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Weight Loss Camps for Kids

Teens trade pounds for self-esteem at the camps that offer tools for lasting success.

By Jean Weiss for MSN Health & Fitness

NBA star Shaquille O’Neal’s reality show, “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” has garnered attention of late — no doubt inspiring millions of kids to sit in front of the television with snacks for yet another episode. But the show’s premise, that a boot camp for overweight teens can transform bad habits inspires the question: Does this approach work?

Preliminary studies suggest that in some cases, it does — especially when camps offer campers the skills they need to create lasting change.

Ask an expert

Child obesity experts hesitate to speak on the success rate of fitness boot camps, unless anecdotally, because there is limited scientific evidence either way. However, Dr. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition in Denver and editor of the professional journal Obesity Management, reports that a study to be published in their December 2007 issue shows that campers not only experience weight loss at camp, but continue weight loss after returning home.

“I am cautiously impressed,” Hill says of the study, which examined the progress of campers attending the Wellspring Camps program, which operates in several states. “They produce impressive weight loss, maintained for a long period of time.”

Hill attributes the positive results to the fact that the camp is able to create an environment in which the child can relearn behavioral patterns. “We’ve unintentionally created a society with food everywhere and not enough opportunity for exercise,” he says. “The camps are doing what I wish we could do in our homes and our schools and our community. They take control of everything. I wish these camps weren’t necessary, but the fact is kids aren’t getting what they need in their current environment.”

An approach that works

Wellspring isn’t the only camp reporting long-term weight reduction in its campers. Washington University Medical Center is evaluating data from another camp that claims similar successes: Camp Jump Start, a program founded by Tom and Jean Huelsing that operates near St. Louis. According to Huelsing — who presented her camp’s success last year at the National Initiative for Children’s Health Care Quality in Washington, D.C. — Camp Jump Start has documented significant weight loss by attendees during camp and also the year following camp, thanks in large part to a free interactive Web site that helps the kids monitor their progress and stick to their program once they leave camp.

Scrolling through camper testimonials on Camp Jump Start’s Web site can be quite moving. The campers and their parents agree that a weight loss camp can offer a life-changing experience.

“When the kids come to camp, they won’t look at you — they won’t initiate conversation, they are slumped forward, looking down,” Huelsing says. “When they leave, they walk shoulders back, heads held high.”

Camp Jump Start campers are age 9 to 17 and come for either a four- or eight-week program. An effective program like Camp Jump Start teaches the children about nutrition, portion size and genetics, helps build self-esteem, and offers fun physical activities. Campers learn how to monitor their own progress through journaling as well as how to form an eating plan; they also role-play scenarios they may encounter once back home, such as how to navigate a trip to McDonald’s with a group of friends.

Meanwhile, camper parents receive their own homework, get tips on cleaning out their pantries and refrigerators, and learn how they can best support their child’s goals upon return from camp.

“We work out a contract between the child, the camp, and their family,” says Huelsing. “Then I tell parents to no longer take the responsibility. It is the child’s life. They are now responsible.”

Ask a Happy Camper

One need look no further than 14-year-old high school freshman Aaron Klopfer to be convinced that a boot camp can lead to long-term lifestyles changes for an overweight teen. Klopfer found Camp Jump Start two years ago as a seventh grader while surfing online. “I wanted to be different for high school,” he said. “I needed to do something drastic.” In the summer of 2006, Klopfer weighed in at 232 pounds.

Klopfer went for four weeks the first summer, losing 17 pounds. More remarkably, he lost 45 pounds after returning home. And there were more changes. He went from nearly failing sixth and seventh grades to becoming an honor roll student in eighth grade.

He so inspired his teachers and classmates he was invited to give their e eighth grade graduation speech. He convinced his mom to send him to camp a second summer, even though Huelsing encourages kids to come just once. He learned how to ride a bike for the first time. He returned home and joined his high school football team.

“The camp motivated me,” says Klopfer, who now weighs 168 pounds. “I was sick of being overweight. The best thing it did for me is make me feel good about myself, so I could keep off the weight.”

Once Klopfer started losing weight and feeling happy — perhaps for the first time in his life — the rest fell into place from there.

© MSN Healthy Living

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Overweight youths find haven at Jefferson County camp

IMPERIAL – It rained in June on the first day of Camp Jump Start, ruining outdoor activities and provoking tears in a few kids who didn’t want to be there. By the next time it rained — in the seventh week of camp — there were cheers, hugs and dancing on the field as the dodge ball game played on.

The 100 youngsters who attended camp this summer lost pounds, reversed diabetes and shaved minutes off their mile run. Most importantly, they’ll tell you, they found a refuge from the bullying they endure as overweight kids.
“Where I’m from, I’m hated for being fat,” said Rodrigo Garza, 16, of Cancun, Mexico. “This is the only place where I can have friends and have a good time.”

Like any summer campers, the boys and girls have their disagreements and heartbreaks. But nobody is judged by their looks.

The wallflowers belt out karaoke songs. Boys feel comfortable taking off their T-shirts to swim. A few teenagers learned how to ride a bike for the first time.

