Life Extension Magazine®

Deborah Szekely

Founder of the fitness spa movement, Deborah Szekely has pioneered several health and fitness revolutions. At North America’s first fitness spa, her innovative techniques nurture mind-body fitness and have been the prototype for spa programs everywhere.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, in August 2023. Written by: Life Extension Editorial Staff.

Founding Rancho la Puerta

Founding Rancho la Puerta

Toned and fit, Deborah Szekely (pronounced “zay-kay”) strides across the artfully landscaped grounds of Rancho la Puerta, North America’s first fitness spa. Having co-founded this health resort just across the US border in Tecate, Mexico, with her late husband Edmond 66 years ago, Szekely has spent a lifetime pioneering several health and fitness revolutions, and she looks the part.

At 85, Szekely does Pilates two or three times a week and frequently swims in the spa’s outdoor pools. She also hikes around the Ranch’s 3,000 acres, which trail through desert brush, oak groves, dirt roads, and the six-acre organic farm “Tres Estrellas” (Three Stars) that feeds the guests. Here, fruits, herbs, and vegetables thrive beneath Mount Kuchumaa, a mountain considered sacred by native North Americans.

“I’ve been taking Life Extension vitamins for decades,” says Szekely, on her way back from a walk around the property. “I must be one of their original customers. Even though we’ve always grown our own organic food at the Ranch,” Szekely continues, “vitamins and natural supplements have long played an integral part in my diet.”

Vintage silver Mexican earrings and necklaces cast a radiant glow around her face as she notes, “I’ve always read the Life Extension magazine and find the articles on health conditions and supplement research very informative.”

Raised by fruitarian (pursuing a vegan diet comprising ripe fruits of plants and trees) parents who chose to ride out the Great Depression in Tahiti, Szekely was primed for a path-finding life in the health and fitness world. She and her late husband Edmond, a scholar, author, and educator, chose their Tecate location because of its excellent climate for agriculture and suitability for living a nature-based, outdoor-oriented life. “We were seriously into health food and environmental sustainability before those concepts ever existed in the popular mind,” she says with a laugh. “We grew our own vegetables and fruits, collected eggs from our chickens, made cheese from goats’ milk, and raised our two children here.”

Bringing Yoga to North America

Back in 1940, a week-long stay at the Ranch cost just $17.50. As Szekely fondly recalls, “From day one I was secretary, chef, housekeeper, and activities/exercise director. At its most primitive, early-1940s’ level, my day consisted of trying to cope with 35 guests who interrupted my other work. That’s when I first began to make up guest schedules: the original ones being basic directives such as, “Sunbathe briefly at 10 am. Work in the garden for one hour before the midday sun.” Szekely inadvertently established the pattern of today’s spa schedule, in which an active class period invariably follows one of passive exercise or rest.

Guests brought their own tents and had to haul firewood and do compulsory kitchen duty, such as chopping vegetables, preparing meals, or cleaning up. Nature hikes and modern dance classes rounded out the schedule, along with yoga.

A Lifetime of Life Extension

Deborah Szekely has been supplementing her organic food diet with Life Extension vitamins since the company’s inception. She also keeps up-to-date on nutritional supplement research by reading the magazine’s evidence-based medical reports. Here’s an overview of supplements she takes and why.

“Along with a daily multivitamin and multimineral, I take daily omega-3-6-9 fatty acids contained in EPA/DHA formulas,” she says. Szekely is also keen on supplemental bone-building nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and 1,000 mg of vitamin D per day. For extra digestive help, she takes papaya enzymes when needed.

Alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10 help stoke Szekely’s energy stores. Brain-specific nutrients such as lecithin, extra vitamin E, and phosphatidylserine, plus circulation-promoting ginkgo biloba are also part of her plan.

“Depending on the season, I may take extra vitamin C and echinacea and other herbs for immunity,” she says. “The secret is to tune into your body and listen closely so that you can figure out how to support it in all weather and personal circumstances.”

