Maybe you've tried everything you can think of to lose weight—counting calories, cutting carbs, tracking steps, joining a gym and countless other tactics—but nothing has worked. Perhaps you've lost a few pounds, and then gained them right back. You might stick to a healthy diet for a few days, only to have a moment of weakness that sends you spiraling back to your old ways. Maybe you feel too heavy, too tired, too old or too pained to exercise.
Transforming your body and lifestyle is no small feat. Some succeed in doing it alone, while others need a little (or a lot) of help. For those people, fitness and weight loss camps can seem like a light at the end of what may seem like a very long, dark tunnel. Although thankfully no longer known as "fat camps," these destinations still hold something of a stigma.
We decided to dig a little deeper to find out what goes on at weight loss camps. During our conversations with staffers and campers, we ended up debunking quite a few misconceptions.
Myth #1: You have to be morbidly obese to attend a weight loss camp.
While TV shows and movies may imply otherwise, not every camper is obese, or even extremely overweight. Many attend simply to learn how to eat well, exercise and live healthier. Sure, some aspire to lose 100+ pounds, but others may just want to shed that last stubborn 10, or tone up and build muscle.
David Ettenberg, director of Camp Shane in New York, estimates that a majority of campers are trying to lose between 20 and 60 pounds. On any given week, the camp's population is very diverse. "The beauty of Camp Shane is that there's no such thing as a 'typical' weight loss camper," he says. "Our guests come from around the world, from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life."
Myth #2: It's all about weight loss.
Although all campers arrive with some type of weight loss goal, the benefits can extend well beyond a shrinking waistline. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Obesity evaluated 130 participants of a youth weight loss program. In addition to significantly slashing their Body Mass Index, the youths also experienced a boost in self-esteem, social skills, mood and overall mental wellness.
Myth #3: It works for everyone, no matter what.
Paying to live at a weight loss camp for weeks at a time is a pretty extreme measure—especially when there's no guarantee that it will work. Studies on the overall success of participants is limited. Although the camp directors proudly claim hundreds of success stories, there are less publicized cases when the desired results simply don't happen.
According to Camp Shane's Ettenberg, failure to achieve goals usually stems from unrealistic expectations. "It is possible to lose 20 pounds in one week, but it's also highly unlikely, and impossible to keep up," he says. "Some campers have such high standards for themselves, that when they trip on a step, they throw themselves down the whole flight of stairs, so to speak. Failure is a mentality, so we try to point out accomplishments that campers may not have noticed."
Another common reason for failure is each participant's self-imposed limitations, he says. For instance, a camper may regain the weight because she doesn't have access to their favorite camp activities back in her hometown, and another may flounder without the direct supervision he received at camp. "The best we can do is help the campers identify potential obstacles and help them create a plan to overcome them," says Ettenberg.
According to a representative from Tennessee Fitness Spa, most guests who failed to meet their goals were limited by their beliefs of what they could accomplish, as well as how they treated their bodies before coming to camp. "If someone is a severe yo-yo dieter, we can't accurately gauge the calories they need," she says. She also points out that some people assume the weight loss will be easy, and don't follow the recommended steps.
Although a majority of online reviews for weight loss camps are positive, there are some negative accounts of bullying, "black markets" of contraband food sold among campers, lack of staff involvement and ineffective programs.
Myth #4: They'll starve you into losing weight.
No reputable camp will expect you to leave your love of food at the door. On Joe Panarella's first day at Pritikin Longevity Center, he was fully expecting to be subjected to a bare-bones diet—"I was thinking it would be apples and egg whites"—but was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of delicious food. Even more surprising? The staff encouraged him to eat as much as he wanted. That's because most camps are focused not on the quantity of foods, but on the quality. Rather than being deprived, guests are encouraged to eat as much healthy fare as they need to stay satisfied.
That said, every food serves a purpose. One of Tennessee Fitness Spa's mottos is "eat to live, not live to eat." Their guests dine on such yummy dishes as Quinoa Burrito Bowls and Pork Medallions with Blackberry Glaze. "The nutritionist counts the calories, but tells you to eat as much as you need," says TFS camper Bill Bethea from New Orleans. "The meals are delicious, and you never feel hungry."
At Camp Shane, the nutrition staff has spent years putting together menus and recipes that are both appetizing and nutritious, reflecting the latest principles in healthy eating. "Our goal is for campers to understand that they can enjoy eating, not be hungry and still lose weight," says Ettenberg.
"Our eating plan stresses the importance of eating the right things, not just counting calories or going hungry," says Jennifer Weinberg from Pritikin. "It may take someone a little longer to lose weight than it would on a traditional calorie-counting diet, but if they stick to our plan, they will lose weight over time, and benefit from the added health benefits."
