Two years to the day since a surgically controlled robot sliced my prostate out, I sat in a hotel on the edge of the Black Forest staring at a bowl of carrot porridge.
You hear the stats about one-in-two people getting cancer, but you never think it’s going to be you. Until it is. I was 52. My tumour was small and aggressive but, l found out later, hadn’t spread. Regular blood tests since the operation have confirmed that my cancer is in remission, but not without lasting side effects. I realise that many people in a similar situation are not so lucky.
The whole thing messed with my head. The fact that my still-with-us, 86-year-old dad – aka “the Duracell Bunny” – has had five cancers, a heart attack, a stroke and double pneumonia, has nagged me with a “what if?” for my future. So here I was in Germany, having a spa break with a difference, a midlife “MOT”.
At Villa Stéphanie – a swanky 15-bedroom annexe which is part of the 150-year-old Brenners Park-Hotel in Baden-Baden – you get massages, the use of a private gym, pool, steam room and sauna, plus guided hikes in the Black Forest. Not to mention carrot porridge, sliced avocado and camomile tea for breakfast. But you also get a bank of medical tests and consultations with Dr Harry König, the man to whom Middle Eastern potentates, soap stars, footballers and CEOs of billion-dollar corporations turn when they need a lifestyle reboot.
Villa Stéphanie can count Victoria Beckham among its regulars; she has even brought David along for a tune-up, all documented on Instagram. For me, though, it wasn’t really about yoga or burpees but about a mid-life reset, an arschtritt (kick up the backside) from Germany’s leading medical expert on ageing.
“How old do you want to live?” Dr König asked me matter-of-factly, having reviewed the blood tests I’d had done prior to arriving. Ninety was my answer. “Well, we all want to get old but none of us actually wants to be old,” he replied. The point was that what we do now in midlife affects what kind of old age we are going to have. My future alternatives were either athletic yomps across the Dales in my 80s or being stuck watching the Ant and Decs of the 2050s. The choice was in my hands.
Although my test results didn’t reveal anything horrendous, the ridiculously young-looking 59-year-old König – who would definitely be played by George Clooney if there were a movie about him – was forthright that if I wanted to age well, I needed to revaluate my lifestyle, especially when it came to nutrition and exercise.
My body mass index results put me technically in the obese category, so I was advised to schedule daily exercise to help lose 11kg rather than procrastinate and rely totally on the blood pressure pills and statins I currently take. And I needed to make better food choices, including trying “intermittent fasting”. Dr König is a big fan.
To kick-start the process, Dr König scheduled an intravenous drip with vitamin C then alpha-lipoic acid, which is an antioxidant and liver cleanser, as well as recommending vitamin pills and hormone top-ups that my blood tests showed I was lacking. This raised my scepticism levels. Oh, here comes the doc suggesting expensive pills and potions. But when he went through why I might need them, it was to combat a pretty accurate checklist of physical symptoms and mood swings that I had felt since the op. So, I lay back and thought of Deutschland. Maybe being more open-minded and less cynical should be part of the new me, too?
When it came to meals, my mostly vegetarian diet at Villa Stéphanie was delicious. Admittedly it wasn’t something I would usually have gone for, but I even got used to the porridge. Again, it was about making choices. I could have had more protein in the shape of fish and chicken if I had wanted. I could also have had a steak, had I asked, although I think I would have been pushing my luck demanding Black Forest gateau.
Heck, there was even a cigar lounge at the hotel, and a 1920s-style bar called Fritz & Felix. (There are minerals in a martini, right?) A five-minute walk away, the chocolate shop – Café König – looked like somewhere Hansel and Gretel might be lured into. But the new me avoided those temptations … just.
My top-floor suite came with a voluminous sofa next to an LP player where Sade’s Diamond Life album soothed away any weariness. But as well as a shower and a deep bathtub, there was a private sauna, hammam and exercise area.
During my four-night stay, there were also sessions with a nutritionist and a fitness instructor, an appointment with a urologist and with a cheerful orthopaedic doctor who ran more tests and suggested various exercise and stretches I needed to try to undo years hunched over a laptop.
Much of this wasn’t rocket science: get up every 20 minutes when working, buy orthotics to improve my posture, use a standing desk, try yoga, simply move more – and get more quality sleep. But it comes back to the fact that ageing better can be as simple as small changes that are up to us – decisions which, if we don’t make them, will haunt us later. The cumulative aim is to instil good habits. Maybe start small: give up sugar, drink more water, take the dog for extra walks.
“We are all going to die one day but we can make choices about the quality of our life,” Dr König said at our final session. “Life brings risks, but we can optimise those through our lifestyle. Unfortunately, we start realising that when it is too late. I want to jump healthily into my grave, whenever that might be.”
I’ll drink to that. In moderation. After I have gone for a walk.
How to do it: Will Hide travelled as a guest of Healing Holidays (020 7843 3597; healingholidays.com), which offers a four-night stay at Villa Stéphanie Spa & Wellbeing from £5,200, which includes flights, private transfers, all meals, and medical treatments by Dr König and his team
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