Anti-Fat Camp: Tackling the Pounds One Family at a Time

From classes to calisthenics, fitness camp makes health a family priority.

Aug. 31, 2009— -- At 11 years old, Collin Robinson enjoys all the classic passions of the average almost-sixth-grader. He goofs around with his friends, plays video games, and loves the theater. Also, like many other boys his age, Collin likes to eat -- a lot.

At 5 feet 8 inches, Collin weighs in at 249 pounds. He is severely obese.

"My favorite thing to actually eat at home ... would probably be like a double quarter pounder with cheese, no onions, from McDonalds," he said.

Collin's mom, Krista Robinson, 38, who struggles with her own weight issues, knew she had to stop making excuses and do something about her son's health.

"His doctor told me at his last physical, which was about a year ago, that I needed to do something immediately," she recalled. "Some of his cholesterol numbers are starting to climb up. And that ... was really an eye opener for me. I've always felt like people look at me like I'm lazy, or, like, 'how could she let her son get to that point,' or 'doesn't she see?' And I do, I do see those things."

So in lieu of summer vacation, she and Collin spent two weeks at the Wellspring Family Weight Loss Camp in Pinehurst, N.C.

"We really needed ... an intervention," said Robinson, who says she found the program after typing "fat camp" into an Internet search engine.

Wellspring rejects that title; they believe for each overweight camper, the key is to give the whole family a behavior makeover that will last a lifetime.

"Having the whole family participate in the Wellspring program enables the parents to see what kind of changes they're going to need to make to best support their child that might be overweight or obese," said Michael Bishop, clinical psychologist and executive director of Wellspring.

'Shame': The Biggest Incentive

Families like the Robinsons sign up to shed pounds and learn healthy habits at Wellspring. For many, it's a last resort.

For Krista and Collin, like all the campers there, the first hurdle was the official weigh-in, which is often an uncomfortable moment of truth. Krista Robinson tipped the scales at 334 pounds, which is morbidly obese by medical standards. It's a situation that's been silently affecting her.

"I think shame is probably the biggest feeling," she said. "And I don't really talk about it with friends or family or anything like that."

As a working, single mother, who is often too busy to cook, Robinson acknowledged that their situation spiraled out of control.

"I have chosen to give him the fast food and everything, as a matter of ease, just checking one more thing off our to-do list for a day," she said. "I really feel like that's what does it. I feel like that's how he got here."

And it's not just junk food. Her son's lack of exercise hasn't helped matters either.

"We live in a condominium environment," said Robinson, "so it's not like when he was little, he can just run outside and play. So I've always kind of kept him inside unless I was going out with him."

Fitness Camp: Total Immersion Therapy

The Wellspring camp is a total immersion program. Over two weeks the Robinsons and the other families will hopefully learn new way of living.

"There's transformations for some, and there's dramatically increased awareness for others," said Susan Borgman, the camp's clinical director.

On the first day, Borgman introduced step one: exercise. Each camper is encouraged to take 10,000 steps a day, and they are given a pedometer to help them keep track.

Wellspring also uses psychological and cognitive behavioral therapies. Each camper is given a food journal and required to record everything they consume at every meal, including portion sizes, calories, and most important of all – fat grams. The point is to help campers become more aware of what they eat on a daily basis, so they can gain a sense of personal control and begin to tweak their habits.

"Keep in mind, we strive for zero grams of fat," said Borgman. "The only reason we count calories is just to make sure that we don't have any more than 800 calories at your largest meal."

For Krista, the biggest hurdle is the daily, two-mile walk at the crack of dawn. The Robinsons are completely unaccustomed to daily workouts.

"Before Wellspring, it was pretty much walking back and forth to the car, before and after school," said Collin. On the walk, he eagerly led the front of the pack, but Krista could hardly keep up with up the group. Later that day, she had a meltdown with her son.

"The first day we got back to the room and he was like, 'why are you crying,' and I was like, 'I was last, I knew I was going to be last in the walk,' and I just hated it," she said.

At Wellspring, eating healthy is just as important as activity. Nutrition and food awareness are step two of the plan. All meals take place in the dining hall, and campers are strictly forbidden to bring any food in or out of the room.

"The way we set things up in the dining room is that there's a controlled meal that the chefs will prepare on a plate, with certain number of fat and calories," said Borgman. "And that comes out to the families, and is written on the white board outside in the dining room."

Every entree is low in fat. A typical lunch is a choice of a veggie burger or a bison sloppy joe (instead of beef), with a side of baked beans.

But not all the campers are sold on it. "She didn't think it was bison 'til about halfway through," said Heather Joyner, whose daughter Maddie is overweight. "She wasn't too happy after that, but she ate the rest of it."

Collin, whose favorite food is McDonalds, decides to give the veggie burger a try and to his surprise, he liked it. "If I had a choice between this and a cheeseburger, I would pick this," he said. "Because it's healthier and it tastes a little bit better."

