Fitness Camps and Programs

Summer means three months without school and a whole lot of opportunity for both positive changes and serious setbacks. Some parents see this time as the perfect chance for their child to really focus on health goals in a structured setting — a fitness or weight-loss camp.

Most fitness or weight loss camps are residential, or overnight, and do not take very young children. Usually seven or eight is the minimum age to participate in a residential camp, although policies vary by facility. There are also co-ed and gender-specific programs and camp programs that are divided by age range.

Is a residential fitness or weight loss camp a good fit for your child? If your child has attended camp before and enjoyed the experience, a quality fitness camp program may be just the thing he needs to get him on the road to good health.

The answer may be less clear for younger children and for kids who either haven't been to camp or have been and didn't like it. Looking at the pros and cons, and talking with your child about potential programs, can help you decide.

Be wary of summer camp programs that promise dramatic weight loss for your child. Losing too much weight in just a few weeks could be potentially dangerous for your child. A crash weight-loss program that focuses on the scale will not teach your child the essential lesson that fitness is about how she feels, and that eating well and getting regular exercise is a lifetime mission and not a summer task.

Pros and Cons of Fitness Camp

The number-one goal of a good child fitness camp should be to provide a safe and supportive environment for positive lifestyle changes. That should include giving kids the tools they need to make those changes, including education about nutrition and portion sizes, instruction in physical fitness skills, and insight into psychological issues such as impulsive or mindless eating.

Beware of camps that mandate regular weigh-ins, highly restrictive menus, and before-and-after photos. These are all good signs that they're looking more at playing the numbers game than at making lasting changes for your child's health.

Even the best and most highly recommended camps have their positive and negative points.

The pros include the following:

  • No cliques. Most of the other campers your child will meet will also be new, so the social barriers that may exist at home or in other regular camp situations are gone.

  • Common goals. All campers have a common goal and can empathize with what the others are going through.

  • No temptations. Everyone shares nutritionally balanced, healthy meals without the specter of s'mores and Oreos lurking nearby.

  • Active fun. Camp of any kind typically doesn't have televisions and video games, instead exposing kids to a variety of activities in the great outdoors. It's a great place for your child to sample a number of new sports in a nonthreatening environment.

The cons include the following:

  • Expense. Fitness and weight-loss camps are not cheap.

  • Unrealistic expectations. Camps that promise dramatic weight loss may disappoint and could even endanger your child's health.

  • Separation anxiety. If your child attends a resident camp far from home, most of the friendships she develops with other kids who relate to her weight issues will have to end as the summer draws to a close.

  • A virtual reality. Without the proper focus on skills training and how to eat and exercise right in the “real world,” where temptation abounds, kids can easily relapse into old habits after leaving the sheltered environment of camp.

How to Choose a Camp

Camps should offer an open house or scheduled visitation for prospective campers and their parents. This will give you and your child the opportunity to meet the staff, explore the grounds, learn more about camp programs, and ask questions of the camp director and counselors.

If you are committed to sending your child to a fitness camp, and there are no nearby facilities that you can realistically visit in advance due to time or financial considerations, ask for a telephone conference with the director or someone knowledgeable on staff. The camp should also be able to send you marketing materials (including plenty of pictures of the grounds and descriptions of offered programs) in advance so you can do your homework and have your questions ready.

Ask the camp you are considering for references. They should be able to provide you with names and phone numbers of parents who have sent their children to the facility in the past and who are willing to speak with parents of prospective campers about their experiences.

It's good to choose a camp that is certified by the American Camping Association (ACA). This means that the camp has met up to 300 health and safety standards established by the ACA in the areas of health and wellness, site and food service, transportation, human resources (staffing), operations, and camp programs. However, remember that ACA certification has nothing to do with the fitness components of the camp program, such as the menu the children follow or any exercise guidelines beyond specific requirements for safety in aquatics programs.

In addition to checking on ACA accreditation, it's also a smart move to check with the state and/or local board of health where the camp is located and inquire about their last inspection date and any outstanding violations.

Here are a few things to look for in a camp:

  • Low camper-to-counselor ratio. ACA recommendations vary by age, from a one-to-six ratio for seven- and eight-year-old campers to a one-to-twelve ratio for fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds.

  • Parental involvement. A worthwhile fitness and/or weight-loss camp program will include some degree of education for parents as well as the kids, whether it's in the form of special parent weekends, open house events, or group sessions.

  • Professional guidance. Does the camp have a registered dietitian (RD) on staff? Are the staff members that head up the fitness programs certified in their field (such as an exercise physiologist, certified personal trainer, or fitness instructor)? Is there a medical director on staff? What about a licensed counselor?

  • High staff-retention rate. If counselors return year after year, they are more likely to be dedicated and enthusiastic teachers for your child.

  • Committed counselors. Are any of the counselors former campers? What character traits does the camp look for in recruiting counselors?

  • Clear policies and procedures. The camp rules should be laid out in black and white so you and your child know what's expected. Procedures should also be in place for emergency situations, accidents, and illnesses. It's also good to ask about discipline policies.

  • Director experience and involvement. A seasoned director/ owner who is involved in the day-to-day operation of the camp is often better than a “chain” camp run by people without a vested interest in the camp's success. Ask the director what his overall philosophy is towards child fitness and the camp's role in promoting it.

  • A positive fitness philosophy. Most importantly, you want your child's camp to look at your child's health and well-being as a primary concern. The focus should not be on melting away the pounds quickly but on promoting a healthy fundamental approach toward food and activity.

While you can't control the type of reinforcement your child gets outside the home when she returns from camp, you can make sure that your family and friends praise her more for her newfound interest in working out and eating right and less for the way she looks. Messages like “You've really gotten good at swimming” and “It's great that you've learned to cook such healthy treats” acknowledge the hard work she's done and boost her self-esteem.

After-Camp Maintenance

So what happens after your child returns from camp, fitter, perhaps slimmer, and enthusiastic about his life changes? How you handle this transition time will make a tremendous impact on his long-term success.

Many camps offer some form of a follow-up program, which may be a weekend retreat, periodic support meetings, support by phone or e-mail, or a regular newsletter. Take advantage of these if they're available. Make sure that your child returns to a home full of healthy food, and offer her ample opportunity for exercise. You can't expect her to stick to her fitness program unless the rest of the family is willing to join in and walk the walk with her.

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