Besides Life Extension magazine, Szekely recommends checking out the US government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Here you will find research papers on how acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, supplements, vitamins, minerals, and homeopathic substances may help remedy various health conditions,” she says.

Bringing Yoga to North America

One of the first places anywhere in North America to teach the ancient Indian philosophy and physical practice of Hatha yoga, the Ranch offered classes by yogis such as Indra Devi. Devi had studied with the Indian yoga master Krishnamacharya, who saved many ancient yoga traditions from oblivion by documenting and teaching practices she learned from aging 19th and 20th century yogis. Through her Ranch classes, Devi taught many Americans who later became yoga teachers.

Healthy Cooking

Today at the Ranch, prices for a weekly visit start in the thousands and guests can choose from several different daily yoga and meditation classes taught by yogis such as Stephen Brown and Baron Baptiste. There are frequent evening lectures and informal talks on subjects such as alternative and complementary medicine, nutritional supplementation for improving immunity and well-being, meditation, eco-tourism, and indigenous Mexican art.

Today, guests are exempt from kitchen chores and since they hail from over thirty countries, opportunities for fascinating conversation arise every day. Luminaries like supermodel Claudia Schiffer, television journalist Bill Moyers, and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stay in comfortably appointed Mexican casita-like rooms or cottages. The secluded oak groves, meditative ponds, and extensive grounds were landscaped by Szekely’s daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood.

Healthy Cooking

In the early years, the Ranch menu was strictly vegetarian. Today, fresh fish and seafood are served, along with deliciously seasoned, artfully styled organic produce. It’s a far cry from the early days, when Szekely baked crackers in the sun made from hand-ground sprouted grains and prepared Ranch bread in wood-burning ovens. “When I wasn’t teaching fitness classes, running other Ranch programs, or caring for my children,” she fondly recalls, “I was often in the kitchen teaching guests how to “de-calorize” their favorite foods so that they could enjoy low-fat, delicious meals at home.”

For decades, the demand among guests for cooking classes has been high. In July 2007, Szekely realized a long-time dream by opening the spa world’s first-ever free-standing spa cooking school, “La Cocina Que Canta,” meaning “The Kitchen That Sings.” Fittingly, it is sited in the middle of the Tres Estrellas organic farm. State-of-the-art culinary equipment is used in hands-on demonstrations and cooking sessions, where everyone learns the techniques behind a great “Mexican Mediterranean” meal before sitting down to their fresh-from-the-garden feast.

“I want people to feel self-assured in their kitchens at home, and secure in their knowledge of food,” says Szekely. “Our goal is for them to leave knowing how to create recipes, or adapt their family favorites, into a cuisine that embodies a vibrant way of life.”

World Heritage sites in Oaxaca, Michoacan, and the famous art colony of San Miguel de Allende, north of Mexico City, inspired the school’s sun-washed walls, hand-hewn open-beam ceilings, elaborately carved wooden doors, hand-painted tiles, and custom stonework.

Honoring its Mexican heritage as well as the bird songs that serenade its students, La Cocina comprises 4,500 square feet, featuring a large classroom/kitchen, cookbook library, and culinary gift shop. In the classroom/kitchen looking out on patios and vistas adorned with stone fountains, colorful flowers and sweetly fragrant wisteria vines, guests enjoy a progressive series of hands-on classes followed by delicious meals. The school also offers an à la carte program of shorter, individual classes.

A New Approach to Cooking

“I founded La Cocina Que Canta because so many of our guests have been asking for help in upgrading their eating habits and cooking skills. Cooking and eating should be physically and emotionally nurturing,” Szekely says. “Yet many of our guests experience eating and cooking as sources of stress, guilt, and shame.”

For 66 years, Szekely continues, “Our guests have been coming from all over the globe to expand their minds, lose weight, shape up, and strengthen mind/body balance. It’s not just Americans who overeat, struggle with anorexia, or never learn how to cook,” she continues. “People from all over the industrialized world share these problems because they’re all living a lifestyle that they describe as stressed or too busy. They eat a lot of microwaved foods, take out or fast food, and don’t always eat a diet that meets their nutritional needs,” she says.

