If you have your health, the truly enlightened say, you have everything. It took a while, but Mel Zuckerman finally came around.

Grappling with his father's death from cancer and suffering from his own health problems, including ulcers, high blood pressure, and a host of unpronounceables, Zuckerman signed up for a California spa vacation in the spring of 1978. What began as a 10-day stint quickly turned into a monthlong sojourn. Zuckerman, a successful builder and developer in Arizona, had trouble breaking his new routine of hiking, relaxation, and healthy eating--so much so that he begged his wife, Enid, to join him. "I called her a week into my stay and said, 'Come out here, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life," Zuckerman recalls.

And he meant it. Instead of vowing to hit the gym more often or swearing off Snickers, Zuckerman spent the entire car ride home convincing his wife that they should open their own fitness resort. He didn't have to push hard. After all, it was something Enid had suggested years earlier, only to have Mel dismiss it as a ridiculous idea. Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it.

Within months, the Zuckermans liquidated their real estate holdings and purchased a former cattle ranch in Tucson. Still riding his fitness high and inspired to share it with others, Mel ignored the golden rule of real estate--and pretty much every other piece of conventional wisdom. "The first piece of land we looked at was the last one we looked at," he says. "It had a magical quality and the price was right. We started construction right away."

Less than two years later, Canyon Ranch opened its doors with eight guests and 88 staffers, including a bellhop named Mel and a chambermaid named Enid. Having blown their money on, well, everything else, the Zuckermans had no marketing or advertising budget, forcing them to rely on word of mouth. "We didn't have any big entrepreneurial plans," Enid says. "We wanted it to be a little ma-and-pa operation. We didn't have a clue about making it a money operation." Fitness vacations were still an anomaly, and business was slow at first. But the Zuckermans made sure each and every one of their few-and-far-between guests had a rich experience, and word did indeed spread. In three years, the resort's occupancy increased from 22% to 65%. With the '80s came a newfound interest in health and wellness, and Canyon Ranch found itself at the forefront of a cultural movement.

Today, the Zuckermans preside over a venerable fitness empire. In addition to the original Canyon Ranch, they operate another location in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, as well as three SpaClubs, pared-down versions of the signature resorts. In total, Canyon Ranch treats 400,000 guests a year and now boasts a staff of 2,200, including physicians, nutritionists, and fitness gurus. Next year, the Zuckermans will cut the ribbon on Canyon Ranch Living in Miami Beach, the nation's first healthy-living development community, featuring 151 condo-hotel suites, 467 condominium residences, and, of course, fitness and spa amenities. No strangers to the philanthropic world, they have also donated millions to fight cancer and promote preventive medicine.

A ma-and-pa operation no more, Canyon Ranch remains as committed to healthy living as Mel Zuckerman was after his 40-pounds-overweight epiphany a quarter century ago. In the most obese nation on the planet, he knows there are countless other potential converts like him out there. And he's determined to show them the light. "Your body is like a car," he says. "Both require regular servicing, premium fuel, and care and maintenance. The main difference is you have no trade-in value, so you'd better take care of what you've got."--Jen Laing

Jen Laing is a writer living in L.A.