Welcome to Spa World
Where every day, it's the arrival of the fittest
Ellen Komesarook rises at 4:30 a.m., packs a little red suitcase with cute exercise outfits, then drives to downtown Bethesda. By 5:30 she’s running to Rock Creek Park or down the Capital Crescent Trail. Ellen doesn’t stop running until she’s logged 20 miles. That’s 20 miles a day, five days a week, 260 days a year, no matter the season.
“Even when it’s dark I feel safe because there are always other die-hards out there with me,” Ellen says.
By 9:30 weekday mornings, Ellen has changed into a yoga outfit. For the next 90 minutes she lunges, stretches, balances and sweats her way through a packed hot vinyasa flow class at Down Dog Yoga on Elm Street. Afterward, exhilarated and soaked from exertion, she walks down the block to her favorite gym, Equinox, dons a fresh exercise outfit and lifts weights for 45 minutes.
At 48, Ellen isn’t training for the Olympics. She doesn’t live or work in Bethesda. She commutes from Darnestown to exercise. By the time she snaps her red suitcase shut and leaves Bethesda to go to work—her family owns and operates four Montessori schools—she has added an hour to her daily drive and paid to park for more than six hours.
“I don’t feel so freaky in Bethesda,” explains Ellen, whose wellness routine includes a vegan diet. “I fit right in. Walking around downtown Bethesda, the people seem thinner and fitter. They even dress more athletically than in other places, like they could be ready to go at any time for yoga, cycling or running.”
Bethesda is what researchers might think of as a health zone: a place where high education levels, incomes and property values are associated with less obesity, less diabetes, longer lives.
I like to think of downtown Bethesda as Spa World, with all that implies for good and ill. There are, for example, two stores selling stylish and pricey women’s exercise clothes within a 50-yard dash of one another.
Kelly Bradley, a Bethesda-based wellness coach, charges $175 an hour—or $550 for a three-week, kick-start program—to help clients eat and exercise wisely. Services include taking some clients grocery shopping “so I can introduce them to sea vegetables and super foods that they have never heard of before,” she says. “Then we go back to their house, organize their kitchen, and maybe even make a few dishes.”
Bethesda is home to one of the region’s most expensive gyms, Equinox, where a basic membership costs $141 monthly. Some clients pay another $999, up front, so their teenage children can enjoy junior memberships. Since junior members aren’t permitted to exercise in the gym unless accompanied by an adult, some parents pay another $90 to $120 an hour—two or three times a week—for a personal trainer to supervise their child’s workout.
Next door, Purée, an airy juice bar, sells 16-ounce containers of organic, unpasteurized juice—some made from two pounds of pulverized vegetables—for $9 or $10. It’s not unusual for customers stocking up for three-day, all-juice fasts or “cleanses” to walk out with $180 worth of juice, says owner Amy Waldman of Chevy Chase.
Boy Sharp, 46, who earns six figures as a colorist at Bella Bethesda Salon, tried Purée’s $180, three-day juice cleanses after he heard other people talking about them. He was sold. “By day three of a cleanse I feel superhuman,” he says. “One of my clients at the salon asked me, ‘Don’t you think that’s a lot of money to spend for juice?’ I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s expensive or not. I only know that I’m worth it.’ ”
Health researchers have long known that higher socio-economic status is statistically associated with better health and longer lives. Despite efforts to narrow the health gap between haves and have-nots, it has widened by some measures. A 25-year-old man with a college degree can expect to live 9.3 years longer than a peer without the degree.
A recent study in Washington state examined the correlation between health and property values. Women living in neighborhoods with the lowest property values were better than three times more likely to be obese than women living in their county’s most expensive homes.
Obstacles to health for people living in poverty are daunting: no health insurance, limited food budgets, easy availability of junk food, scarce options for fresh produce, neighborhoods unsafe to walk, run or bike in, the constant stress of living a hard life.
In places like Bethesda, by contrast, interest in the latest health and exercise trends spreads as virally as a dancing-dog video on YouTube.
I thought I was sort of fit and healthy until I interviewed a Bethesda woman who graduated from high school the year I did: 1976. She visits a grocery store or farmers market almost every day to serve family dinners that include three or four fresh vegetables. She works out an average of two hours daily: running, taking yoga classes and lifting weights. On days she works her upper body, the 54-year-old does, among other things, two sets of 30 military-style pushups.
Sixty pushups? I was still marveling at that later, so I dropped to my living room floor to see how many military-style pushups I could do.
Zero, but who’s counting? In Spa World, it seems like everyone is.
So weekday mornings when Ellen’s alarm strikes 4:30 a.m., she rouses and returns to Spa World to run and run.
“Someone once said to me, ‘From behind, you look amazing. But then you turned around and I realized from your face that you are probably in your 40s,’ ” Ellen recalls. “I laughed so hard. I can’t control the wrinkles. From the neck down, I can control. It’s a total commitment. It’s half my day.”
April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.