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