Shedding the Stigma: 9 'Weight-Loss Camp' Myths Debunked

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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."

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CHERYLHURT 8/18/2019
Great Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/2/2019
Had a friend whose parents would send her, & some years the mom & both kids went too. Mom did ok & her brother ok now but she remained fat, not just heavy despite losing some while there. Report
I am seriously considering a fat camp. I was thinking about getting liposuction and skin removal from a doctor here in San Antonio. It would cost me about $2400 and a long time to recover. Maybe a fat camp plus airfare round trip to NYs Camp Shane would be more affordable. Report
FIT2FINISH 7/1/2019
Great article and information. Report
REDROBIN47 7/1/2019
Interesting information. Not my cup of tea. Report
It seems like a lot of money for dubious results Report
Be prepared to keep paying and going to one of these types of things over and over, for the rest of your life, and when you hit old age, you will still end up essentially being about the way you were when you started. Because this is an addiction ..... Report
Excellent article. Thanks. Report
Very good article. I learned some things I didn't know. . Report
Thanks great article Report
Thanks great article Report
If you really want to lose, you can do it on your own. I'm sure there are plenty of resources online on how to create your own personal "weight loss camp." Report
Great info Report
Agree! Do it at home and spend the money on something like a house payment! Report
You can do this at home, take the money you saved and plan a vacation! Report
I have considered going to camps mainly for the challenge of trying new activities as well as new ideas on healthy eating. Report
I understand and agree with the point how these camps cash cause some people to become dependent on the camp program, finding it hard to go it on their own afterward. I also would like to see insurance companies cover camps, but mostly just for morbidly obese people in immediate for direction. Report
I wish health insurance companies covered the cost once a year for members. It's a win-win situation for the member and for the health insurance industry to save money on health related costs due to obesity. Report
This is a great article Report
Always thought these places were a "quick fix" that didn't really last Report
I've often thought about going to one that was based on healthy living and no so much weight loss. I would love a week of good living doing healthy activities and not having to worry about the rest of the world. Report
I went to a weight loss camp for a week about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, they were still in the "low fat, high carb" mentality, and even with working out 4 hours a day (Yes, I am serious), I actually gained weight!!

On the positive side, with the massages every day and the "no electronic devices" rule, the knitted eyebrow creases that I thought were becoming permanent completely went away.! And, since the reset button on those creases had been made, I have been very successful keeping them away as I recognize when I am contracting those muscles and make conscious efforts to relax them. Report
I have gone to the Tennessee Fitness Spa a couple of time. And I'm looking forward to go again when I have the money. It's fun and I can make my own schedule. The trainers are fun and friendly. The price is very nice. Report
Good article. Not for me though. I wil have to rely on Spark People to get me to my goal. Keep myself in check! Report
I never got to go to camp. My sister had polio and she got to go. She had a blast. I would just like to have a buddy that I could walk with... Report
I hated summer camp as a kid, yet I just might love going to a boot camp as an adult. One week to solely focus on me has a certain appeal. The cost of the camp and fares to arrive there certainly lessens the allure. Regardless, learning about nutrition, lifestyle changes, and working out with new routines and instructors could jump start almost anyone's efforts. The problem is having the ability to transition and use the healthier habits and knowledge once home. Cannot undo a lifetime of bad habits in seven days, yet it could be just the thing to help refocus one's efforts. Camps cannot remain in business without happy campers. Arriving with the mindset that the camp is a reboot and a gift you give yourself...could prove to be priceless! Report
I have gone to Tennessee Fitness Spa for several years. I love that I constantly lose weight, and am 70 pounds down from when I started, AND that they concentrate in getting fit, getting strong, developing muscle mass, and eating clean and healthy food. They have lectures about nature, food, cooking, and fitness classes all day from 8 to 4 in the gym, cycle room, indoor pool,and racquetball court. They are also the most affordable fitness resort I have found! Report
It must be nice to have money that you can throw at other people to help you lose weight. Report
I've gone to several spas usually to jump start a diet. And that was the problem. Yes, I lost weight and often I continued that diet for a time. But it was a diet and for me that meant i could stop the diet once I reached my goal weight. Guess what? I gained back the weight.
Would enjoy going back to one of these places now with my changed attitude and just enjoying a healthy living vacation. Report