Fitness at sea: more hype than hip?

In a few weeks, I and a band of older brothers aged 60-plus plan to assault the coast of Newfoundland on a week-long hike averaging about 15 miles per day. Concerned that I'd be the caboose and the one to slow down the others, I decided I had better get shipshape ... and fast.

Among my considerations was a crash membership at the local Y or some other fitness center. But, in my mind, none of these offered a complete wellness program that extended much beyond intensive exercise.

Fortuitously, Royal Caribbean International recently inaugurated an integrated fitness program with its launch earlier this year of the world's newest and largest cruise ship, the 3,643-passenger Liberty of the Seas.

The line's Vitality Program marries educational lectures on health and nutrition with an exhaustive roster of exercise classes, personal training, designated dietary choices, massages and spa treatments and, get this, even selected shore excursions.

When it comes to athletic prowess, no other line compares to RCI. It's twin 153,000-ton megaships - Freedom and Liberty - are crammed with sports activities such as rock climbing, wave surfing, ice skating, and boxing in a professional-sized ring. Like Coney Island beaches during a heat wave, these ships' pool and sports decks are always jam packed.

It seemed a perfect fit with my objectives. Within a week of learning of the program, I was hooked and booked.

I had some doubts, though. Was cruising really the way to go or simply self-delusional? After all, cruises are for indulgences - eating that extra slice of devilish dark chocolate cake and lying beside the pool sipping pina coladas - not for hard work and self-denial. Most importantly, was Royal Caribbean's Vitality Program more hype than a hip way to total wellness?

Right up front, the weeklong Vitality Program delivered on its promises. After investing three-plus hours in the gym every day except for two, I lost four pounds, compared to an average weight gain of a pound-and-half per day for most cruisers. Almost all the loss was fat, not water. In fact, I added five percent more muscle mass.

I know this because, before planning a tailored fitness program for me, my experienced trainer from South Africa, Nick Andersen, assessed the state of my wellness, which included a complete metabolism and body-composition analysis. After the consultation, Andersen mapped out a daily three-hour regimen that began at dawn with a stretching session, an hour on the treadmill or elliptic trainer, and Tai-Chi or Yoga, as well as an hour-long personal training session on most days ($65 per hour).

My success hinged not only on Andersen, but also on numerous health tips provided in a half-dozen shipboard lectures on wellness, such as "Nutrition and Weight Management" and "Stress and Relaxation."

For instance, I learned that, by simply bypassing the elevators and taking the stairs on this 14-deck vessel, I could burn 300 calories a day on average if I climbed eight decks five times. As a result, I never stepped into the elevator ... not once.

In another session promoted as "Eat More to Weigh Less," about a dozen participants were advised that the ideal balanced diet includes consuming about 40 percent of your calories as carbs (about a fist-sized portion), 30 percent as protein (a palm-sized portion of lean meat or fish), and another 30 percent as fat (about a pinky's worth).

Such advice made it easier to bypass temptations at the all-day buffet, the seafood and chops at the two specialty restaurants, and the nearly round-the-clock availability of pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs.

Selecting menu items designated with a Vitality icon also helped diminish the urge to splurge (though never really eliminated it). Not surprisingly, the choices pinpointed grilled fish and chicken and volumes of vegetables. But there were tasty treats among the sensible choices such as curried vegetables and spicy pasta dishes.

Another plus for the Vitality Program as a blueprint for developing stamina and flexibility was the mix of free and fee-based exercise classes, including free early morning and afternoon aerobics, stretching and meditation sessions as well as inexpensive hour-long instructions in Tai Chi ($10), Pilates ($15), Yoga ($15), cycling ($10), and power boxing ($15).

On Liberty's itinerary in the Western Caribbean with stops in Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel (Mexico) and Labadee (Haiti), RCI's private beach resort, about a half dozen excursions warranted the seal of approval from the Vitality Program, designating them as physically more strenuous than the other hundred or so other options for less fitness-focused passengers.

I started at the top: My choice was to glide from treetop to treetop through the Jamaica's jungle canopy in a harness. For a guy with vertigo, I thought I deserved two Vitality points for my participation.

In fact, to motivate attendance at the lectures and exercise classes, Liberty's personal trainers reward participants with circular Vitality coins after each session. At cruise end, participants can redeem these coupons for free merchandise. I swaggered away with a tote bag, water bottle, key chain and pedometer for all my hours of sweat. Not bad I thought, since the combined weight of the merchandise was less than the four pounds I lost. So I was still going home lighter than when I came.

But the piece de resistance was the massages. After hours of sweating and working muscles to soreness, a good laying on of hands is more than therapeutic, it's downright necessary.

So I indulged, not with food, but by getting out the kinks and knots. After my second vigorous day doing the treadmill, squats and weight exercises, I surrendered to a wonderfully relaxing seaweed wrap and massage ($194) and followed up on succeeding days with a hot stone massage ($193) that tingled with the essence of the Orient, and, finally, with a deep tissue massage ($120) that had my muscles screaming, but eventually pacified.

At the end of the cruise, I was a certifiably addicted gym junkie. In fact, my fixation with fitness led me to miss some things. I had planned to rock climb and take a stab at wave surfing, but never got around to it. In fact, I was so taken with the ship and its amenities, I only got off the ship once in seven days and that was to soar through the treetops.

Maybe on my next RCI cruise, I'll learn to ice skate or box, but whatever I choose I know I wont be the last one up the hills in Newfoundland.