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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GEORGE815 12/7/2020
Thanks Report
REDROBIN47 11/29/2020
Good to know. Thank you Report
OLDSKOOL556 11/29/2020
Thanks for sharing article 👍 Report
CECELW 11/29/2020
I've never thought about going to a camp. I lost 65 lbs just by walking and using hand weights Report
AZMOMXTWO 11/29/2020
thank you Report
Thank you! Report
QUEENFROG 11/29/2020
I would love to do this; however, I am nowhere near in good enough shape to keep up with all this exercise even though I love the idea of it. Also...I think the words "fat camp" needs to fall by the wayside.

/ Report
ROBBIEY 11/29/2020
Interesting article Report
ROSSYFLOSSY 11/29/2020
Great article. Report
HANOVERLADY 11/29/2020
Like The Biggest Loser, it looks like there is a lot of exercise every day. Very hard to keep this up back home, especially if you work outside the home and/or have young children. Report
CECTARR 11/29/2020
No Thanks Report
CKEYES1 11/29/2020
That would be a bit much for me Report
LEANJEAN6 11/29/2020
I was teased by my Mom as I was "chunky" compared to my sister--I have never forgotten that!-- I am in my 70's now ---- Singling out a person makes it worse! Report
LEANJEAN6 11/29/2020
I was teased by my Mom as I was "chunky" compared to my sister--I have never forgotten that!-- I am in my 70's now ---- Singling out a person makes it worse! Report
Shows like the Biggest Loser or Extreme Makeover helped increase public interest in "fat camps". Fat camps aren't that much different than being on the Biggest Loser. You will lose a lot of weight fast, but you don't really learn the techniques to take the weight off and keep it off. Fat camps = quick fix, not a long term solution. Report
RCLYKE 11/29/2020
Interesting Report
FERRETLOVER1 11/29/2020
I've never considered a fat camp, but this article is interesting. Report
EMGERBER 11/29/2020
A good article, there are lot of myths around about weight loss. Report
SUZRAI 11/29/2020
My comment about the money is not meant to be negative I think that the idea behind these is great and a good way to give someone the
knowledge that they need to get on the right track Report
SUZRAI 11/29/2020
I haven't found anything less than $2,000 a week so would love to see a list of the ones that are as inexpensive as this article states Report
PIKA1319 11/29/2020
Of course you'd lose weight - look at that sample schedule! You're basically working out all day long (with the exception of the one lecture period) and being given healthy food... Report
NEPTUNE1939 11/29/2020
ty Report
MAREE1953 11/29/2020
With all the free podcasts out there nowadays, one could listen to motivational speakers every day. Camps like these are not something I'd spend my money on. Report
LIS193 11/29/2020
Great article! Report
SUNSET09 11/29/2020
Not many things are a one size fits all venture, SparkFriends. What's for you, is for you Report
JANIEWWJD 11/29/2020
Good article. Thank you!!! Report
_CYNDY55_ 11/28/2020
Thanks Report
USMAWIFE 10/14/2020
JAMER123 10/6/2020
Thank you for sharing a good article. Report
Cool Report
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
Great article and information. Report
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