The camp menu totals between 1,400 and 1,600 calories a day. The daily activities are workouts masquerading as recess — dodge ball, handball, soccer. After a four-week session of camp, most campers lose 7 percent to 10 percent of their body weight.

The camp was founded in 2003 by Jean Huelsing, a registered nurse, and her husband, Tom, a personal trainer. Revenues from the camp fund the Living Well Village, where they also host wellness retreats.

“I believe I save more lives doing this than I ever did in the hospital as a nurse,” Jean Huelsing said.

The Huelsings face serious challenges in their fight against childhood obesity. The camp, which costs about $1,000 a week, is only a little more than half full. More than 20 of the kids have diabetes. Almost the same number have asthma. Up to one-third of the campers wet their beds at night, a probable side effect of sleep apnea.
And then there are the parents who try to sabotage their kids’ success.

Some hide candy in their kids’ suitcases. Others want to come rescue their child at any sign of distress. Huelsing gets 60 emails a day from parents with questions and concerns.

“They don’t want their kids to be uncomfortable, but life is uncomfortable,” she said.

For the first time, two campers dropped out early.


Huelsing worries that the kids with over-protective parents are less capable of making their own decisions about their health, especially if other family members are also overweight. Still, she sends them home after a four- or eight-week session with a good grasp of appropriate portion sizes and other nutritional information.

“They’ve all been given the tools. They can change their habits. They have the power to do that now,” she said.
Paige Firester, 14, has spent four summers at Camp Jump Start. She gained back the weight she lost last year when her father was diagnosed with cancer a few months after she returned home to Georgia. It didn’t help that the kitchen counters were covered in junk food every Friday night when her parents played poker.

This year, Paige is determined to get the whole family healthy, and they started by signing up for gym memberships together.

“We did it as a family; we’re going to get out of it as a family,” Paige said. “I already told them to clean the fridge out and get the ice cream out.”

The camp is structured so the kids can’t cheat. When they get home, their self-control will be tested with temptations everywhere.

Rodrigo plans to adapt Mexican recipes to reduce the fat and calories. Jack Haselhorst, a 13-year-old from Ballwin, will avoid the television and instead go running when he gets bored. For Evan Johnson, 13, of Kirkwood, it’s trying not to be jealous of a brother who can eat anything and not gain weight.


Camp counselors prove that the Camp Jump Start lifestyle can work year-round. Zoë Kennison, 20, of St. Louis, was 210 pounds when she came to camp in 2009. She lost 30 pounds as a camper and another 50 at home, including 15 during her freshman year in the dorms at Webster University where she put herself on a strict one-plate, no-fried-foods policy at meals.

“I set rules for myself, and I don’t break them,” Kennison said. “Eating healthy is my passion.”

Huelsing and the counselors keep in touch with campers and their families through the year with conference calls and an online community.


Brooke Sagerty of St. Charles said that follow-up support helped her teenage daughter, Riley, lose an additional 44 pounds in the last year after attending Camp Jump Start (where she lost her first 26 pounds).

“So many parents feel hopeless about getting their children on track to being healthy,” Sagerty said. “There is help out there, good help with passionate people who truly want these children to be healthy. My daughter is proof of it, physically and emotionally.”

Riley is at camp again this summer and wants to be a counselor some day. Many of the campers are return visitors, including some who still have weight to lose and others who want to reinforce healthy habits.

They’re welcomed back either way.

“There’s a lot to be said for having a safe place in your life. They don’t come back to be judged,” Huelsing said. “They come back to get back on track.”

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Camp Jump Start: Effects of a Residential Summer Weight-Loss Camp

Jean Huelsing, RNa, Nadim Kanafani, MDb, Jingnan Mao, MSc, Neil H. White, MD, CDEb,c

Objective: Residential weight-loss camps offer an opportunity for overweight and obese children to lose weight in a medically safe, supervised, supportive environment. The purpose of this report is to describe short-term outcomes in 76 children participating in a 4- or 8-week residential weight-loss camp for children and adolescents.

Patients and Methods: The camp program enrolled obese 10- to 18-year-old adolescents. The program consisted of structured and nonstructured physical activities and group educational sessions covering nutrition, physical fitness, and self-esteem. A diet plan of 3 balanced meals and 2 snacks per day was prepared under the supervision of a registered dietitian. Participants had height, weight, and blood pressure measured and performed a 1-mile run at maximum effort on an outdoor track.

Results: For all campers, statistically significant (P < .0001) reductions were observed for BMI, BMI z score, systolic blood pressure, body weight, and 1-mile run times. Compared with campers in the 4-week session, campers in the 8-week session had greater reductions in BMI, BMI z score, body weight, and systolic blood pressure. Multivariate analysis revealed that gender was a significant predictor for reduction in body weight, BMI, and BMI z score, all of which decreased more in boys than in girls. Conclusions: This report adds to the evidence that residential weight-loss camps are highly effective in improving measures of health and fitness among overweight and obese children and adolescents. Additional study is needed on the long-term effects of such camps in terms of weight maintenance, behavior change, and metabolic and health outcomes.

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