Teen Eating Disorders
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Staying Fit for Life: Behavioral Change for Lasting Weight Loss


In the past, many families turned to “fat camps” to help their teens lose weight. Although some campers experienced significant weight loss, most gained the weight back when they returned home. Based on the number of repeat customers, fat camps are no longer the weight loss program recommended by the experts. Instead, research supports a new generation of “fit camps” or weight loss camps, which have achieved remarkable long-term results.

Overweight and obesity are physical conditions, but their causes and treatments are chiefly psychological. Thus, lifestyle change is absolutely essential for long-term weight loss. In large part, what differentiates the old-style fat camp from the new and improved weight loss camp is the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT helps people replace self-defeating thoughts and behaviors with more constructive ideas and beliefs, so they can achieve their weight loss goals and build self-confidence. Rather than dwelling on scars of the past, CBT helps people focus on the here and now and proactively make changes to improve their lives. Unlike fat camp where teens are put on highly restrictive diets and spend hours in the gym, children and young adults who attend weight loss camp or boarding school address the real issues underlying their weight problem.

According to Samanthia Gaspar, PsyD., Acting Clinical Director at Wellspring Academy of California, one of the first year-round boarding schools for overweight and obese children and adolescents, the following are some of the essential therapeutic tools and approaches used by the best weight loss camps and schools.

Focus on Lifestyle Change

Years of research has shown that a scientifically based, holistic intervention that addresses both mind and body yields the most impressive weight loss results for both adults and teens. Unlike fat camps which gauge their success solely by the number of pounds shed each summer, modern weight loss camps and schools emphasize health rather than diet or weight loss.

“Not everyone can stay motivated to diet or lose weight, but everyone wants to be healthy,” says Gaspar. “If students reach a plateau or get discouraged and start to slip back into their old habits, we get them recommitted by showing them how their minds are impacting their weight loss efforts. By focusing on their goals and pushing themselves even harder, they remember that this new lifestyle will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

One of the advantages of losing weight in a boarding school environment is that students learn how physical fitness and nutrition fit into regular daily life. “Students wake up, take a morning walk, get ready for school, do their chores, and go to school,” notes Gaspar. “Each day, they are practicing the skills they will need to use at home, with the added support of therapy sessions and fun group activities with peers who face many of the same struggles.”
At weight loss camps and schools, teens learn many different ways to fit physical activity into each day. In addition to weight rooms, cardio equipment, a swimming pool, and an indoor gym, Wellspring Academy of California’s 68-acre campus includes walking and biking paths, athletic fields, and tennis, basketball, hockey, and volleyball courts. Students work out with a personal trainer and can take advantage of nearby national parks for canoeing, hiking, biking, and camping.

Students also get a complete health and wellness education. As a licensed and accredited boarding school, Wellspring Academy’s curriculum includes general education classes as well courses in cooking, nutrition, and fitness. Using a weight loss plan tailored to meet each student’s particular needs, including reading assignments, workbooks, and handouts, students learn about nutrition, the human body, and the way their thoughts and feelings affect their weight loss efforts.

Self-Monitoring Journal

Self-awareness is critical for long-term weight loss. According to a study published in Obesity Research, people are less likely to succeed at weight loss if they don’t self-monitor at least 75 percent of the time.

In order to increase self-awareness, the top weight loss camps and schools encourage students to monitor and record their food intake, amount of physical activity, and weekly weight loss. “By keeping a daily journal, students take an honest look at the behaviors that have contributed to their weight problem and understand the consequences of their actions,” says Gaspar. “Instead of blaming their parents, friends, or teachers, students take accountability for the problem and get motivated to make the necessary changes.”

Wellspring Academy emphasizes reducing fat intake, increasing exercise to more than 10,000 steps a day, and enhancing self-awareness through the use of daily journals and pedometers in order to develop a “healthy obsession.” By the end of the program, students become self-regulators who can set realistic, achievable goals and stay committed to health and long-term weight control while managing daily stresses and frustrations.

Behavioral Coaches

Using a cognitive-behavioral approach, modern weight loss camps and schools incorporate multiple individual and group counseling sessions into each student’s weekly activities. With the support of peers and therapists, students discuss strategies for maintaining their weight losses at home and facing the challenges of long-term lifestyle change.

