Four Big Ways Spas Contribute to Greater Health and Wellbeing

Mark Liponis

Mark Liponis, Corporate Medical Director, Canyon Ranch

Just last week, I attended the New York Spa Alliance (NYSPA) annual symposium (see SpaTrade blog here) and was able to hear from Mark Liponis, the corporate medical director for Canyon Ranch, who spoke on “Why Wellness Pays.”  Liponis has a unique perspective as a physician who has been integrating medical services into the spa offerings at Canyon Ranch for over 15 years.  The iconic destination spa there has grown to an astonishing 15 physicians on staff including former Surgeon General, Richard Carmona.  Those doctors work very closely with other wellness professionals more commonly found in spas (nutrionists, personal trainers, bodyworkers, etc.)

From his experience working with Canyon Ranch, Dr. Liponis shared with us four ways that spas can contribute to the health and well being of their clients:

1.  Spas serve as an antidote for life.  People need a respite, a break from the stress and pace of every day life.  Spas provide a place for people to come and relax and slow down.

2.  Spas are preventative.  Most medical care is focused on illness and disease care.  Spas can provide a more proactive approach to health with a focus on prevention.

3.  Spas can advance health literacy.  Spas typically educate people so they know where to focus their attention to achieve better health and wellbeing.   Educational lectures and talks are an important part of the programming at Canyon Ranch.

4.  Spas can act as a health concierge/integrative medicine center.  Spas can be a wellness hub where people can go to be offered a wide variety of conventional and alternative treatment options depending on the needs of the guest.

This last one really resonated with me personally.  I have a herniated disc in between the L5/S1 vertebrae that causes me a lot of pain and often interferes with my day-to-day enjoyment of life.  If I go to my insurance company (Cigna), their computers will analyze my symptoms and spit out two possible treatment options: I can either go to a chiropractor or I can go to a surgeon.  The problem with this is simple.  If I go to a chiropractor they will tell me to do a regimen of chiropractic treatments and adjustments.  If I go to a surgeon they will schedule me for a laminectomy where they will snip away at the bulging disc.  But who can I go to that will tell me which one is the best?  And how should I coordinate their offerings with other alternative courses of therapy such as massage, acupuncture, and yoga?  These are questions I have to figure out for myself.

Canyon Ranch serves as a center for “integrative medicine” (which is not the same as “alternative” medicine.)  Integrative medicine means that a variety of complementary care options is provided (including both conventional and alternative approaches.)  This fits in well with the “spa” philosophy of mind-body-spirit wellness because it means care providers can combine different types of treatments to offer a more holistic approach. 

According to Liponis, most doctors in the conventional health care system are overwhelmed.  Most people couldn’t get an hour of their doctor’s time but in the spa environment they are able to provide whatever time the guest would like.  The patient is usually in the medical system there because they have to be there, while the spa guest is there because they want to be there, and that’s a huge difference.  This is the power of spa, creating healing experiences that people actually enjoy.  It is funny how our other healing institutions fail to make people feel good while making them feel better. 

In Liponis’ old practice as a primary care physician, he struggled to get his patients to do the bare minimum to take care of their health.  He felt like he was “always on a treadmill that couldn’t keep up with the illness.”  He had to prescribe more and more medications and yet his patients continued their downhill slide.  Today, in the spa setting, he works on taking his patients off of their medications, and he sees the success of his efforts across the lifetime of his clients.  Today, Dr. Liponis describes the level of care at Canyon Ranch as “the kind of care we would all want” with access to all of the modalities that could come to bear for a particular problem.  “It is probably the premiere model of health.” 

I’m a believer.  There is only one thing that Dr. Liponis did not cover in his presentation . . . how do I convince Cigna to send me to Canyon Ranch for my back pain?

References and recommended reading:

Liponis, M. & Hyman, M. (2003). Ultraprevention: The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life. New York: Scribner.

Liponis, M. (2008). UltraLongevity: The Seven-Step Program for a Younger, Healthier You. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Sherman, L. (2001). The Canyon Ranch Guide to Living Younger Longer: A Complete Program for Optimal Health for Body, Mind, and Spirit. New York: Free Press.


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16 Responses to Four Big Ways Spas Contribute to Greater Health and Wellbeing

  1. Mark A McKenney May 18, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I liked the way you succinctly and to the point presented the four ways spas can and should contribute to our wellness. Good observations and glad that you defined “integrative” vs. “alternative” medicine.

