Creating a DIY Health Retreat in Thailand

Raise your virtual hand if one of your New Year’s resolutions for like, every single year of your life thus far has been to live a healthier lifestyle in some way, shape, or form. Me too!

About a year and a half ago, I found my self-esteem hitting an all-time low as my weight hit an all-time high. My first instinct? To sign up for a health retreat, one that would hit the reset button on my body, mind, and soul. My current destination of Thailand is a popular destination for spiritual-style fat camps, and it’s easy to see why – I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting for kick-starting a healthy lifestyle.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

But that particular slice of paradise comes at quite a price. A popular health retreat in Chiang Mai, including food, accommodation, massages, and group training will set you back 218,000 baht for a month – that’s a cool $6,000USD! A similar retreat in Phuket goes for 125,000 baht, or $3,500USD.

While I’m sure those are fabulous programs that provide fantastic results for their customers, that just wasn’t a splurge I was willing nor able to make at that moment. In the same boat? Don’t let it stop you. I figured if I couldn’t afford an official health bootcamp on my travels, I could find a destination where I could self-style my own.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

And so I decided to create my own, on the little Thai island I call home: Koh Tao. This post is a compilation of notes, journals, and experiences from over a year of experimenting here in Thailand.

Now, I just want to throw in a reminder here that despite my loyal viewership of Grey’s Anatomy, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a fitness expert. I’m just a girl hungry for a healthier lifestyle. And these are just my stories of trying to find it on Koh Tao, and some ideas for how you could build your own DIY health retreat at home or anywhere else you choose to travel to.

Trapeze Koh Tao

My Goals

In late October of 2015, I kick-started a new workout plan after a period of falling off the fitness wagon. I work best with specific monthly and/or weekly goals. Here’s a sample of a list of monthly goals, or a general roadmap to my DIY health retreat!

Keep a food log every single day to stay accountable to myself

Get my sweat on 25+ times, ideally including 12 gym sessions, 8 yoga sessions, and 4-6 other activities

Drink 2.5L of water per day (three full bottles full)

Get two massages per week

Use only positive self talk

Continue to educate myself on living a healthy lifestyle

You’ll notice that generally none of my goals involved cutting something out of my life, rather on trying to positively add to it. That said, in the past I wasn’t a proponent of axing specific foods or food groups, but ever since completing an incredibly rewarding Diet Coke Cleanse that finally broke my addiction to the most beautiful beverage ever invented (perhaps a topic for a full other post!) I do occasionally experiment with cutting out anything that I’m obsessing over, like candies and desserts, to remind myself that I can live without it.

Hiking on Koh Tao

I also try to avoid making specific goals for numbers I’d like to see on the scale. While I admit that there is a certain number that I seem ever-obsessed with, I’m trying to focus more on the long road it takes to feel fit, confident and strong than setting an arbitrary weight at which I’ll feel I’ve achieved it.

Tracking

For me, tracking is an essential part of meeting my goals. For years I’ve tracked my spending daily in order to meet my financial goals, and in the last eighteen months, I’ve begun tracking my health, too.

I have a cute calendar expressly for tracking my eating and exercising and I try to fill it in religiously every night. In the monthly view section, I fill in my workouts and notate the days I meet my water goals (so important for this former serial dehydrator). In the weekly section, I write down every single thing I eat and drink. Each week I reflect on how the week went, and tweak my goals slightly (swap ciders for vodka sodas, focus on not over-ordering when eating out, etc.)

I Love Salad Koh Tao

This is all about being accountable to myself. No longer can I snarf up three servings of Goldfish and conveniently forget that little snack when I order up a sugary shake an hour later. It also allows me to catch myself before I fall into bad patterns — like realizing I didn’t get any veggies all day, or realizing I’ve been struggling to meet my water goals all week — and course correct for the next day or week.

And for my workout tracking – it’s fun! I created little symbols for my different workouts just for laughs and I love seeing how little white space I can leave at the end of the month by filling the whole page with sweat sessions.

Ideally I would love to be taking more progress photos and recording my measurements as well, but I seem to avoid those tasks pretty successfully on a regular basis. My true test of progress? A favorite pair of shorts that haven’t fit in a long time. When those slip on again, I’ll be ready to celebrate.

Cost: $15 for a calendar

Eating

Having healthy, nutritious and restricted meals provided for you is probably the number one benefit to an actual health retreat. Admittedly, I’m eating a little less strictly in my self-styled version than I would in a “real” one – but I’m okay with that. It’s helping me find healthier ways to live that can be applied to real life, and not just live within the confines of a health resort.

The past year has opened my eyes in many ways. Overall, I’ve become a drastically less picky eater over the years. But now I’m also experimenting with a more plant-based diet than I’ve ever eaten before, I’m ordering more carefully when I eat out (which is often) and I’m even discovering new foods – I ordered tofu for the first time in my life, and actually enjoyed it it.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Again, I haven’t really cut anything out, though I have focused on eating a protein, vegetable and fruit heavy diet with less reliance on carbs. For example, I eat Thai stir fries and curries often but I no longer order white rice. That said, I have noticed that my afternoon and evening workouts are much easier when I have a lunch that includes a whole wheat wrap or a bit of black rice, so I’m certainly not banning the bottom of the food pyramid.

