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Spa getaway: Getting healthy in the Heartland

Guests HeartlSpGilman Ill. work their balance strength during BOSU class. BOSU stands for 'both sides up' it's semi-circular piece equipment

Guests at the Heartland Spa in Gilman, Ill., work on their balance and strength during a BOSU class. BOSU stands for "both sides up," and it's the semi-circular piece of equipment being used. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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HEARTLAND SPA: Located in Gilman, Ill., a little more than halfway from Chicago to Champaign. Two-, three- and five-night packages are available and include meals, fitness classes, some spa services and tax. Book by March 1 and get 25 percent off; (815) 683-2182,

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Updated: February 6, 2011 12:03AM

GILMAN, Ill. — If you made a New Year’s resolution, chances are it had something to do with living a healthier life.

Lose weight, exercise more, drink less, quit smoking. Easy to say, hard to do.

Sometimes people need help — a little support and guidance — to get on the path to better living. That’s where places like Heartland Spa come in. This former dairy farm 90 miles south of Chicago is where folks go to hit the reset button, teaching people how to take better care of themselves in a uniquely Midwestern, unpretentious environment.

Up to 32 guests — most wearing Heartland-issued sweat suits — spend the day taking exercise classes, getting massages and sitting in on seminars with titles like “Mastering Your Metabolism.” Guests eat three low-fat meals and two snacks a day, totaling about 1,500 calories. Alcohol isn’t allowed. Same goes for junk food, as the sign at the spa’s entrance makes clear.

“I’ll hide the cookies in my bra,” my sister says, as we pull off a snow-covered country road and into the Heartland parking lot for our three-night stay.

“I brought veggie chips,” my mom pipes up conspiratorially from the back seat.

I give them a disapproving roll of the eyes, knowing full well I have a bottle of red wine wrapped inside my workout clothes.

Giving up vices isn’t easy, even for a few days. No booze, french fries or Ben & Jerry’s can be a daunting prospect for a lot of people, myself included. And it’s clear that the typical Heartland Spa guest isn’t used to a per diem of 1,500 calories.

“I have a problem with portion control, so I wanted to see what 1,500 calories a day looks like,” said Dorothy Spiczak of Tinley Park.

Spiczak decided to come to Heartland after her trip to Las Vegas fell through at the last minute. That’s like having a recipe that calls for flour and substituting it with orange juice. I can’t think of two places that are more opposite, but Spiczak seemed happy with Plan B. And she said she was plenty satisfied after our Heartland dinner of salad (146 calories), tortilla chicken soup (389 calories), chili corn muffin (151 calories) and apple yogurt crunch (131 calories).

“But if someone walked in right now with a Quarter Pounder, I’d eat it,” Spiczak confessed.

Heartland used to be even more hard core when it opened 27 years ago. Guests got on a scale as soon as they arrived. Talking wasn’t allowed during meals. The daily menu totaled a mere 900 calories. You could ask for bigger portions, but that meant you had to wear a special pin — in the shape of a pig.

Oprah was staying here when she got the call that she’d been cast in “The Color Purple.” She told the other guests that she had to leave the spa early so she could gain weight for the part.

Shedding pounds isn’t the only reason people come to Heartland, especially these days. Longtime staff members told me that a lot of guests are looking for a place to heal, maybe from the loss of a loved one or a recent round of cancer treatment. Some come to unwind from a stressful, hectic life without the distractions of the Internet or TV. Others are caregivers looking for someone to take care of them for a change.

“The little card on my bed said you can’t take care of anybody else until you take care of yourself,” said Elgin mother of three Karen Schock, who was at the Heartland last week for a getaway with her sister.

Inspirational quotes like that are on signs hung from every guest room door. The Heartland fosters a homey environment, where guests eat with one another in a dining room decorated with quilts and Americana knickknacks.

Men and women — guests are mostly women — walk around in their socks or slippers. They might play a board game at night before crawling in bed with a book.

Fitness classes, water workouts and spa treatments are all held in a big barn connected to the guest rooms by an underground tunnel. Exercise options include everything from spinning and cardio kickboxing to stretching and strength training. Thanks largely to the fitness instructors, the exercise classes — like Heartland itself — make people feel comfortable rather than intimidated.

Heartland’s cotton sweat suits, embroidered with the letter “H,” also are meant to be comfortable, not fashionable.

“I haven’t worn these since junior high,” my sister said, holding up a pair of maroon gym shorts from the pile of clothes Heartland leaves on guests’ beds.

A Midwest sensibility pervades this place. That can be good or bad, depending on your taste. Canyon Ranch this is not, both in terms of luxury — and prices.

Destination spas can be notoriously expensive, sometimes costing well upward of $500 a day. A two-night package at Heartland starts at $534 a person, based on double occupancy, and includes meals, fitness classes and a massage. (Book by March 1 and take 25 percent off.) And you don’t need to buy an airline ticket to get here.

“I wanted to go somewhere without getting on a plane,” said Gillian Downey, a former opera singer from Old Town. “That’s hard to do in the Midwest.”

Like several Heartland guests, Downey came here solo. The familial vibe makes this the kind of place where you can vacation alone without feeling lonely.

“I’m looking for a transformation,” Downey said. “I wanted to go away for five or six days, come home and say, ‘I’m going to do it different now.’ ”

Doing it different isn’t easy, as evidenced by our empty bag of veggie chips and cookie container. (And yes, I washed them down with a little red wine.)

But just because something’s difficult doesn’t mean you quit trying. I’m sure I read a quote to that effect on one of Heartland’s doors.

“I’m already feeling better,” Downey said, two days into her stay. “It’s going to be a good 2011.”

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by Heartland Spa.

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