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What it’s Like to Stay at Hilton Head Health, South Carolina’s Iconic Wellness Resort

DATE POSTED:August 26, 2021
From the moment they check in, guests of Hilton Head Health embark on a wellness journey that teaches them everything they’ll need to keep it going long beyond checkout.
From the moment they check in, guests of Hilton Head Health embark on a wellness journey that teaches them everything they’ll need to keep it going long beyond checkout. (Hilton Head Health/)

When my editor first asked me about visiting a wellness resort to shed the Covid weight, I pictured jetting to the Caribbean to sip watermelon juice in a zero-entry pool, practice yoga on the beach, and relax with a spa session or two. In other words, it seems like a fun excuse to get away and be pampered—I’m not really thinking I’ll lose any pounds, because, let’s face it, how much weight can you lose in a week?

Then he tells me where I’m actually going.

Hilton Head Health, home to the new Sweetgrass Inn. It’s in South Carolina, not on the beach, but tucked away amid the Sabal palms and Spanish-moss draped live oaks of this destination best known for family vacations. H3, as this destination is called, is not what I pictured.

At check-in, I’m handed a schedule that has lectures with titles like “Portion Control,” “Mastering Motivation,” and “Habits of Successful Weight Managers.” In between the talks are endless exercise options: aqua body sculpting in the pool, Zumba, and a thing called a Thermal Walk.

Suddenly it dawns on me that I don’t know what a wellness resort is.

My next thought: “Oh my god, did I sign up for a fat camp?”

H3 was founded in 1976 with the goal of offering something different and better than “fat camps.” Today, it’s a regular vacation spot for people who want something relaxing and fulfilling.
H3 was founded in 1976 with the goal of offering something different and better than “fat camps.” Today, it’s a regular vacation spot for people who want something relaxing and fulfilling. (Hilton Head Health/)

I’m not sure anyone thinks of lectures when they hear the word “vacation” but nonetheless, after a sunrise walk on the beach—brisk pace—I settle in for one of what H3 calls a “core lecture,” recommended to first-time guests.

Most participants, like I did, check in on a Sunday, so Monday is their first full day of programming. Some guests stay just a week, but I quickly find out that many come for several weeks, if not a whole month. For more than half, this isn’t their first H3 rodeo, coming back again and again.

This talk, “True Dining,”' is recommended to all newcomers as a sort of food introduction. As someone who has done Whole 30, the Gwyneth-Paltrow-recommended Clean Diet, as well as a few vegan and raw diets, I wasn’t surprised to hear a few of the suggestions, such as filling half your plate with veggies.

Then Elizabeth Huggins, a registered dietician and Texas redhead who seems to glow from within, began talking about how we have to practice certain behaviors to make them permanent. She told us to start focusing on our patterns—what are we doing most of the time that’s keeping us from being our ideal weight?

“To end that nighttime eating, you need to stop spending time with your ‘food friend,’” she explained.

Oof. This hits home. During the pandemic, I continually reached for ice cream, pastries, and popcorn to quiet a range of emotions, from loneliness to anxiety. I was trading a session on the couch with my ice cream therapist for in-person sessions with my real one.

The all-inclusive resort’s trainers and instructors specialize in everything from diet and nutrition to fitness and recovery.
The all-inclusive resort’s trainers and instructors specialize in everything from diet and nutrition to fitness and recovery. (Hilton Head Health/)

This thought remained with me as I tackled a resistance-band training class and, later, as I enjoyed a lymphatic drainage wrap and massage at the spa (yes, there’s a spa and anyone booking a week or longer gets money back in resort credits that can be used for pampering treatments). Fully stretched out and relaxed, I returned to the lecture hall for another helping of mental shifting.

“Deprivation is not sustainable,” Lisette Cifaldi, LMSW, revealed in the “Mastering Motivation” talk. Cifaldi shared that as an Italian, she, too, had to walk this same road we are on, learning how to keep pasta in her life in a reasonable way.

She added that most of us can follow any diet or fad for maybe 30 days or so. We shed the weight and we meet our goal, but then what? Nearly everyone falters at some point, eating a food that’s not on the diet and then we get a case of the screw-its and ditch the healthy eating plan altogether, packing on the same pounds we just lost, if not more. This discourages us, leading us to think the problem is us and that we don’t have enough willpower.

Cifaldi argues that there is nothing wrong with us. These diets can’t work in the long run.

She then asked her class: “Is exercise a means to an end for you? Because that’s not sustainable either.”

I realized that my whole life, exercise has been a punishment. Something I’ve done to stay attractive to others. Only this isn’t entirely true: When I was little, exercise wasn’t punishment. We called it play. Someone handed us a ball and we never asked why. We just threw it.

But back to goals.

Outside of the classroom and fitness center, guests can enjoy a variety of activities that they’d enjoy on more traditional vacations.
Outside of the classroom and fitness center, guests can enjoy a variety of activities that they’d enjoy on more traditional vacations. (Hilton Head Health/)

“We don’t even want you to focus on the weight,” Cifaldi said.

That’s because the number on the scale is an outcome goal. Instead, change will only happen when we focus on behavior goals, whether that’s meal prep, deciding what to order before you visit the restaurant, or eating more fruits and vegetables at every meal.

But really, it’s best if the goal is specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and achieved by a certain time. Maybe the goal is to walk 8,000 steps a day, and when you reach that goal, you buy yourself a small present—as opposed to mindlessly buying everything from Amazon the second you have a desire for it.

Cifaldi pointed out that every Amazon buy is a missed opportunity wherein we could have used that purchase as a goal to work toward and, if you’re OK doing this in today’s COVID landscape, it’s even better to go to any store in person to get more steps and a bit of social interaction—both of which are good for our health.

Don’t worry, it’s not all about attending classes and exercising here. There are plenty of opportunities to unwind and relax, too.
Don’t worry, it’s not all about attending classes and exercising here. There are plenty of opportunities to unwind and relax, too. (Hilton Head Health/)

That evening as I float in the resort’s saltwater pool, watching hummingbirds drink from the hibiscus flowers, I realize that’s really the point of all of this: losing weight is not an instant thing that you can put in your cart and just one day wake up to. There is no secret, but if there is, it’s possible that you can learn it here from these experts in nutrition, exercise, and the psychology of behavior.

We only get that body we’re comfortable of and proud of when we make decisions we are proud of, day in and day out. And if we make a mistake, we view that as just information about how best to move forward. This is not a thing to do perfectly for 30 days and then give up on. It’s a process of discovering yourself and what you can live with because, ultimately, it’s only sustainable for you if you enjoy it—or learn to enjoy it.

Coming here—where the staff guides you in exercises, massages your body at the spa, and prepares perfect portions of berry smoothies, poached salmon atop salads and even a chocolate mousse—is simply an invigorating jumpstart into a new way of living.