SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Bobbing in the big, old-fashioned tub, toes hooked over a water spout to keep from capsizing as tiny bubbles effervesce up the length of a sore spine, it's hard to worry whether this is just what the doctor ordered.
"If you don't have anything wrong with you, if you lead a strenuous life, it's just for relaxation," bathhouse attendant Gertrude Zorn says.
Otherwise, says Zorn, who for 15 years has been drawing the water for the tub then coming back to wrap the client in a hot sheet when it's time to get out, the bubbly float on naturally carbonated water is good for arthritis, rheumatism and bad backs.
The bathhouses with their white tile walls, ceiling fans and small individual suites with the giant tubs, look as though they haven't changed from the 1930s, when the state decided the area's carbonated waters were a natural resource.
Nothing trendy here, especially the price: $8.75 for the soak, room and attention.
An Idea Gone Yuppie
But elsewhere, spas are an old-fashioned idea gone yuppie--and a multimillion-dollar business. For many now, spa means the chrome and glass spot where you ride exercise machines in a fuchsia leotard. It can mean being floated in a seawater tub or swathed in an herbal wrap.
Jeffrey Joseph, a New York entrepreneur who jumped in just as the water was heating up, says his travel agency has tripled in both staff and bookings since he began specializing in spa vacations 1 1/2 years ago.
Joseph, owner of Spa-Finders Travel Arrangements Ltd., estimates that in 5 years, the number of spas in this country has increased from 30 to 150 and is still growing.
About 1.2 million Americans spend $700 million to $800 million annually going to spas, Joseph estimates. The majority of his clients, who spend about $1,000 for a week's retreat, are low-level female executives in their 30s.
But is the new emphasis on physical conditioning simply a fad, or is it really good for your health?
As Good as Hot Shower
Are you ready for this? A $1,000-$3,500 week at a spa can be as healthful as sitting at home in your rocker or taking a hot shower, say both a cardiologist and a sports psychologist.
"Does it feel good to go sit in a whirlpool or a hot mineral bath? Of course, it feels good," says psychologist Eric Margenau of New York City. "Does it serve a medicinal purpose? I haven't seen any evidence of that."
What about stress management? That's the new buzz word, Joseph says.
Experts say any form of relaxation and exercise will do if you plan for it and do it regularly. If you go off once a year, expecting an expensive vacation to be your lifeline for the next 12 months, you're in trouble.
'Just as Refreshed'
"I like spas, they're great. But I've been to great dude ranches that I've come back from just as refreshed," says Margenau, author of the book, "Sports Without Pressure."
Dr. James M. Rippe, the cardiologist who heads the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, echoes that. He says people must not delude themselves that "they can go twice a year and make up for the excesses of the rest of the year."
Joseph, whose agency has sent nearly 4,000 clients to spas around the world since March 1987, says the better resorts work on behavior modification: They don't just put you in an aerobics class or stick you on a diet, "they have a whole program on stress management and healthy living--things to take home with you."
Spas as places to take mineral waters go back at least as far as the Romans.
In Europe and Japan, people have been spa-minded for centuries. One town in Japan--Beppu, known for boiling ponds that shoot mud into the air--gets 12 million visitors each year, Joseph said.
In this country, traditional spas with a chic clientele were booming before the turn of the century.
This New York town, the granddaddy of American spas whose medicinal springs were discovered in the late 18th Century, was long a social hot spot with its added cache of a thoroughbred racing season.
Nowadays, Morgenau sees the proliferation of spas as part of a burgeoning "stress industry."
"The whole business is blown up way out of proportion. There is a whole economy built up around stress reduction, the new American fads--spas, contraptions, a $1,000 worth of vitamins."
Instead of those remedies, he recommends altering day-to-day patterns to defuse pressure. Slow down, he says, take a longer lunch, schedule exercise.
"Yes, stress exists. It always has. But most of the stresses are very easily remedied," Morgenau says.
"Every man's spa is his shower," says Rippe, the author of many medical and fitness books.
The medical school professor cites his own studies and those of colleagues that indicate showers and sitting in a recliner can reduce tension and anxiety, and that blood pressure, as well, is reduced by regular programs of walking.