Champneys Blog

The history of spas and spa treatments

Today it’s fair to say that spas are at the forefront of the holistic health and wellness movement. People everywhere are discovering that the most effective approach to health is maintaining a balanced body and lifestyle – something spas are experts in assisting with. They are home to some of the latest pioneering treatments and research into nutrition, mindfulness and wellbeing. Offering everything from perfectly tailored treatments during refreshing spa breaks to intensive boot camps educating people across a range of topics.

However, the modern-day spa has deep roots, having grown from some of the most long-standing health practices in the world. So, whether you are interested in learning about the origins of treatments or want to learn more about how spas can differ around the world, read on to find out more.


The origins of spa


Where does the word spa come from?

Although there is no clear answer as to where the word spa began to be associated with healing practices, but there are two main theories about the term’s etymology:

- 'Spa’ is an acronym of the Latin phrase ‘Salus per Aquam’, meaning ‘health from water’.
- ‘Spa’ is named after the Belgian village, Spa, where hot mineral springs were used by Roman soldiers to treat aching muscles and wounds from a battle.

How old are spas?

Whilst many people associate traditional spas with Roman baths, there is evidence of spa-type therapies dating back thousands of years when there was a belief in the curative powers of mineral waters. Paul Joseph, co-founder of Health and Fitness Travel explains: “Spas, healing waters, thalassotherapy, hydrotherapy and hot springs date back thousands of years - an ancient practice conducted long before the Greeks and Romans!”

One of the first written accounts of bathing being used as a curative process rather than a simple hygiene ritual was by ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who was alive over 2000 years ago between 460 and 370 B.C. Hippocrates proposed that the cause of all ailments was an imbalance of bodily fluids, and advocated that “the way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.”

This process, using bathing as a treatment of disease, is known as balneotherapy and is considered the founding principle of spa-going. Its influence can be seen today in everything from mineral-infused treatments or jumping in the hot tub after a swim to thalassotherapy - swimming in seawater to heal the skin.

In their early history, the primary use of curative baths was to heal the wounds of Roman soldiers during the reign of Augustus from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. At this time, there were approximately 170 baths, known as a thermae, in Rome and it didn’t take long before all the city’s citizens began to view baths as a form of rest and relaxation. It was in 70 A.D. that the Romans built a thermae bath spa around the hot springs at Bath, the first of its kind in Britain.

In 1326, Collin le Loup, an ironmaster from Liège, Belgium, discovered the chalybeate springs in the town of Spa, Belgium. A famous health resort eventually grew around these springs and the term ‘spa’ came to refer to any health resort located near natural springs, with individual springs being associated with the disease they were thought to benefit.

However, it was not only in Europe that rituals associated with spa-going were developing. From Japanese ryokan to Turkish hammams and Finnish saunas/steam rooms, different healing facilities were growing around the world. By the Elizabethan era, spa resorts were fully ingrained into British culture and since then they have become more advanced but still stick to their humble, restorative origins.

The spa’s renaissance: an exercise in luxury

Before long, the enthusiasm for spa treatments was taken across to the United States, which is where the first mass-audience spa was established in Saratoga Springs, New York. By 1815, the area boasted two huge Greek revival hotels, with up to 500 accommodation rooms for visitors eager to take solace from the rapidly modernising world.

The first ever day spa was introduced by Elizabeth Arden in 1910, known as Manhattan’s Red Door Salon. This spa offered manicures, facials and more, bringing it much closer to the modern-day experience. As Beth McGroarty, Research Director at the Global Wellness Institute explains: “The modern concept of the spa really started to take off in the 1980s.” Over the next 20 years, spa days would be regarded as a treat for primarily wealthy women, who visited in groups to celebrate birthdays, hen dos, and other social occasions. Beth points out that “the big, recent story is one of explosive growth: the global spa industry grew from $60 billion USD in 2007 to $98.6 billion USD in 2015 – while spa locations jumped from 71,762 to 121,595 in those same short eight years.”

Inclusive indulgence

As the demand for spas increased, establishments proliferated, and with their presence came a widened accessibility to spa services, along with more niche offerings for individuals’ needs. Beth notes that, in the past decade, “the focus of spas has shifted from a narrow association with wealthy women and “pampering” to include all demographics: men, teens, children, and experiences at a larger range of price-points.”

Although back in the Roman era throughout history, gentlemen were the main patrons of spas, it seems perceptions have changed, and spas are now primarily viewed as a place for women. Chris Perrett from Spa Guide explained: “Up until relatively recently there's been a stigma surrounding men going to spas in the UK. While our friends in Scandinavia, Germany and Italy continued to embrace the health benefits, public perception made them a no-go zone for British men due to constrictive notions of traditional masculinity”.

However, as society at large has begun to understand the flaws in gender stereotypes, spas and wellness, in general, have become open to men again. Chris says: “Luckily the popularity of male grooming products has led to men actively seeking spas and targeted body treatments, which in turn has given rise to many health spas now providing men's treatment lists. The most popular treatments range from men's facials and head massages to deep tissue massages, showing men are just as keen to look good as they are to aid their sports recovery.”

The contemporary spa

The expansion of the modern-day spa’s demographic is largely due to a redefinition that has slowly been developing over the last 10 years – and not just when it comes to men. Whereas the majority of spas of the 1980s to early 2000s were luxury establishments offering lavish service to simply make the customer feel great topped off with afternoon tea, today’s leading spas instead focus on intrinsic health. Wellness is now the ultimate goal, whether this is deep tissue massages that target pressure points, balancing steam rooms, or more carefully-tailored spa breaks aimed at achieving certain benefits such as weight loss or detoxifying.

