Unlike most hedonistic pleasures, spas and spa treatments are actually good for you. We asked spa expert Lisa Johnson to explain.
It’s extraordinary to think that even two decades ago, the modern British spa was still a relative novelty. As the digital age has taken hold and workloads have increased, our need to switch off, slow down and reconnect with nature – our own, as well as the great outdoors – has become more urgent. Day spas, hotel spas and spa retreats have come into their own. Now widely accessible, and with a focus on benefits rather than pampering, they have become an integral part of the holistic health movement, effective in helping to reduce stress, redress imbalances, prevent ill health and restore an overall sense of wellbeing.
Major life events – losing a job or a loved one, moving home, having a baby – can be debilitating. In our fast-paced lives, even minor ones – the daily round of school drop-offs and pick-ups, commuting, grocery shopping, meetings, deadlines and work engagements – can seem relentless. Time out at a spa with a partner, friend or, best of all, yourself, can be a brilliant antidote to mounting stress and exhaustion. As well as helping to manage symptoms such as headaches, low energy levels and digestive problems, it can prevent more serious health complications from developing.
Everything about the spa environment is designed to soothe: interiors are uncluttered, lights are low, blankets are soft, candles are scented. Saunas warm the body and soul; hydrotherapy pools support, massage and relax muscles and joints; massages, facials and reflexology induce and deepen sleep. In relieving stress, regular use of a sauna can have additional health benefits, boosting the immune system and reducing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, depression and anxiety.
Water is at the heart of spa culture: the early spas grew up around thermal and mineral springs that were used by ancient Greek athletes to soothe aching muscles, and by Roman soldiers to recover from battle. In Bath (the first spa in the UK, founded by the Romans in 70AD), Spa itself in Belgium (a thermal spring discovered in the 14th century) and elsewhere, the mineral-rich waters became the basis of drinking and bathing cures for a range of ills from arthritis to psoriasis and eczema.
Hydrotherapy (water therapy), balneotherapy (bathing therapy) and thalassotherapy (sea water therapy) are still very much part of the modern spa, promoting detoxification as well as relaxing the body. At the same time, mineral water and herbal teas are widely available to rehydrate from the inside, with benefits including lubricating the joints and aiding digestion.
Hydrotherapy and the hot-sauna cold-plunge cycle (a 15-minute sauna followed by a cold shower, plunge pool or ice bucket) are brilliant at boosting the circulation, helping to flush out lactic acid and other toxins. Saunas can also be an effective cold remedy, especially if infused with eucalyptus, a decongestant and all-round miracle oil. Bespoke massages complement these effects: Swedish massage targets sore shoulders, necks and backs, and can help to keep migraines and tension headaches at bay; deep-tissue massage is used for muscle and tendon injuries as well as stiffness and pain in the joints; lymphatic-drainage massage to detoxify. Facials are similarly tailored to redress imbalances through products (organic and synthetic) and techniques (ancient and hi-tech) designed to calm, hydrate or deep-cleanse the skin, improve elasticity and collagen production and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and pigmentation. Aromatherapy oils such as rose, lemon, eucalyptus or lavender – another miracle oil with a range of benefits from promoting sleep to helping to heal cuts and burns – also have an emotional impact, improving mood and triggering memories.
Most modern day spas incorporate a state-of-the-art fitness studio and a roster of yoga and other classes, which can help to kick-start or continue an exercise programme. Yoga and other forms of exercise offer numerous benefits, from stretching out muscles and relieving tension, to strengthening and toning the body, getting the heart pumping and the blood flowing, and releasing endorphins, which mitigate the sensation of pain and lift your mood. Better still, if a spa is on the coast or in the mountains, there may be the option of swapping a spin session in the gym for yoga on the beach, a swim in the sea, or a hike to a summit, introducing ice-cold seawater or fresh clean air into the mix.
Modern-day spa food is unrecognisable from the limp, bland, anaemic salads of the early days. Even if you’re not on a detox retreat, you’ll often find a spa restaurant or bar serving cleansing juices, salads and soups bursting with colour and antioxidants, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron, and so delicious that you may feel inspired to cut down on the caffeine, chocolate and alcohol back home in favour of more of the wholesome, nourishing food.
It’s impossible to leave a spa without glowing skin. Salt scrubs exfoliate the body, muds deep-cleanse, and rose-oils and creams moisturise and reduce inflammation. Facial massage can be both enjoyable and effective. Stimulating the lymph nodes eliminates toxins and brightens the complexion, bringing blood and oxygen to the skin surface promotes the production of collagen, and relieving muscle tension leaves the skin looking smoother and the face more rested.
Most spas are screen-free, and switching off the desktop and handheld, and turning your attention to your inner self can be revelatory. While the elements work their magic, and therapists get to work on your physical and emotional imbalances, your mind is free to wander, and without the temptation to go online, you have the space to focus on how you feel, what you want, and how you might go about achieving it.
Yoga and meditation, often available alongside spa treatments, can be extremely effective in helping the mind to reorder priorities and achieve clarity of purpose: after 30 minutes of focusing on breathing, or moving with the breath, you might find you not only feel calmer and happier, but confident on how best to move forward as well. Other forms of repetitive exercise, including swimming and walking, can induce a meditative state, too; in the great outdoors, they can open up new perspectives, both literally and metaphorically.
It’s hard not to feel happy – or at least happier – after a day at a spa. The heat from the sauna, the buoyancy of the water, the healing power of a masseur’s hands, all those delicious-smelling aromatherapy oils – everything conspires to lift your spirits. The high that comes from a hot-cold sauna cycle can be as addictive as that which follows a good workout. When we’re happier, we’re more likely to laugh, which apparently releases yet more endorphins. It’s win-win all the way.