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Weight-Loss Camps and Sustainable Improvement

May 17, 2010

Camp Buildings

Not long ago, Pediatrics magazine published the results of a study undertaken by four authors: Jean Huelsing, RN; Nadim Kanafani, MD; Jingnan Mao, MS; and Neil H. White, MD. They took a very close look at 76 children and adolescents who went to a weight-loss camp. Some were enrolled in one-month-long programs, and others had signed up for two whole months. Naturally, the graduates of the 8-week session showed more improvement than the kids who had only been there half as long, but let’s cut to the chase. The report says:

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… 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.

The subjects of this research, ages ranging from 10 to 18, ate what was given to them by the camp’s registered dietician: three nutritionally sound meals plus two snacks per day, and not an empty calorie in sight. They also engaged in physical activities both “structured” and “unstructured,” and of course received plenty of education on what’s good to eat and what’s not. There also was self-esteem training of a kind unspecified in this short summary of the longer report.

The researchers conclude that the right kind of weight-loss camp — in other words, supportive and medically supervised — is highly effective. They do note, however, that we’re talking short-term outcome, and they do say that additional studies need to be done on the long-term effects (and there’s the rub).

Dr. Pretlow looks at weight-loss camps in Overweight: What Kids Say. Based on feedback from the many young people who respond to his polls on his site, he finds this solution a good one for the morbidly obese child, who needs to be yanked out of the customary environment and put in a new one during the withdrawal period. For the junk-food addict, as for any other addict, the first weeks of deprivation are the hardest. This time needs to be filled with enjoyable and distracting activities, as well as plenty of psychological support, while the body adjusts and the worst cravings for the addictive substance have a chance to fade. Dr. Pretlow takes care to emphasize that coping skills need to be substituted for the behavior, or the poor kid will end up right back where he started. Again, there’s the rub: the long term.

At the top of this page we see part of an actual camp, attended in 1982 by the photographer who is known only by a strange Flickr handle. Well, campers are supposed to be roughing it, after all. And he did lose 40 pounds over the summer. Oh, but the memories:

Skinny kids lived on top of the hill. Fat kids lived at the bottom.

This made sense in terms of exercise, because it was a half-mile walk up to the dining hall, but the preferential zoning was detrimental in terms of the implied pecking order. It was traumatic, taking communal showers with the skinny kids, and mail call was a nightmare because the skinny kids got snack treats, while the chubbies received soap and shampoo. Swimming at the lake was no fun, because even if you wore a t-shirt, it would get wet and cling revealingly to every roll of fat. And mainly, in the words of our now grown-up informant,

I wanted nothing to do with those other fat kids.

So, if it’s miserable for the overweight to hang out with the slim, and it’s equally miserable to hang out with their fellow sufferers, where does that leave us? With a big problem for any program to solve, but the biggest problem is how to make any short-term improvement carry over into the endless days, weeks, months and years. That’s where the research is needed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Camp Jump Start: Effects of a Residential Summer Weight-Loss Camp for Older Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics, 03/01/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,”
Image by Sierra Echo Alpha Av8r —=.O.=— …Graham, used under its Creative Commons license.


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