Weight Loss Meets Compassion at Hilton Head Health

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We are a big nation and Americans continue to grow into XXL sizes at an unprecedented rate. The average American weighs about 165 pounds, which is almost 40 pounds more than the average Asian and 27 pounds more than the average French.

The struggle over weight loss has become a constant physical and emotional battle.

But, as Erin Risius, wellness counselor at Hilton Head Health points out “the scale is just the tip of the iceberg. Our physical weight and body size very often reflects our inner state of mind and our health.”

If you are not one of the 70 percent of the American population who is overweight or obese, you may belong to some other 8 million people with eating disorders. Not all of them show in our weight. It may be easier to detect eating disorders like Anorexia or Bulimia but binge eating is one of those silent disorders that leaves people in their normal weight range and very often goes unnoticed and therefore untreated.

Yes, maintaining a healthy weight is essential for your physical health. But, as Jenny McQuail’s documentary Straight/Curve  points out, setting body image and weight standards by what we see in fashion magazines has created a problem that cannot be ignored anymore.

Here are more scary statistics:

  • 91% of the women in the US are unhappy with their body and resort to dieting.
  • 80% of the women say that images of women in the media make them feel insecure about themselves.
  • 8 million people suffer from eating disorders.
  • the weight loss industry is now a $ 55 billion industry.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Let’s take a step back and look at what we have here: At the same time as we have grown into a nation where being super-sized is almost the norm, we have created an ideal body image that’s completely unattainable for the majority of us. And instead of questioning unrealistic standards, turning to compassion and addressing the root causes of weight gain and eating disorders, we respond with body shaming, self loathing and yo-yo dieting.

Is there a way out of this?

Yes there is. But as Albert Einstein said, “you can’t solve a problem on the same level it was created in the first place.” So if you are struggling to keep your weight in a healthy range, it may be because you have adopted a lifestyle or live in an environment that’s conducive to overeating, under-exercising, or responding to your longings for love, safety, and confidence with chips or cookies. If that’s the case then it’s a good idea to step out of this environment for a little while.

A variety of destination spas in the US specialize in weight loss programs and counseling. What they all have in common is that they offer you a break from your day-to-day environment and a chance to gain an outside perspective of what’s going on in your life and how this contributes to your health, your state of mind and your weight.

During a recent visit on Hilton Head Island I stopped by Hilton Head Health, an award winning destination resort that specializes in weight loss and lifestyle programs. At Hilton Head Health, or H3, I met with Erin Risius, wellness counselor and longtime wellness coach for people with eating disorders and weight problems.

Erin and I sat down together and drilled right into the essence of what brings people to H3, how a stay at H3 can transform their lives and what they can take home so they are able to break through old habits and live a healthier, happier life.

You have quite a lot of repeat guests at H3: People who come back every year for a refresher, or to enjoy a healthy vacation with friends they made during a previous stay. But what about your first time guests? What brings them here? And what’s their tipping point at which they make the call and book their stay at H3?

  • Most of our first-time guests have figured out that a mind/body approach is needed for achieving and sustaining better health and weight management. Many have tried the yo-yo dieting and no pain/no gain exercise approaches in their past and realize they not only don’t work long term, but are harmful to their overall health and well-being. There is a desire to better understand and honor what their body needs through balanced nutrition, but also to explore the role food plays in their lives, which is often used as a coping mechanism for stress. In addition, many of our first-time guests have medical conditions in which a lifestyle approach to food and movement is essential, such as diabetes, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and cardiovascular conditions, to name a few. So, many realize that a new approach is needed – one that isn’t so extreme or just about weight loss, but feels manageable long term, and takes into account the mental and emotional components of learning how to bridge that gap between insight and action with self-care. 

What are the most dramatic changes you see in your guests’ lives during their stay at H3?