Heading to Koh Tao for a DIY health retreat of your own? Head to these three locations, the source of the vast majority of my meals:

• Living Juices: Koh Tao’s original green juicer. While I’ve yet to advance to drinking kale, I do go for an occasional ginger carrot juice when my immune system needs a boost and often use one of their a chia seed, oats and banana packed smoothies, the Good Morning Koh Tao, as a filling breakfast. Another fabulous option are the Living Bowls, smoothie bowls made from all-natural goodness. Delish!

For lunch, I often grab a Superfood Salad (all kinds of amazing greens and veggies topped with coconut oil, hummus and/or quinoa chia seed bread, yum!) or if I’m looking for a snack, the Sticks and Dip (sliced and diced veggies with homemade hummus).

Living Juices Koh Tao

Living Juices Koh Tao

• Fitness Café: A health-centric eatery attached to Koh Tao Gym & Fitness. I’m a regular here for the Frozen Berry Nut Crunch (fresh Greek yogurt with berries and almonds) or the Superfood Porridge (with milk, banana, apple, goji, flax, chia seeds and honey) for breakfast, or the chicken quinoa feta salad or chicken avocado on tomato garlic wrap for lunch. Grab a 10% off loyalty card.

• Vegetabowl: A vegetarian lunch and dinner spot building beautiful salad bowls with different themes. My favorite is the Mexican Bowl, which featured black beans that fill me up with protein, but have recently branched out to ordering their tofu-packed versions as well, like the Japanese Bowl – also including edamame, bean spouts, and mango.

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Here’s an example of one of the days from my daily food diary, and the cost:

Breakfast: Frozen berry crunch from Fitness Café (110B)
Jasmine Green Tea

Lunch: Morning Glory & Chicken Stir Fry from Thai restaurant (120B)
Carrot Orange Ginger Juice from Living Juices (150B)

Snack: Banana (5B)
Ginger tea (Free with massage)

Dinner: Mexican Bowl from Vegetabowl (240B)
Soda water (12B)

Water: 2.5L Water (Free!)

This glorious day of food and drink cost 637 baht (actually cheaper since I have discount cards and local prices at many of these places, but that would be the walk in cost). That comes to about $18USD.

This was an expensive day, and often I have cheaper ones by swapping a meal for an apple and peanut butter or organic, GMO-free rice thins (a great find on the island imported from Australia) spread with peanut butter and mango. In general though, eating a healthy and plant-heavy diet in Thailand will cost a lot more than grabbing a Pad Thai on the street.

Cost: $500 per month for healthy nutritious meals.

Exercise

There’s nothing I love more than getting my sweat on! Here’s a few workouts I’ve experimented with here on Koh Tao:

• Yoga: Yoga has changed my life! Sadly I practice a lot less of it now that Grounded, my local studio on Sairee Beach, has closed their location that was literally next door to my apartment, and Ocean Sound has taken a hiatus from offering workshops. That said, I make it to Ocean Sound classes once or twice a week, and I occasionally practice at home using the Yoga with Adrienne YouTube channel, a great option for those who don’t have a studio nearby or are on limited budgets.

Ocean Sound Yoga Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

• Gym: Last year I finally tried the insta-famous 12 week BBG Program, a PDF or app-based workout you can do anywhere. Its founder Kayla Itsines is a social media celebrity, and the before-and-afters from real users posted to instagram are what inspired me to start. While I do these workouts at the gym, they are light on equipment and could be modified to do just about anywhere with body weight. The program calls for three gym sessions a week, each focusing on legs, arms and abs, or abs and cardio.

Recently I’ve been hitting the gym again and haven’t been feeling motivated to start a new round of BBG, so I just search Pinterest for the body area I want to exercise and the amount of time I have (ie. twenty minute arm workout) and pin a workout from there! On Koh Tao, I purchase twelve-pack gym sessions from Koh Tao Gym and Fitness.

• Other: In the past year I’ve logged sessions of trapeze, paddleboarding, muay thai, hiking, scuba diving, and crossfit. Anything that gets my heart rate up – and bonus points if it involves exploring this beautiful island!

Trapeze Koh Tao

Koh Tao Trapeze

Trapeze Koh Tao

By purchasing class packs for yoga and the gym, I’m able to make them very affordable. Hiking and practicing yoga at home are also free! See more pricing information and Koh Tao workout inspiration in this post.

Cost: $150 per month for exercise. 

Positive Thoughts

Last year, at an intensive vinyasa workshop, our instructor was discussing the yamas of yoga, and piqued my interest when she brought up animas, or non-violence. We discussed that animas can be interpreted more broadly than just “don’t hit people.” It also means to practice non-violence towards yourself – to use positive language when you talk about your body, and to treat yourself the way you’d treat your closest friends.

