healthy food options that fuel the workout heavy days, but are not without the flavor of local and seasonal cuisine. While Toomey offers the option to do The Layer, her anti-inflammatory and Ayurvedic cleanse, for an added health bonus, Ketanga and FP Escapes host nutrition workshops to provide guests with tools and knowledge to make healthier choices post-return. "We’ve had a chef or nutritionist accompany each trip to closely curate the menu with local, organic produce and design the menu," says Morgan. "We also do nutrition workshops that involve everything from learning how to prepare an Ayurvedic lunch to learning about superfoods and teach how to bring these new wellness habits back into your busy everyday schedule once you’re back home."

So go on, pack your bags, and take a shot of that spiked wheatgrass Kool-Aid while you're at it.