Like many people who struggle with weight issues, Ranch guests often tell Szekely that they rarely feel fulfilled by their meals and believe they are bad cooks. “I meet guests every week who tell me that their mother never cooked and never taught them how to shop for fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and other healthy staples,” says Szekely. “In our classes, men and women learn how to shop for delicious, affordable foods and prepare easy meals that taste as good as the gourmet spa fare that we serve.” You can savor the Ranch’s delicious cuisine in your own home by logging on to and clicking on the Recipes section.

Daily classes and special cooking workshops are led by the Ranch’s executive chef, Jesús González, as well as visiting experts. Cooking students also visit the organic farm and learn how to grow edible landscapes from the farmers there. “Anyone can grow a kitchen herb garden,” Szekely says. “By visiting our organic farm, guests learn how to grow their own food. This is a crucial step in culinary independence and holistic living.”

Recent La Cocina workshops have been led by Deborah Madison, who was the founding chef at San Francisco’s celebrated “Greens” restaurant and is the author of acclaimed cookbooks such as Vegetable Soups and The Greens Cookbook. Spa cuisine experts such as Michel Stroot, former executive chef at the “Golden Door,” also frequently lead classes and give lectures and “teach-ins” on how to shop for food and prepare it the spa way.

Eating the Spa Way

Recipes from Rancho La Puerta’s La Cocina Que Canta Cooking School

Recipes by chef Jesús González • Presented by Roma Maxwell

Shrimp and Red Peppers on Rosemary Sprigs

Rosemary sprawls along every pathway at the Ranch, the stands of purple-flowered branches reaching for the sun and scenting the air. It takes a bit of care to thread shrimp onto rosemary sprigs, but it is worth the extra effort. The finished skewers smell divine as they cook, and taste as good as they look. Other herbs such as basil sparkle in this simple, lovely dish that brings the garden to your plate. Choose slim but sturdy rosemary sprigs just strong enough to pierce the seafood, or substitute 6-inch bamboo skewers.

Cooking delicate seafood can be a touchy process. A few simple techniques help ensure success. First, always marinate the seafood to add flavor and moisture. Cook over moderate heat, and most important, don’t overcook it!

6 sprigs of fresh rosemary, 6 inches long

18 large shrimp

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium shallot, chopped, about 1 tablespoon

2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced, about 2 teaspoons

1 sprig fresh oregano, chopped, about 1 tablespoon

8 large leaves fresh basil, chopped, about 3 tablespoons

1 sprig fresh thyme leaves, chopped, about 1 teaspoon

Grated zest of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares

1½ teaspoons paprika

1. Trim the rosemary leaves from the sprigs, leaving one inch on top. Peel and de-vein the shrimp, leaving tails on if you like. Combine the oil, shallot, garlic, herbs, lemon zest, salt, and pepper in a glass bowl. Pat the shrimp dry, and toss thoroughly with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

2. Carefully thread 3 shrimp onto each rosemary skewer, alternating with the red pepper squares. (Note: use a bamboo skewer to make the holes, and then slide onto the rosemary sprigs.) Sprinkle the skewers very lightly with a little paprika.

3. Preheat a gas grill or grill pan on medium for 5 minutes. Lightly oil the cooking surface, and cook the skewers for about 3 minutes on each side, or until the shrimp are opaque but still springy to the touch.

4. Serve the shrimp on top of greens with gnocchi (Italian dumplings traditionally made from potatoes) on the side.

Carrot Ginger Coconut Soup

This is a spicy-sweet warming soup for a cold day. Don’t be afraid of the coconut milk. Natives have enjoyed this food for millennia.

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced

2 medium red potatoes

10 medium carrots, chopped

1 cup coconut milk

1 small yellow or red bell pepper, chopped

6 cups hearty vegetable broth

½ teaspoon white pepper, or to taste

½ cup apple or pear cubes (garnish)

1. In a sauté pan, sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is translucent.

2. Add ginger, carrot and potato. Cover and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add coconut milk and bell pepper. Cover and cook several minutes more. Add broth to carrot mix, seasoning with pepper. Cover and cook until all vegetables are tender.

