Mel's Story

Mel and Enid Zuckerman
By Mel Zuckerman,
Canyon Ranch Co-Founder

When do most of us realize that health is a precious and positive thing over which we have some control? For most people, that realization – that critical experience of connection that I like to call the Aha! moment – comes too late. Usually it happens in a doctor’s office, or in an emergency room or a cardiac care unit. For too many people, the moment when they emotionally “get” the connection between their actions and their state of health is a very painful one. Let me tell you how I know this, and why Canyon Ranch exists.

I’m 81 years old and I still work hard, feel pretty good and honestly enjoy life. But for the first 50 years of my life I had a health profile I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I was an asthmatic child who was told not to exercise. High blood pressure ran in my family and I had it by the time I was 20. By age 24 I suffered from duodenal ulcers and by my mid-30s I had diverticulitis and a hiatal hernia. In my 40s my doctor told me I was starting to get osteoarthritis. And although I had been a skinny kid, I was overweight for most of my adult life.

When I was 40, I had a complete physical and the doctor determined that I had the body of a 65- to 70-year-old. I was horrified, and wanted to know what I should do. The doctor told me to lose 40 pounds and get control over my reactions to stress. I knew perfectly well how to lose weight – I’d lost hundreds of pounds over the years, only to gain it all back, plus a little extra, every time – but I had no clue about the stress. Today there are dozens of techniques around for managing stress, but in 1968 my doctor had no suggestions, except that I “should stop taking things so seriously.” A lot of help that was.

But I did take to heart the idea that I had to lose weight, so much so that I told my wife, Enid, to get me into one of those fat farms. I went to Rancho La Puerta, where I was miserably uncomfortable among all the ladies in leotards and left after 3 days.

So the spa thing didn’t work for me, and I felt powerless to change my life. For ten more years, I continued on with my unhealthy ways – eating compulsively, not exercising, totally stressed and feeling bad – until my father’s final illness and death provided me with the emotional jolt I needed to change my life.

I’ll never forget the day that Enid and I sat in the doctor’s office with my parents as the doctor broke the news to my father that he had inoperable lung cancer. My father had smoked all his life. Now he pulled the Camels out of his pocket, threw them down on the desk, and said, “I won’t smoke any more! I promise!”

It was his Aha! moment – too late. We buried him six months later.

During those months I sat and talked with him every day. Each conversation ended with him sitting with his head in his hands, moaning, “If only I’d quit. If only I hadn’t started. If only I’d listened. If only. . . .” I can see him now.

That was my Aha! moment – in time.

When my father died I was nearing 50 and my weight was out of control. I told Enid to get me back into Rancho La Puerta – I was that desperate. But the place had a waiting list, and I could not wait. Enid had seen an ad for The Oaks at Ojai, in California, and they had room. I drove over, planning to stay for 10 days. It turned into a month.

It was the ladies in leotards scene again, but the assistant director at The Oaks was a wonderful woman named Karma Kientzler, who later became executive fitness director at the Ranch and is still associated with Canyon Ranch – and still helping people get moving – to this day. She noticed me and took me under her wing, got me walking and then running. On the tenth day, she timed me as I jogged a mile and a half. It took me 11 minutes and 38 seconds. When we got back to the spa, she pulled out a book that used running times as a rough gauge of fitness for people of various ages. Karma showed me a chart that indicated that if, at age 50, you could traverse a mile and half in less than 12 minutes, you were at the top of your age group.

I had done it in 10 days! I can’t even tell you how wonderful that made me feel. And I never wanted to lose that feeling.

After three weeks, I called Enid and begged her to come join me. “I’ve found what I want to do with the rest of my life,” I told her. “We have to share this.”

Enid had been devoted to healthy living for a long time, and she’d suggested some years before that maybe we ought to build a “fat farm,” that there were a lot of them springing up, and that Tucson would be a good place for one. I’d just rolled my eyes and kept on building houses. At The Oaks her suggestion came back to me, and the idea for Canyon Ranch was born. We built it as a place where we could live the healthy lives we wanted, and where we could share what we’d found with anyone who cared to come to us.

We built Canyon Ranch to be the perfect place to put things in perspective, reset priorities and contemplate new opportunities. Everything you need is here, and the same philosophy that enabled me to change my life can help you change yours.

Living Younger Longer

In this five-chapter talk, Canyon Ranch founder and visionary Mel Zuckerman tells his personal story and explains how it led to the founding of Canyon Ranch, and shares the key to health, vitality and longevity – making the emotional connection between what you know and what you do. During most of the year, Mel gives a version of this lively, inspiring talk every week at the Life Enhancement Center® at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. 

It’s well worth a listen.