At Wellspring Academy, for example, master’s and doctoral level psychologists or social workers work with students individually and in groups to set and reach goals. In group sessions, students review their achievements, set new goals, and discuss coping mechanisms and any challenges that arose since the last meeting. In individual sessions, students discuss their progress with self-monitoring and any barriers to success.

Behavioral coaches help challenge students’ all-or-nothing attitudes and develop skills to deal with stress and disappointment. “Sitting one-on-one with a behavioral coach, students look at the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are inextricably tied to their weight problem,” says Gaspar. “Without addressing the issues underlying the unhealthy behaviors, students may lose weight but they will likely gain it all back, and more.”

Wellspring therapists are called behavioral coaches because they are simply the guides helping students do the hard work of losing weight. “Just as the students take responsibility for their struggles, they also take responsibility for their successes,” explains Gaspar. “When they realize they’ve lost weight because they did the work, they gain a new sense of personal power and confidence.”

Positive Reinforcement

A major motivator when a person is trying to lose weight is the gratification of seeing results. “At Wellspring Academy, when a student loses weight, she sees her progress immediately at weekly weigh-ins and in how she feels,” says Gaspar. “When students exercise every day, they feel lighter, have more energy, and can excel in sports. When they complete homework and writing assignments geared toward health and nutrition, they receive grades that reinforce their progress. When all of these pieces come together, students are able to actually conceptualize what they are doing. They don’t just lose weight because we tell them to – they lose it because they are learning what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.”

In order to keep students motivated, Wellspring Academy created a “summit system” that allows students to earn more privileges and freedom as they make progress toward their goals. For example, students may earn the privilege of participating in off-campus activities if they record their daily meals in their journals consistently for at least two weeks. The summit system reinforces positive behaviors and gives students a chance to practice their skills outside of school.

Building Self-Esteem

Many overweight and obese teens face teasing, bullying, or social isolation at school. At old-style fat camps, heavier teens are often subjected to harassment because counselors promote a competitive, unsupportive environment that further damages teens’ self-image.
Because obese individuals are 25 to 44 percent more likely to suffer from clinical depression than people of a normal weight, modern weight loss camps and schools focus on building self-esteem, improving mood and outlook, and increasing energy levels. As students reach their goals, they begin to feel empowered to succeed in every area of life.
“Teens feel safe and comfortable at weight loss camps and schools because they feel less alone, less different,” advises Gaspar. “Through group therapy sessions and group activities like sports and clubs, students get comfortable socializing with others and develop the confidence they need to get involved at home.”

Family Support and Aftercare

Modern weight loss camps and schools understand the importance of family involvement in a teen’s weight loss effort. If a student achieves significant weight loss at school but returns home to all of the same habits, triggers, and sedentary activities, he is facing an uphill battle to keep the weight off.

“At Wellspring, we get the family involved from the start, offering family workshops and equipping parents with journals, pedometers, and educational literature to help them understand what it means to lead a healthy lifestyle,” says Gaspar. “We talk with the students and families about the transition from life at Wellspring to life at home and create a plan that helps parents open the lines of communication and reinforce positive choices.”

In addition to family support, the most effective weight loss camps provide continuing care and support months after formal treatment ends. Aftercare support at Wellspring includes contact with behavioral coaches to discuss any challenges students face, as well as extensive online support. Students can log on to a website and self-monitor their meals, activity levels, and weight losses. There is also a discussion board for students where they can get support from their Wellspring peers.

Using cognitive-behavioral therapeutic tools like self-awareness, positive thinking, and social support networks, weight loss camps and schools like Wellspring have helped countless children, teens, and young adults make permanent lifestyle changes. Far more sophisticated than old-style fat camps, modern weight loss camps and schools give overweight and obese teens a chance for a new beginning.

“When the students arrive at school, their movement is labored and they walk with their heads hung low,” explains Gaspar. “When they leave, they hold their heads high, they are proud of themselves and their accomplishments, they are excited about their futures – and it shows all the way down to the way they stand and walk. We get so much joy from watching what is truly a full-body, full-life transformation.”

Source: Wellspring Academy