She helped kick-start exercise routines that became known as aerobics, created destination spas for the fat and budget-conscious, and pretty much changed the landscape of the wellness industry. We’re talking about Sheila Cluff, a wellness visionary, champion ices skater and entrepreneur who has just published her inspiring autobiography “Living Your Dream” (Storyzon; 154 pp), which should be required reading for anyone interested in well-being and motivation.
The book is currently available for $16.95 at www.oaksspa.com and at The Oaks’ retail outlet The Nest, and will soon be offered on Amazon.com and as an ebook. “Whether readers are nine or 90, my hope is that this autobiography will enable them to channel the universal language of dreams, sacrifice and family,” promises Cluff, 76, a mother of four and grandmother of seven.
Sheila’s life and career have been marked by boundless energy, creativity, passion and admirable perseverance. The book candidly relates her experiences of triumph and tragedy.
In the 1950s, long before the fitness industry came up with the term aerobics, she drew from her choreography as a professional ice skater to create cardiovascular dance, adding a spark of fun to exercise. In the ’70s when the overweight had little recourse than what was then called “fat farms”, Sheila a contemporary spa that fit both the budget-conscious and the over-conscious about their weight. Her first facility was the Oaks at Ojai followed by the Palms at Palm Springs (which she since sold).
“Living Your Dream” is also a story of endurance in the face of personal heartache and professional challenges. Sheila lost a son to emulous meningitis before his third birthday, and writes, “Even today, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, reliving [the tragedy].” Later in life, she nursed her husband through devastating injuries suffered in an auto accident. In the business world, she put all of the family’s finances at risk to bring her spa concept to life in Ojai. “But we did it,” she writes, “and became the first affordable destination spa in the United States to focus on healthy eating and exercise as a way for women to look and feel better, whatever their fitness level.”
A tireless entrepreneur, at a time when moms were not commonly found in the professional world., Sheila was busy with two spas, hosting wellness TV programs on the NBC network and on KABC in Los Angeles, founding the Healthy Holidays travel company and doing speaking engagements. She also is one of the founding members of C200 (The Committee of 200), an organization of women entrepreneurs and high-level corporate executives, and was instrumental in creating the International Spa Association (ISPA), of which she was one of its first board members. When she and her family resolved to transform a dilapidated Ojai gas station and its grounds into a civic treasure, the result was the beautiful Cluff Vista Park.
Sheila’s wellness philosophy flies in the face of most fad diet and fitness regimens. “I advise my spa guests to throw away their scales,” she writes. Instead, she recommends “get a tight pair of non-stretch jeans, and make sure they always fit. Measurements are more important than weight.” At her spas, she rejected the idea of subjecting guests to torturous deprivation. “I wanted neither a fat farm nor a beauty spa,” she writes, “but a place that focused on health and fitness, where people would come to enjoy themselves, not be ‘punished’ with exercise and diet food.”