Fit and fancy-free: Couple finds joy in sharing wellness at their Midway spa, offering vegan meals and plenty of exercise

Chocolate Mousse, a favorite dessert at the National Institute of Health and Fitness, contains...
Photo courtesy of NIHF
Story by Valerie Phillips
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Tue, Sep 10, 2013
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Back in her college days, Vicki Cummings Sorenson worked at three different Ogden health clubs. “Little did I know that one day I would own my own spa. It was great preparation,” the Weber State graduate said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

Vicki Sorenson’s career in the fitness industry has spanned more than 35 years, including ownership of the National Institute of Fitness in Ivins, and now the National Institute of Health and Fitness at the Zermatt Resort in Midway.

Sorenson, a 1972 Ben Lomond High graduate, first joined Li’l Audrey’s Health Spa to get in shape for the Miss Weber State pageant. She went on to win the Miss Weber County pageant, and was runner-up to Miss Utah USA.

Along the way, she became an employee at Li’l Audrey’s, and also worked at European Health Spa and Lady Fitness.

All of that experience was put to good use when she married Marc Sorenson, a widower with a health/exercise background and a doctorate in education. They met while she was an instructor at his fledgling health program, called the National Institute of Fitness, in Southern Utah.

During the 1980s, the couple built it into an internationally known health resort. People came not just to lose weight, but to manage diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and other health issues. The regimen included miles of hiking in the red-rock canyons; exercise classes; hearty meals of whole grains, fruits and vegetables; and daily health seminars from Marc Sorenson.

The Sorensons sold their spa in 1994, and the property eventually became the Red Mountain Resort.

Over the years, the couple pursued other interests. Marc continued his nutrition research and writing, and Vicki earned certification in international etiquette from the Washington D.C. School of Protocol. But they missed the spa business.

“We missed making people well,” said Marc Sorenson. “When people come to you daily and tell you that you saved their lives, you miss it and want to do it again.”

Last summer, they opened the National Institute of Health and Fitness at the Zermatt and The Homestead resorts in Midway. Currently, about 10 to 15 guests per week come to hike the Wasatch foothills, eat vegan meals, attend exercise and health classes, golf, play tennis, and swim in The Homestead’s geothermal waters.

Many of the first guests to sign up at the new spa were regulars at NIF, including actor Ben Vereen.

“It’s been fun to start out with little intimate groups, and now the numbers are growing,” said Vicki Sorenson. “My commitment is always to growth with quality. At NIF we started with 20 people, and grew to 150 per week. But we always retained the personal touch and service.”

A destination

The spa has been a “primary pillar” in helping Zermatt and The Homestead become destination locations, according to Steve Eddington, managing partner of the two properties.

In an email interview, he said both spa guests and Midway locals have looked to NIHF as a center for nutrition, exercise, education and “natural no-nonsense healing.”

“The Sorensens understand and impart what it takes to help guests lose weight, become stronger, transform their bodies, reduce inflammation, get past Type 2 diabetes, eat delicious food and never go hungry,” he wrote. “We are located in one of the most natural wellness areas in the world. NIHF is helping the resorts become Utah’s Fitness City within Midway city.”

The Heber Valley‘s climate is cooler than the warm Southern Utah setting of their former spa. But that can be an advantage, said Marc Sorenson.

“In the summer in St. George, you had to get up early to beat the heat,” he said. “Here, we have a million miles of adventure hiking, and the Uintas are very close. In the winter we play in the snow, with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. We also have a nice, fully equipped gym with treadmills that overlook the mountains.”

Guests can also enjoy Zumba, yoga, Pilates, weight training and other fitness classes at any time of year.

The clients’ results on the fitness and eating regimen are even better than they were at the Southern Utah spa, said Vicki Sorenson.

“I think the higher altitude has a little bit to do with it. Also, we’re reaching a baby boomer generation that takes their health more seriously than before. People used to come for weight only, now they are coming for both weight and health issues, such as diabetes, arthritis or high cholesterol.”

Wellness & weight loss

Mary Crafts, a Utah County caterer, said her stay at NIHF last winter helped her relieve her debilitating arthritis and lose 22 pounds. She sought a more natural solution than the arthritis drugs she was taking, which had undesirable side effects.

“I wanted to at least be able to control the speed at which it was taking away my hand function,” she said. “In my business, my hands are so important to me.”

She lost 12 pounds in the week that she was at NIHF, and another 10 pounds after going home and practicing the principles she learned. She gave up her Diet Coke habit, and about 80 percent of her diet is what she calls “vegan-focused.”

