Emma Coxon heads to Combe Grove Metabolic Health Retreat near Bath to reboot her health and fitness – not just for the new year but for the long term.
After a four-year hiatus from my regular exercise routine after the birth of my daughter, coupled with unhealthy eating habits, my health had taken a downturn. My energy levels had hit an all-time low, and a recent visit to my GP unveiled high cholesterol, low phosphate, and a BMI exceeding the recommended range. Seeking assistance amid increasing wait times and brief consultation windows with my doctor, I found myself uncertain about how to regain control.
Several months later, I stumble upon Combe Grove, the UK’s first medical wellness centre founded by Helen Aylward Smith, a visionary and businesswoman, turned philanthropist. Offering week-long metabolic health retreats that blend groundbreaking medical research, the rejuvenating power of nature, and a dedicated support team of doctors, medical professionals, dieticians, nutritionists, and holistic health practitioners, Combe Grove was precisely what I had been searching for.
Combe Grove’s programmes are grounded in the ‘Five Roots of Metabolic Health’ which are: nutrition, movement, mindset, environment and sleep. Striving for balance in each of these areas aims to restore and sustain homeostasis in the body, fostering improved metabolic health, they say.
Nestled in nature
With much anticipation, I arrived at Combe Grove on a cold, crisp autumn morning. Situated in the Somerset countryside just outside Bath, the estate’s 70 acres of lush woodland and meadows looked resplendent, adorned in autumnal shades of red, yellow, and bronze. I was warmly welcomed by Hilary Woods, one of the team leaders, and guided through the week’s schedule and then to my room, which was beautifully appointed with views of the woodland in the valley below, and equipped with a king-size bed, balcony, and sitting bath.
That evening at dinner I met my fellow retreaters in the main house’s candlelit orangery. A diverse group of people, we quickly formed a supportive community, providing encouragement to each other throughout the week. Nutrition takes centre stage in Combe Grove’s programmes. Delightful dishes, rich in good quality proteins, healthy fats, and low in carbs, were complemented by the core principle of time-restricted eating: no breakfast, then brunch at 10.45am, and dinner at 5.45pm finishing by 7pm, allowing our bodies a 16-hour rest and reset period.
We savoured an abundance of fresh and flavourful foods, homegrown and harvested from the estate’s kitchen garden. Carefully designed by a team of dieticians and nutritionists, my favourite dishes included fish pie topped with creamy cauliflower mash and Parmesan and leek, butterbean, and celeriac crumble, all served with seasonal vegetables and lovingly prepared by chefs Marco Appel and Rachel Milsom. Each meal is a feast for the senses.
The first day of the retreat brings eagerly anticipated tests to assess the status of my health and identify areas for improvement. A finger-prick test by medical lead, Dr. Campbell Murdoch, reveals slightly elevated cholesterol, weight concerns, and an excess waist circumference. Despite this, my blood pressure and triglycerides were in a healthy range, providing some relief. The Accuniq’s machine, measuring total body composition, presented surprising results of high visceral fat, but my skeletal muscle mass within a healthy range. A movement coach later in the week attributed this to my previous fitness level, emphasising the need for regular exercise to maintain it.
Despite initial concerns, Dr. Murdoch remained unfazed and expressed genuine belief in my ability to make positive changes. He shared his hope for society’s future, recounting impressive results at his own GP practice, where patients managed to reverse type 2 diabetes, lower their blood pressure, achieve weight loss, and improve mental and physical health conditions.
The week unfolded with a plethora of informative and interactive workshops, that emphasise the importance of each of the five roots, including insightful cookery demonstrations and a fun-filled movement workshop with gym manager Chris Spreadbury. The session included squats, lunges, and press-ups as well as a group fitness activity that built up quite a sweat! We were encouraged to do as little or as much exercise as felt comfortable, with the aim to maintain a minimum of 120 minutes of movement per week once back home.
Jules Lowrie, studio manager, explained: ‘We refer to exercise as “movement” at Combe Grove because the word “exercise” has preconceived connotations, which can be negative to someone who has never done “exercise” before or who has not enjoyed a former experience of exercise. Movement can be anything from a walk to a run, a bicycle ride or a swim, gentle yoga to tennis: it is more about getting the body moving and incorporating movement into your daily life. When we find movement we like and enjoy we are far more likely to continue doing it on a daily/weekly basis.’
The diverse opportunities for movement at Combe Grove include classes from spin, HIIT, Zumba, and BodyPump to yoga and Pilates – all bookable through their app. Plus, superb flood-lit indoor and outdoor tennis courts mean you can enjoy a game or two year-round.
Walking and weights
I opted to join the guided walks, including a wildlife walk with the knowledgeable Steve, exploring ancient woodland. A glorious swim in the heated outdoor pool at dusk was accompanied by the sight of geese flying overhead; a magical moment that reminded me of my love for spending time in nature. One evening I joined an aqua fit class in the indoor pool; a great workout with lots of laughs as we tried to grapple with inflatable dumbbells.
The well-equipped gym has a good range of equipment, including cardiovascular machines, resistance equipment, and fitness aids, catered to individual preferences. Fitted with state-of-the-art Sports Art equipment, the gym’s thoughtful design is aimed at fostering a positive and socially responsible environment, with equipment harnessing energy generated during workouts. The weights area is great and the gym is quiet and not intimidating at all.
As a woman in my 40s, I’m advised to incorporate resistance training and weights into my routine, alongside movement for cardio. ‘We are strong advocates of empowering women to lift weights to maintain and build muscle throughout their lives as we know firsthand the benefits of resistance training for metabolic health, hormone health, and overall health and wellbeing. The benefits of incorporating resistance training as we age, as part of our fitness routine are phenomenal,’ says Jenny Service, gym instructor, PT, naturopathic nutritionist, and team leader at Combe Grove.
To balance out the exertion from all the exercise, I also enjoyed some calming holistic treatments. A reflexology session with Rosalind Oxenford left me blissfully relaxed. A massage with Lucie TePuci Jurickova was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Lastly, an osteopathy session with Oscar Marcus provided insights into my movement patterns, addressing the stiffness in my knees, and suggested exercises for improvement.
I left Combe Grove excited about the future and in the knowledge that regaining control of my metabolic health is entirely possible. It was one of the most insightful and transformative experiences of my life, but there’s more… the programmes comes with 48-weeks of support from the experts after your retreat. So, I now feel better equipped to maintain my new eating and exercise habits than ever before.
Combe Grove’s year-long Metabolic Health Programme costs from £2,600, which includes a six-night residential retreat with one consultation with a nutritionist, a 1-2-1 session with an exercise coach and one treatment with a holistic practitioner. Also included is one year of membership to the Club at Combe Grove with the chance to return for a minimum three-night stay at a discounted rate. Specialist programmes with a focus on menopause or prediabetes cost from £2,900 with more to come in future including fertility and food addiction programmes. For more information go to combegrove.com
Words: Emma Coxon. Images: Combe Grove.