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Is Weight Loss Camp Right for Your Child?

Kate Hanley
March 12, 2012

Learn the facts on weight loss camps. Will they work? How will your child feel about going? We asked the experts.

If you could wave a magic wand and help your child lose weight and learn healthy habits so the weight stays off, you would. If the time for hoping things will get better is over -- perhaps your child has recently been diagnosed with a weight-related condition (such as obesity or diabetes), or another well-intentioned attempt to lose weight has failed -- weight loss camp could be a good option. Here's what to keep in mind as you determine whether weight loss camp is right for your child and if so, how to find the right one.

The Pros
Why should you consider a weight loss camp?

  • Camp is fun. "In many ways, weight loss camp is just like any other camp -- there are color wars, inter-camp games, talent shows, and crushes," says Joanna Dolgoff, MD, pediatrician, author of Red Light Green Light Eat Right and official doctor for Camp Shane.
  • There's an even playing field. "Kids have a great time at weight loss camps because they don't feel different -- there is no bullying," Dolgoff says. Your child's social life will likely thrive in a way that's more difficult at school.
  • Your child gets professional help. Your child's weight is likely something you worry about. It may have even become a source of tension in your home. Weight loss camps give you and your child practical strategies for making long-lasting change. "You will both get a lot of information and support. It can really change the dynamic between you, and in your home," Dolgoff says.


The Considerations
What should you think about before sending your child to a camp.

  • There is no quick fix. Camps last a handful of weeks, but eating well and exercising is a lifelong pursuit. "Many of the kids I interviewed for my book went back to camp multiple times," says Anne Fletcher, MS, RD, author of "Weight Loss Confidential." One father we interviewed (who asked to remain anonymous) had a daughter who attended the fall semester at her summer camp's boarding school to solidify her chances for success. As you're considering camp, know that it may take a few attempts.
  • Attitude is everything. A camp with an overly aggressive approach that focuses on restricting calories, punishing workouts and little one-on-one support can further damage your child's self-esteem, and discourage him or her from continuing healthy habits back at home, says Robi Ludwig, Psy. D., psychotherapist and Care.com contributor.
  • Your buy-in is essential. "The family has to agree to continue with the lessons the camp will instill," Ludwig says. "You can't send your kid to camp and have a house stocked with chips when they return." You also need to model healthy habits for your child in order to ensure success.


How to Know Your Child Is Ready
The first criteria should be a medical diagnosis of being medically overweight, Fletcher says. "Weight loss camp isn't about looking good for the prom. Having a medical diagnosis will help remove any stigma in your child's mind."

The father we interviewed said he and his wife knew it was time for their daughter to try a formal weight loss program because they had tried everything and were at a standstill, and they could see that their daughter's weight was having a big negative impact on all aspects of her health. "Every day started with thirty minutes of looking for clothes that looked good or somehow downplayed her weight. She felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach every morning and then the jokes at school further undermined her self-esteem."

The key is to present the facts and let your child decide, Dolgoff says. That's how it happened for the father we interviewed. "Our daughter was the first one to raise the possibility of attending a camp. This opening was the critical step."


How to Bring It Up
You may dread having "the talk" about weight loss camp with your child, but look at it as an opportunity to have an open dialog about the subject. "Your child is probably aware there's a weight issue. Talking about the possibility of going to camp in an open and honest discussion will likely be a relief to them," Dolgoff says.

"Tell them that celebs and athletes work with coaches and go on retreats to look good and feel good, and isn't it wonderful that we have this opportunity too?" Ludwig says. Explain that the goal isn't to be a certain weight or a certain size, but to learn how to eat, exercise and take care of your body. "Don't make it about weight, because that can plant the seeds of an eating disorder."

As for what to tell your child's friends, "Just say you're going to camp. You don't need to give more detail than that," Ludwig says.


What to Look for in a Weight Loss Camp
Find the right camp for your child with these tips.

  • A professional staff. Be sure that camp has an MD affiliated with the camp, and a child psychologist and registered dietitian on staff, Fletcher counsels. When you speak with the staff, ask: What are the credentials of people who designed the program and have most interaction with the kids? What is your background in this? How long have you been doing this? What kind of medical supervision is involved?
  • A supportive philosophy. "Camps should be focused on building the child's self-esteem and sense of empowerment, and minimizing feelings of deprivation," Fletcher says. A camp that is overly restrictive will only feel like punishment.
  • A track record. "You want a camp with a history of being safe and effective," Dolgoff says. Questions to ask: Do you have any data that demonstrates how teens do in the program? What are the dropout rates? Could I speak with parents of kids who have attended the camp?
  • A personalized approach. "Kids have different nutritional and fitness needs at different stages of development," Dolgoff says. Ask the camp staff how they tailor their program to individuals. If the answer is "We don't," consider it a red flag.
  • Multiple ways of tracking progress. If the camp only measures number of pounds lost, they give weight too much priority, Fletcher says. "There are many markers of success: improvements in fitness, frequency of exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables, medical improvements. Including these as signs of progress makes this about being healthy, not being thin."
  • A focus on the entire year-not just the duration of camp. A quality program will teach kids how to cook their own food, eat healthfully at restaurants, work exercise in to daily life, and deal with their emotions instead of reaching for food. Questions to ask: What support do you provide when the child is back home? Are there message boards, Facebook groups, or other ways for kids to stay in touch with each other and with your staff?
  • Support and education for the family. The child's weight problem didn't happen in a vacuum; it won't be remedied in one, either. "A successful weight loss program for kids teaches parents and siblings how to support the child at home," Fletcher says.
  • Total cost. As for a complete breakdown of the costs. If it's a monthly fee, what is included? Are there any additional expenses that aren't part of the flat fee?


* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan.  Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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