“I avoid animal products most of the time, but if I have a piece of cheese when I’m out with my family, or if I taste something while I’m at work, my life hasn’t come to an end,” Crafts said.

“I am stronger at age 60 than I’ve ever been. I’ve regained the strength in my hands. I’m no longer on the arthritis drugs, although there are times when it still bothers me. And I have better stats on my heart rate, cholesterol and blood pressure than I’ve had in my whole life.”

According to the NIHF website, guests can expect to lose 4 to 9 pounds per week, depending on their individual metabolism and commitment to the program.

“We get amazing results and we have a lot of fun doing it — no screaming, yelling or swearing,” Vicki Sorenson said, alluding to the TV reality series “The Biggest Loser,” with its in-your-face trainers. “We’ve found that if people are motivated and inspired while they’re here, they will continue with it when they get home. If they’re doing things that are not realistic, like throwing tires around, they won’t continue.”

Plant-based diet

Despite the popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins, South Beach and Paleo, Marc Sorenson believes fats are the problem and maintains faith in the low-fat vegan diet that was used successfully for more than 10 years at the old NIF.

Animal products — including dairy — are out, except for the salmon served Friday nights or special requests from guests.

“Marc devours all the scientific journals daily to keep up on the research, and we find people lose the most weight and gain the most health benefits with a plant-based diet,” said Vicki Sorenson.

“We’re not quite as strict as we were; we’ve found we do need omega 3 fatty acids in the diet,” said Marc Sorenson. “But we believe fat is the cause of diabetes, not sugar. Diabetes studies have shown that a high-carb, low-fat diet is beneficial. We use all whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, and no refined sugars except a little dehydrated cane juice with a little apple juice for sweetener.”

The daily calorie count is around 1,200 to 1,500. That could include whole-grain pancakes for breakfast, topped with a jam made of berries and apple juice. Lunch or dinner might be a shepherd’s pie full of mushrooms, walnuts, carrots, celery and onions; or vegetarian lasagna, made with whole-wheat noodles or thin strips of zucchini or eggplant.

A favorite dessert is a chocolate mousse with avocado and prunes as secret ingredients.

Guests help themselves to a salad bar at lunch and dinner. One curious item is diced nopal, or prickly pear cactus pads, peeled so that the spines are removed. Marc Sorenson said research indicates that nopal helps regulate blood-sugar levels, which can help control diabetes.

Safe sun

A new component to the wellness program is “safe sun.”

During his NIF days, Marc Sorenson wondered if the sunshine of Utah’s Dixie played a role in enhancing the health of his guests.

Since then, he has spent time researching and writing about the healthful effects of sunlight, which is needed to synthesize vitamin D in the body. He lectures on the topic at health seminars.

“We have been frightened out of the sun by the dermatologists, and many people are vitamin D deficient,” he said.

Added Vicki Sorenson: “We say: Never bake, never burn. We go according to skin type. It may be only a few minutes a day. For people who can’t tan, sitting under a beach umbrella and getting reflective light may be enough.”

Prices & pampering

The spa requires a minimum one-week stay, with many people staying several weeks. Prices start at $999 per week (for three people sharing a two-bedroom condo at The Homestead, for a four-week stay). In comparison, a week at the ultra-pampering Golden Door Spa in California is currently running a “special” of $6,750 per person.

For those who want to splurge on pampering treatments, Zermatt’s in-hotel spa offers massages, facials, pedicures and other treatments, for a separate fee.

“That way, we can keep the cost low for people who really need to be here to make some lifestyle changes,” said Vicki Sorenson.

So far, the age of clients has ranged from 16 to 84, “so there’s something for everyone, “ Vicki Sorenson said.

Healthy-cooking classes share the spa’s recipes and cooking techniques. Former teacher Monica Adair, who recently moved out of state, compiled an e-cookbook with Vicki Sorenson called “14 Days to a Healthier You,” which is $14.95. Those interested in the book can email Victoriasorenson@aolcom.

For more information about NIHF, visit www.nihf.com.

Chocolate Mousse

3/4 cup dates

2 avocados

1 cup almond milk

1/2 cup almond butter

3/4 cup cacao powder

1/2 cup agave

Soak the dates in water until soft. Remove pits. Peel the avocados and remove seeds.

In food processor or blender, combine all ingredients and blend or process until smooth.

Refrigerate, then enjoy! Serves 4.

— National Institute of Health and Fitness

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