3. In blender or processor, puree soup in small batches until smooth. Adjust seasonings.

4. Serve in warmed soup bowls. Garnish with apple or pear cubes.

Variation: Garnish with a combination of green onion tops and fresh chopped parsley or cilantro

For a lower fat version, use reduced fat coconut milk.

Fit in Body, Mind, and Spirit

Although Szekely is too modest to say it, guests enjoy making the connection between their new-found cooking skills from La Cocina Que Canta, and their heightened understanding of mind/body/spirit fitness from the stay at the spa. “We are so fortunate to live at a time in history when evidence-based medical research is showing us how exercise, meditation, and food can be our medicine and herbal and vitamin supplements can enhance well-being,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve seen my ideals and lifestyle go from being regarded as on the fringe to being embraced by the mass market. It’s been quite a fulfilling adventure, I can tell you.”

For more information, contact: Rancho la Puerta Fitness Resort and Spa, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico1(800)443-7565 or (858)764-5500

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension Health Advisor at 1-800-226-2370.

Eating the Spa Way

Recipes from Rancho La Puerta’s La Cocina Que Canta Cooking School

Recipes by chef Jesús González • Presented by Roma Maxwell

Portobello Tempeh Tower

Tempeh is a traditional Asian food made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a dense cake. The result is a chewy product with a nutty and somewhat yeasty flavor.

1 spaghetti squash (about 2 lbs or 4 cups cooked squash)

½ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Sweet Potato Coconut Ginger Sauce

1 teaspoon cold-pressed oil

2 tablespoons minced ginger root

2 medium shallots, minced

2-4 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cubed*

1 cup vegetable stock

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 cup reduced fat coconut milk

To assemble:

1 medium eggplant

2 medium zucchini

2 portobello mushrooms, halved

8 ounces tempeh, cut into 4 slices

4 sprigs basil or parsley for garnish

* May substitute 1¼ cup cooked carrot for the sweet potato.

1. Cut spaghetti squash in half. Scoop out seeds. Place cut side down on bake sheet and bake 35-45 minutes, until squash is tender when pricked with a fork. Remove squash from skin using a large spoon. Season the squash with nutmeg, salt, pepper, butter or oil and Italian seasoning. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

2. Prepare the sauce: In the oil, sauté ginger, shallots, garlic, and sweet potato cubes until shallots are transparent. Add the stock. Cover and cook until sweet potato is very tender. Place sweet potato mix in blender or processor cup along with coconut milk. Puree until smooth. Strain for a very smooth sauce. Keep warm until ready to use.

3. Slice eggplant in ¾-1-inch thick rounds. Slice zucchini in rounds. Grill the eggplant, zucchini and portabellas until just tender. Grill tempeh just to warm through.

4. To assemble: Place a nest of spaghetti squash on plate. Layer 1 slice eggplant, 2-3 slices zucchini, a half Portobello, and top with 2 ounces of tempeh. Drizzle sauce over top and on one side of the plate. Garnish with a sprig of basil or parsley.

Spicy Hot Chocolate

Recipe for six 6 oz portions:

2/3 cup well-cooked butternut squash pulp

3.5 oz Ibarra Mexican Chocolate*

2.6 oz semi-sweet chocolate

2½ cups 1% milk**

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg

Large pinch ground cardamom

* Or use or semi-sweet dark chocolate (if semi-sweet dark chocolate is used for all the chocolate ingredient, you may need to add additional sweetener, such as agave syrup and a pinch more cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom).

** May substitute soy, almond, or rice milk.

1. In a blender puree the squash with ½ cup of milk until smooth. It is essential that the squash be very well cooked, or it will not produce the desired consistency.

2. In a large saucepan, mix the remaining milk, chocolate(s), and spices. Melt over a double boiler or in a heavy-bottom pan, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is melted and creamy. Remove liquid from heat and whisk in the pureed squash. Heat to desired temperature and serve in mugs.



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