  • It is normal to see significant changes in even as little as a week when it comes to resting blood glucose and blood pressure. In fact, some will need to adjust their medications by the end of their first week as a result of how their body responds to healthier eating and consistent movement. While most of our guests experience weight loss no matter the duration of their stay, the intrinsic changes that we witness amongst o guests are the most inspirational and transformational for staff and guests alike. Guests may come in with the number on the scale as their primary motivator and indicator of success, but during their stay they experience a ‘weight lifted’ in an entirely different way. For many, anxiety and depression may lessen, a sense of ease, hope and personal empowerment prevails and self-compassion and acceptance replace shame and body-loathing. They learn the importance of honoring and not punishing their bodies with food and movement through mindful nutrition and eating, as well as mindful movement. For many, this is the first time they have learned that being healthy doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, but consistent with their behaviors, and that the road to better health is not paved with misery and deprivation. This new awareness is nothing less than liberating for our guests.

It seems that most people come here because they want to lose weight. And they not only leave with a body that’s lighter and stronger and but also with a whole new mindset and zest for life. How can they make sure that old habits that prevent them from being their happiest, healthiest self aren’t kicking right back in?

  • Creating a lifestyle change is an ebb and flow process, so slip-ups often occur as someone is acclimating to being home again. This is normal, and it’s not the slip-ups that are the issue as much as being able to get back up, dust oneself off and move forward again. We see a lot of perfectionistic and all-or-nothing tendencies with behavior, so helping guests to illuminate the middle ground with behavior, as well as the inevitable imperfection around the process of behavior change is crucial for their ability to hang in there if/when the going gets tough. Therefore, many of our classes and individual sessions are aimed at helping guests to evaluate areas of concern upon returning home, and on how to create strategies for better managing certain situations they know are triggers. Overall, when it comes to successful habit change – that space between letting go of the old and familiar ways, and bringing in new ways of caring for self – takes time, patience and a lot of support, and the ones who are most successful long term are the ones who are the most self-compassionate with themselves along the way…

I walked away from the interview deeply inspired and filled with new hope that so many of our desperate attempts to fit a body image that’s completely unattainable and unhealthy will eventually be replaced by a long-term commitment to a healthy, compassionate lifestyle that inspires and brings out the best in all of us.

But my visit was not over yet.

After my conversation with Erin I enjoyed a delicious lunch at True, Hilton Head Health’s acclaimed restaurant. At only 300 calories the lunch was beautifully presented, beyond delicious and, yes, almost too good to be true.

Lunch was followed by a visit to the Indigo Spa, the latest addition to Hilton Head Health. The spa took inspiration from the color indigo, which symbolizes serenity and inner peace and goes right along with the H3 philosophy of mindfulness and an integrated approach to health and wellness. Kelly Perron, the spa director gave me a quick tour through their beautiful spa and the retail area featuring some of my favorite, all natural skincare lines: Eminence OrganicsNaturopathicaRed Flower and Skin Authority. Their salon, a bright and sunny place in its own building, separated from the spa carries Jane Iredale and Spa Ritual products, also some of my favorites.

I had a chance to relax for a few moments in their beautiful relaxation room with big windows overlooking lush and green scenery. Then it was time for my Arnica Hot Towel Massage. Christy gave me an excellent and long needed massage treatment that took care of some nasty tensions in my upper back. Heavenly!

Hilton Head Health and Indigo Spa have a ton to offer for everyone who wants to shift into a healthier, happier way of life or is just looking for a refreshing vacation in a place where an integrated approach to healthy eating, exercising and mindful living is present everywhere.

And here comes the good news for Hilton Head’s islanders: H3 launched a new Islander Membership Program that offers islanders the ultimate wellness experience with a wide range of spa services, health services, and healthy dining experiences. Being a Hilton Head Island resident has never been more desirable.

Ulli Lagler Peck

Ulli Lagler Peck is founder and owner of The Wellness Agency, a travel consulting firm that specializes in design, management and marketing of wellness retreats. The Wellness Agency works with hotels, resorts and spas around the world and helps them implement high-quality, authentic wellness programs that provide proven benefits for their guests' health and wellbeing. Ulli firmly believes that wellness retreats open doors to a healthier, happier way of life and that everyone should attend at least one wellness retreat once a year.

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