Koh Tao Paddleboarding

This hit home because it’s something I’ve been musing a lot on lately. I’ve been struggling greatly with feeling comfortable in my skin, and when I go to the gym and look in the mirror and start to feel negative thoughts creeping out, I remind myself to work out not because I hate my body and wish I had someone else’s instead, because I love my body and I’m grateful for all the adventures it takes me on — and I want to treat it with respect in return.

Cost: Free!

Water

After a life of dehydration, in the past year I finally feel like I know what being properly watered feels like. And dang, is it gorgeous! I make the ambitious goal of chugging three bottles full per day, which amounts to 2.5L or 10 cups (so a bit above the standard recommended 8).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Wondering how I can drink water out of the tap in Thailand? Read this post on personal filtration devices — I also recently invested in this filtered water pitcher for my house. It’s amazing what a difference this makes in my day! Drinking water has never been easier and I feel more full, have more energy and get less headaches.

Cost: Thanks to the products mentioned above, I budget $0 per month for water.

Massage

I’ve always felt strongly that massage was a critically important part of health, and finally TIME.com went and provided me with the perfect pull quote to prove it:

The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.

Here in Koh Tao, twice weekly massages are a luxury I can easily afford. Typically I go for one full hour Thai or oil massage (300-400 baht or $9-12 USD) and one half-hour reflexology session (200-250 baht or $6-7 USD).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I realize that isn’t possible in most parts of the world. When I’m in the US and my body is aching for a treatment, I scour Groupon for deals or trade with friends – in the past, I took a one-day massage course in Chiang Mai and I still like to bust out those moves.

Cost: I budget $80 per month for massages.

Education

Being in Koh Tao, I don’t have access to any formal education opportunities as far as nutrition and wellness. But I knew this would be an important part of my progress, so I crowdsourced books and documentaries on the subjects with a Facebook post asking friends for their recommendation. Here’s what I’ve downloaded as a result.

Watching

• Fed Up: Absolutely eye-opening — you won’t go food shopping the same way ever again!

• Food Inc.: The classic film on food in America.

• Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Emotional and moving account of one man’s struggle to change school lunch programs.

• Food Matters / Hungry for Change / The Sugar Film: Still need to watch!

Reading

• What Are You Hungry For?: The Chopra Solution to Permanent Weight Loss, Well-Being, and Lightness of Soul: This has been my favorite health-related read ever. It’s all about refocusing your perspective so that you crave the things that are good for you, instead of fetishizing those that are bad.

• In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: So excited to dig into this infamous book on our culture’s complicated relationship with food.

• Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us: My little sister loved this — I’m almost afraid to read it (I love salt, sugar, and fat!). But I do love being angry at major corporations, so there’s that!

• Eat. Nourish. Glow.: A recent recommendation I’m looking forward to digging into.

• Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life: My older sister recommended this as a way to help incorporate more plant-based nutrients into my diet, which I’m interested in for ethical and environmental reasons (though I don’t plan to give up meat entirely.)

Also

Attending yoga workshops, watching free TED talks on fitness and nutrition, and talking to friends and family about their experiences with health and nutrition.

The beauty of the fact that so many travelers have a laptop or iPad or a Kindle or even a smartphone means you can educate yourself anywhere you decide to do a DIY health retreat. Some documentaries are free or available on Netflix, but if not cost about $5 to rent. Books were generally around $10 on Kindle.

Cost: I budgeted $50 for books and movies. 

. . . . . . .

Trapeze Koh Tao

Now, there’s one element here that simply can’t be ignored: dealing with distractions! If I was sequestered away at an all-inclusive health spa, I certainly wouldn’t have the temptation to drink with my friends or order a pizza from my favorite italian restaurant… both of which I do here on Koh Tao, since I’ve been living here on and off for years. Ideally, I’d love to try creating a DIY health retreat in a destination where I’d have a few less diversions.

In total, here’s what you could spend for a month long self-styled health retreat. To make the comparison fair, I’ve also included a sample monthly rent on a past, fairly luxurious apartment of mine that included all my bills and weekly cleaning.

Rent: $420

Tracking: $15

Food: $500

Exercise: $150

Massages: $80

Education: $50 

Total: $1,215

As you can see, that’s quite a significant savings over the $3,500 Phuket version of the $6,000 retreat in Chiang Mai. Would I still love to hit one of those up someday and see what kind of physical transformation they might bring? Hell yes. But for now, I’m working with what time and funds I’ve got.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out — far from it! But I am trying to constantly guide myself towards a slightly healthier lifestyle, wherever in the world I may be. I have to admit, I’m currently in a bit of a slump where I’m feeling frustrated with my progress and I hope that publishing this, and starting a conversation with you all in the , will motivate me out of my funk. So let’s chat health and fitness!

What steps would you take for a DIY health retreat?

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