Myth #5: Weight loss camps can fit into any budget.
When you visit most weight loss camp websites, you won't see pricing front and center, and there's a reason for that. On average, you can expect to pay upwards of $800 to $1,000 per week, although some of the more upscale resorts are considerably more expensive. Two weeks at the luxury-oriented Pritikin will set you back more than $10,000 for a spring stay. Although some may say you can't put a price on a healthy lifestyle, some may find the costs of camp hard, if not impossible to swallow.
According to Camp Shane's website, some private insurance companies will cover the cost of parts of the program, such as nutrition classes. But campers still have to pay up-front and then chase a reimbursement check—and the tuition itself is rarely covered. Some camps offer financing, but this will incur extra interest fees.
Myth #6: You'll be forced to endure grueling workouts, a 'la ‘The Biggest Loser.’
No one wants to sign up for non-stop burpees or Hulk-level weight lifting. Although fitness is an integral part of any healthy lifestyle, a reputable weight loss camp will never push you to the point of pain or injury—nor will anyone force you to do activities you hate.
At Premier Fitness Camp in Carlsbad, California, guests get to design their own workouts based on what they've learned. "This gives them the confidence to know they can do this on their own, when they get back home," says Nicole Lash from PFC. Pritikin also encourages campers to take ownership of their fitness journeys, teaching them to create their own individualized exercise programs and track their performance and progress.
Myth #7: You'll be bored to tears.
Not likely. Most weight loss camps put a lot of time and effort into planning fun, productive schedules that strike an ideal balance between activity, rest and recreation.
Weinberg from Pritikin describes a typical day at their facility: "Campers wake up and start their day with a healthy breakfast, then head to the fitness center for a 45-minute cardio workout, followed by a 45-minute strength training class. Next, they'll attend a seminar covering a specific topic, such as losing belly fat, then they'll go to the dining room for a delicious and healthy lunch. After lunch there's a seminar on a different subject, such as how to read food labels. Next, campers can go to their choice of either a dance class, yoga class or cooking school. After a short break, they're off to another seminar, such as managing moods, before eating a sumptuous plated dinner."
At Camp Shane, guests get to design their own schedule by choosing from dozens of athletic and non-athletic activities, including swimming, tennis, Zumba, bicycling, canoeing, waterskiing, crafting, weightlifting and more.
At PFC, guests enjoy weekly hikes in the southern California mountains, rock climbing, paddle boarding, kayaking, bike riding, touring a grocery store with a nutritionist and eating at a local restaurant to practice healthy ordering. A typical day looks something like this:
6:30 a.m.: Nutrition shake
7:00 a.m.: Bootcamp class
8:15 a.m.: Breakfast
9:00 a.m.: Boxing
10:30 a.m.: Energy snack
11:00 a.m.: Core Fusion class
12:00 p.m.: Lunch & Learn: Lecture from a behavior specialist
1:30 p.m.: Torrey Pines hike
4:30 p.m.: Stretching session
5:00 p.m.: Dinner
Myth #8: You won't be able to maintain the healthy habits after camp.
Anything is easier when you have professionals to guide you and hold you accountable. "Going home is probably the hardest step—the campers have to leave this safe space where everything is planned out for them," says Lash from Premier Fitness Camp. "Now they have to stick with it and keep themselves accountable."
To make that easier, PFC provides a 12-week program to help campers transition to a do-it-yourself version of what they've learned. Campers also attend cooking demonstrations and get recipes to make on their own. Back at home, they can contact trainers, nutritionists and health coaches for guidance and motivation.
In fact, all of the camps we contacted provide some form of follow-up support and counseling. "We wouldn't be as effective if we didn't provide campers with tools to use when they get home," says Ettenberg. "Campers can stay in touch with us when they want extra support." Campers leaving Pritikin get access to the "Pritikin on Track" package, which includes remote consultations on nutrition and behavior, as well as a weekly newsletter with helpful tips, motivation, recipes and fitness routines.
Myth #9: You only have one chance.
Although each session is designed to achieve optimal success, all camps welcome repeat attendants. "Many campers choose to come back every summer, just to get refreshers, boost their motivation and re-kindle camp friendships," says Camp Shane's Ettenberg.
"One of the biggest takeaways from our camp, aside from the education on healthy living, is the community and family aspect," says Lash from Premier Fitness Camp. "People come into our camp, usually not knowing anyone, and they leave with all these new friendships. It's very common for campers to plan a yearly visit back to PFC with their new friends. Sometimes, campers will go home and then decide they want to come back with their spouse, child or friend to share what they've learned."