KILLINGTON, Vermont – Twenty-one hikers are snaking through the winding, uphill
path of one of Vermont’s fabled Green Mountains.
Some are sweating a bit
as they cautiously negotiate a mini-staircase of tangled tree roots that have
adhered themselves smack in the middle of the trail.
Others at the head
of the pack bounce along effortlessly, chattering away as they make the ascent.
And some stop to have their photo snapped – forensic evidence that they indeed
walked a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
The hikers have one thing in
common: The mission they’re on doesn’t center around reaching a mountain top as
it does getting into better shape and cementing healthy habits into place. When
the group reaches the summit it’ll enjoy a panoramic view of unspoiled mountain
ranges, followed by an apple break. Then it will be time to head down to the
base of the trail and back to the Inn of the Six Mountains.
months, when ski season in Vermont is a distant memory, the inn becomes the base
of operations for the New Life Hiking Spa, run by Jimmy LeSage, who founded it
32 years ago, the result of his own lifelong quest for better
“I’ve always been a hippie who was into health food and new-age
philosophy,” said the 60-year-old LeSage with a smile. He combined his career as
a restaurant chef with emerging trends he saw coming out of health food stores
in the late 1970s.
“I figured it out the way Nathan Pritikin figured it
out,” he said. “I looked at recipes that were appealing and reworked them so
they had less salt and fat.”
When LeSage opened his operation 32 years
ago at nearby Stratton Mountain, it was called the New Life Health Spa. There
was no hiking program; only yoga, some organized walks, calisthenics classes and
an austere meal plan of fewer than 1,000 calories a day. When he moved his
business to the more mountainous region of Killington, LeSage renamed it the New
Life Hiking Spa. The diversified terrain, he says, allows for beginner,
intermediate and advanced hiking, which is the core of the spa’s fitness
“It’s a great cardio workout in a beautiful setting,” he added.
“The key is, we make it enjoyable... people eventually forget that they’re
exercising and just drink in the experience.”
LeSage has been a certified
yoga instructor since 1977, when he studied at the Sivananda Yoga Center in the
Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. Yogic principals of stretching, breathing, and
quieting the mind are woven throughout the rest of the spa’s fitness
There are pool classes, Pilates, strength training, dance
classes and cooking demonstrations, but the stretching, yoga and meditation are
a key focal point on New Life’s fitness menu. Mornings begin with stretching and
Qi Gong, followed by breakfast and a hike. After lunch comes a rotation of
exercise classes followed by the pre-dinner ritual – yoga and
“I just believe that when yoga is practiced regularly, very
powerful things happen,” said LeSage. “It has changed my life tremendously. I’m
a Type A kind of guy and regular yoga has helped me focus and achieve my goals
in life. All the stretching and breathing really builds something up.
can’t be quantified, but it’s there.”
From his own experience in
transforming his eating habits from fast and processed foods to whole foods,
LeSage has come to realize that counting calories and being more vigilant with
food choices are only part of the equation.
“In terms of weight, I feel
the real issue is emotional,” said LeSage, who has a counseling degree. “It’s
important to address what someone is eating, and also the psychological issues
behind it. This isn’t the place to deal with issues with your mom, but the seed
And seed planting is an integral part of New Life’s
“It’s great that clients lose weight while they’re here, but we
also give them tools to use when the leave,” he said. “Just the act of buying
groceries requires education. We teach people to visit the grocery store as if
it were a museum. Explore the choices so you can pick what’s real. Do you want
peanut butter made with sugar or without? A whole-grain cracker or one made from
white flour?” As a self-described emotional eater, LeSage says he lives by the
advice he gives to his guests.
“If I stayed a chef, I’d be dead,” he
“Now if I graze, I choose an Ak-Mak cracker instead of a Triscuit
or I’ll have an apple.
I’ve always been a seeker, and I want people on
the path of better health to be seekers, too.”
New Hampshire resident
Heather Stocks visited New Life for the first time last year.
As a result
of adopting New Life’s nutrition and exercise principles, she dropped 75 pounds.
When Stocks returned to the spa a year later for another 11-night stay, she had
to reintroduce herself to LeSage when she arrived.
“I said hello to Jimmy
and knew he didn’t recognize me,” she recalled with a laugh. Stocks credits
LeSage’s pragmatic advice and encouragement for helping her to overcome a
longtime weight issue, which she says crept up gradually during her adult years
after back surgery.
“For me it was an emotional experience, going from
the couch to fitness,” recalled the 40-year-old Stocks. “I sat down with Jimmy
and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ He said to take it one baby step at a
With some solid mentoring from the staff, Stocks went home with an
exercise plan and a clear idea of healthy food choices and recipes. She used
on-line resources such as www.fatsecret.com to gage proper calorie intake as her
weight decreased, continued walking and hiking throughout the year, and during
winter months raised her heart rate on the elliptical machine.
Dalury is the spa’s general manager and a certified personal trainer and yoga
instructor. She advises clients to ease away from the “all or nothing”
philosophy that’s intrinsic to the dieting mentality.
“Some people come
here and want the quick fix. They want fast results so they do every class; I
tell them they’re not going to do all that at home,” she said. “In the long run
it’s about finding balance. If someone drinks five cups of coffee a day and it’s
going to make them sad to cut it out completely, why not cut back to three cups
a day?” Dalury says that though New Life’s underlying message of balance runs
counter to the alluring quick-fix promises of dieting, many clients find it a
welcome relief from the cycle of extreme methods and hollow promises.
want you to be able to feel good and know what’s right for you, so you’re not
dependent on diets or gimmicks,” she said. “You want to be able to check in with
yourself and see how you’re feeling right now, and know how much you want on
your plate, or see if it’s time to take a walk or take a nap. That’s a skill
that’s going to save you in the long run.”
And Dalury said that it’s the
practice of yoga and relaxation techniques that are just as crucial to the
process as cardio and clean eating.
“That’s why I love yoga, because it
lets you get in touch with yourself. Change isn’t going to last if you don’t
peel away those coverings that keep you from feeling what’s going on. Weight
loss or a new hairdo is meaningless if you don’t have peace of mind to go with
it,” she said.
Not that a little external pampering is out of place at
New Life. What would a spa experience be without it? For every three nights a
guest is at the spa, they receive a free service. Guests booked on the 11- night
weight loss retreat receive three services, which range from hot-stone massage
and reflexology to cranial sacral therapy.
“We’re not fancy-schmancy...
you can’t get pedicures here, but during the 18 weeks we’re open, we’re the
best, most affordable spa in the country,” said LeSage.
“Back in the ’80s
I wasn’t ‘in’ because I wasn’t expensive. Now we get both types of clients;
people who can afford the $7,000-a-week spa and those who are looking for
something they can afford.”
The cost of the 11-night weight loss retreat
is $2,519, and includes accommodations, classes, three spa services and all
meals. “I’ve had the same message and same price point for 30 years,” he
“Now we have guests from as far away as Guam and
Stocks says she’s making the visit to New Life Hiking Spa an
“I went back again this year to get remotivated and I’ll
go back next year,” she said. “The cost is economical and the quality of fitness
instruction is great. There’s something about being surrounded by beauty and
fresh mountain air. It’s like a vacation, and one where you come out feeling so
good about yourself.”
Jimmy LeSage’s New Life Hiking Spa is open through
October 3. At The Inn of the Six Mountains in Killington, Vermont. For more
information on the 11-night weight loss retreats, including special discounts
during certain dates, visit www.newlifehikingspa.com.The writer
is a freelancer based in Lake George, N.Y. www.staceymorris.com