  2. Paul Hester MD May 18, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    I’m a believer too! After 12 years of working in critical care medicine, I have spent the last 6 years in a wellcare practice and I love practicing patient-centered, personalized medicine, more than anything I have done previously. As Dr. Liponis shared, medical intervention can be relevant before the onset of illness…. and we can confirm that through this model we have become relevant to a broader population of patients. The public needs a trusted source of health information to guide them towards optimal health and I personally believe this must be available at the community level. I am currently working on a business plan to develop existing spas in this direction. Shared success will be the best driver of these new collaborations. Be well and live well. Paul Hester MD

  3. Marie-Josee Shaar May 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    I am originally from Montreal, and my last insurance program through my employer reimbursed 75% of massage treatments, up to $1200 a year! I know insurance programs in Europe commonly reimburse not only spa treatments, but complete stays in institutions much like the Canyon Ranch. What are insurance companies waiting for, here in the US? 🙂

  4. Adrienne Keane May 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    I am familiar with a “concierge” medical practice here in Orange County, CA where the client pays an annual fee, about $2000. In exchange for the fee, clients have access to their physician 24×7 and the physician’s practice is limited to about 300 clients. They focus on wellness and serve as an advocate to coordinate care with other types of providers that may need to become engaged. While a step in the right direction, not everyone can afford the steep annual fee. What about the rest of us?

    Choosing an approach to wellness and/or illness can be overwhelming for most. I hope we can evolve to a system which provides advocacy to help all individuals choose the best options to meet their specific needs in an affordable manner.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy May 18, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

    Dr. Hester, Thanks for your comments. I believe we will be seeing more partnerships between the spa community and medical community in the future and hope to see how these connections can benefit patients and consumers. I look forward to learning more about your own plans to bring this about.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy May 18, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    Marie-Josee, I love your question! Within the spa industry, when we talk about the possibility of insurance covering spa treatments, we are not too sure whether this would be a blessing or a curse. But one thing is clear, if our health care system is incentivized towards wellness in stead of illness, then this would only make sense.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy May 18, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    The Concierge medical system is interesting and not something I know much about. I guess it is not surprising that this shows up in Orange County :-), In his presentation, Dr. Liponis talked about this trend. He noted that because the system doesn’t allow doctors to spend a lot of time with their patients, what many doctors will do is reduce the number of patients they have so they can spend more time with them. The problem is they then have to charge much more in order for this model to be successful and so it ends up being a deluxe service that can only be offered to those who can afford it.

    We can only hope that if a wealthier class of people tests and validates a new way of caring for our health, then it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the population begins to demand it from our government.

  8. Eleanor Chin May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    I so appreciated your point about integrative medicine. It’s a service/approach that’s been missing since the medical pendulum swung toward specialization. People encounter this need when caring for elderly parents or family members who need the services of lots of different medical specialties. I suppose that the family doctor used to serve that role, but it sounds like the integrative approach is a more advanced version of the generalist–a specialized generalist! If internists were more aware of alternative specialists, could they serve the role of the “integrator?”

    I also love the idea of someplace like the Canyon Ranch that offers a model of bringing all these desirable services together, even though I can’t afford it. But more importantly, wouldn’t it be great if this were the standard of care for everyone? That’s Utopia. So my question is: do you know of models out there that are trying to bridge the access gap for people who can’t afford premium services? Do you know of any models that are working?

    Thanks for this post Jeremy. More!

  9. Mary Gendron July 1, 2010 at 10:21 am #


    I finally had a quiet moment to read this. Well done, and I love your blog. Keep sharing your thinking with the rest of us!

  10. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) January 22, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Thank you for writing this article. I like the concept of integrative vs. alternative. It’s so important to connect mind, body and spirit. Western medicine is helpful in many cases, but in many others the healing can come from the inside out. Practicing yoga, wellness spa treatments, nutrition…it’s all so important to maximize our physical and emotional potentials. And what about life coaching? I think there is an important place in the wellness world for life coaching, especially as many of us go through life transitions often, whether it’s a new job, a divorce, a move, a death…to have someone to talk to about these things can affect our health in a positive way.

    I’m going to read the Canyon Ranch Guide for Living…thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Jeremy McCarthy January 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Thanks Stacy! I like what you said about healing “from the inside out.” I think of spa as a place that people can go to heal themselves. Well said.

    Thanks for reading!

  12. Spas in Colorado February 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Thanks Dr. Hester for posting this article. I think today people are REALLY starting to understand the benefits of Spa treatments. I constantly educate people on how Spas can help in preventative health issues.

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