Beth McGroarty defines this process as the development of spas as wellness centres. This growing trend involves changes such as “adding everything from yoga, fitness or meditation classes, to having healthy food and spa cafes, to more alternative medicine approaches from Ayurveda to traditional Chinese medicine and reiki. We’ve even seen spas partnering with medical professionals to offer services which aim to accomplish a more integrative lifestyle change.”

What was once luxury pampering has now become a holistic approach to health and wellbeing which Beth argues has resulted in a serious perceptual shift in what a spa is, becoming “a far more mainstream, serious and widely attractive concept where real prevention and stress-reduction take place.” She comments that the core of this progression is the integration of “evidenced-based modalities. Those approaches have clinical evidence behind them so there are real results which consumers increasingly demand.”

Champneys owner Stephen Purdew adds: “Our healthy eating options, for example, are carefully considered down to the very last detail. I think our guests really appreciate and understand that we are a wellbeing destination spa – this is where our energies are focused. Our wellbeing values are not a token gesture; it is our ethos across all of our spa resorts, and we constantly research worldwide to evolve.”

Global spa trends

As spas seek to develop new, exciting and effective treatments for guests, the industry has begun searching for new global influences from across the world. Paul Joseph comments on this phenomenon, saying: “More world spas now enable you to dip your toes in another country's culture and experience your destination on a holistic level.”

As Beth McGroarty points out, this is a stark contrast from the spas of the 80s and 90s, which “looked very much the same - a generic, beige, vaguely Asian space with a few massages.” Now, she says, “globalisation has made spa-goers more keenly aware of indigenous spa and wellness practices from around the world. So, we have access to and knowledge of every kind of massage imaginable from Thai to Indian varietals, and excitement around so many global experiences, whether it be the Middle Eastern hammam, Mexican temezcal or Russian banya.”

However, it’s not just a taste of different cultures that spa customers desire, they are also increasingly attracted to hyper-local offerings. Beth notes: “The biggest trend in travel in the last few years is people’s seemingly insatiable quest to experience the authentic and indigenous - and it extends to what they want in spa experiences. So, spas are using local ingredients, even grown on-site, and practices for what you could call a farm-to-massage-table movement.”

Champneys owner Stephen Purdew comments: “Our Detox and Wellbeing Centre at Champneys Tring was the first of its kind in the UK. The size alone - 400 square metres – provides an amazing offering for our residents and day guests. It’s a development that underlines our position as a leading wellness destination in Europe.”

Tailored treatments

As spas have looked further afield for influence, they have also focused on providing more tailored treatments for different conditions and demographics. Chris explains: “Spas are now becoming much better at offering tailored, medical spa treatments to guests who can't always enjoy the more traditional spa treatments. It's rare not to find pregnancy-related treatments on the list at your local spa, and some venues are training massage therapists specifically to assist cancer patients after it being a real taboo subject for a number of years.”

Beth McGroarty predicts that this tailoring of day spa packages will not only cater to specific individuals’ needs but will also foster a holistic community impact. This is as much a return to the spa’s roots as it is a development. Even in the Roman era, spas were more than just bathing areas, they were all-encompassing recreational centres. As Mikkel Aaland suggests in his book Sweat, “most spa walls (in Roman times) enclosed sports centres, swimming pools, parks, libraries, little theatres for poetry readings and music, and great halls for parties – a city within a city.” Today, Beth anticipates more social and fun aspects will come to spas, “from more art, music and creativity programming at spas to things like the sauna as a social event.”

Broadening horizons

The most inventive of spas are not only widening their offerings and influences but are broadening their horizons outside of the building and into nature itself. Beth McGroarty comments on these so-called destination spas: “A big trend at the moment is to move the spa experiences and treatment rooms outside and deeper into nature: whether they're played out in treehouses, gardens, by the ocean or in the forest – while simultaneously bringing more nature inside the spa.” This encapsulates everything from outdoor guided exercise sessions to natural décor inside the building and botanicals in treatments, aimed at connecting mind, body and soul. Paul Joseph suggests that this recent move is premised on fostering a connection with the local environment as a means to balance the individual, explaining: “More innovative spas have created treatments based on their local culture and customs and turning back to nature.”

Champneys Fitness Director Louise Day explains: “Our selection of outdoor classes is one of the best. Our countryside resorts are perfectly positioned, so we like to incorporate our natural environment as much as possible. We’re very reactive to trends; quite often we’re the first to introduce programmes – in this day and age it’s important that spas offer something different. Our boot camps, for example, have really taken off. Led by top fitness and nutrition experts, our team motivate and guide participants through an intensive weight loss package that includes fun indoor and outdoor activities, team games, health and weight monitoring and healthy food options. We inspire them to make positive lifestyle changes.”

What’s the future of spa and spa treatments?

With the modern-day spa having come so far from the thermae and baths of ancient history, what is in store for spas and spa treatments in the coming years? Beth McGroarty predicts that, in the future, “wellness programming will continue to move out of the confined walls of the spa and get incorporated throughout the entire resort, whether baked into the physical building (wellness architecture) or in healthy food, sleep, classes – everything – infused throughout the property.”

A holistic approach is the key to the spa’s future, from health management retreats to life coaching we can expect to see spas revert more to community spaces that offer a large range of services as opposed to just traditional treatments.

Whatever the future of the spa brings, it is sure to be an exciting and inspirational journey founded on a rich history of nature, healing and exploration. If you’d like to book one of our spa days, we have a large selection of tailored treatments and wellbeing experiences perfect for any kind of spa-goer.

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