From Cooking Classes to Aerobics

The days are jam-packed with a wide variety of sports and fitness activities for the children. They start easy with fun games like lawn tag so the kids can get in their 10,000 steps.

Later, they learn about stretches and squats, and then it's time for family aerobics. The goal is to have them try as many activities as they can, so that one might stick and become ingrained in their routines at home.

"I think it was a lot of fun, and it gave me a really good workout," said Collin.

But the whirlwind of new activities left Robinson feeling discouraged. She was on the verge of quitting.

"The first day I was just thinking, there's no way you can do all of this at home," she said. "Like, I can't. I have to work, I have to get him to school and breakfast and everything else. There's a ton of activity every day, and it's just, it's a lot to take in."

Borgman works with the parents in therapeutic classes to help them see that change is possible, and says that resistance is common at the start of camp.

"Parents tend to bring guilt probably more than any other emotion," she said. "And part of what we do is just set that all aside and help parents to see what they can do now, and give them the tools that they need to create a scenario where their child is going to be very successful."

Attitude Changes After the First Week

Eating healthy is important, but learning to cook healthy is even more so at Wellspring. The kids learn in fun cooking classes how to prepare healthy meals on their own.

The children learn to make oatmeal bake and zucchini sticks, and are introduced to healthy ingredient substitutions like egg whites in place of whole eggs, and Splenda and apple sauce in place of sugar. Of course, the parents get a lesson too. Instead of deep fat fried chicken fingers, the parents learn how to make cutlets dipped in egg whites and bread crumbs, and baked in the oven for a healthy snack.

"I think today, I'm way more realistic than I thought yesterday," said Robinson at the program's halfway point. "Yesterday I was, like, no way and today it's like, I'm starting to see how we can incorporate different things."

After a lunch of baked chicken fingers and sweet potato fries, the families took a field trip to the grocery store. Their assignment was to find low-fat alternatives for the foods they're going to miss most.

The Robinsons were on a mission to find low-fat beef so they can enjoy hamburgers at home. "We found one substitute," said Collin. "It is Laura's lean beef, 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 24 grams of protein."

Next, they're on the hunt for a healthy dessert and they successfully find non-fat brownies. The other families are shopping in a new way, too. "I think we've been living in that little vacuum," said Heather Joyner, "and it's pretty eye-opening to come out and see."

By midweek, Robinson has a turnaround. She's more positive. She and Collin try a challenging yoga session together, and overall, she's gained confidence that she can actually make these changes at home.

"It was a hard day for me, Monday," she said. "And I thought, 'God, what am I doing here? What am I thinking? It's too hard, I can't do it.' Today, I feel like, I think we could go home and do it."

Throughout the week, Collin and the other kids try out even tougher sports as they start to build their endurance.

There's canoeing on the lake, swimming at the marina, and hiking in the hills.

Krista continues making progress. She joins in for family aerobics class, and a kickball game as well.

Soon enough, it was time for the one-week weigh-in. "If he loses two or three pounds, I will be really excited," she said, "even if the scale is the same, we have changed as people, already ... and I imagine it'll be even more by the time we leave here."

Krista Robinson was up first, dropping from 334 to 324 pounds. "I would say 10 pounds is something to be very excited about," said Borgman.

Robinson was stunned. "I can't believe it," she said. "It's kind of amazing, isn't it?"

As for Colin, he lost 11 and a quarter pounds, dropping down to just under 238, which made his mother ecstatic. "Are you happy?" she asks Collin. "That is so awesome. Did you think you could do that?"

He answers with a smile.

Final Weigh-in Brings Wave of Emotion

Pumped up by their success, the Robinsons start week two with the growing realization that they can do this. Krista used to begin her walk 30 minutes before the rest of the group, but that has all changed.

"Since Saturday of last week I've just been walking with the rest of the group, and I'm toward the back most of the time, but it's much better," she said.

At the final weigh-in, a week later, they lose even more weight. Collin loses five more pounds, and Krista loses another six. The overall weight loss is dramatic – both are down 16 pounds each in just two weeks.

The Robinsons are elated. The entire experience has been a bonding experience for new, close friends, and saying goodbye is hard.

"My concern is we walk through the door of our house... and do we fall back into the same routine?" said Krista, questioning their continued commitment. "And that's what we need to nip in the bud. That's going to be the hardest part, maybe that first couple weeks at home."

"Nightline" sent them home with a camera to document their journey. The first step was getting rid of all the unhealthy food in their kitchen.

Both Krista and Collin said tossing out the junk food was unexpectedly liberating, and made them feel in control. They re-stocked their cabinets with low-fat options they learned about at camp, and kept up with daily exercise.

Five weeks after camp, "Nightline" caught up with the Robinsons to check in on their progress. Their changes were staggering. Collin had lost 27 pounds total. "I feel like I can do more now. There's not as much holding me back from what I wanna do ... I can just go out there and play basketball for an hour, but also, I can go out there, meet, like, a group of people and play basketball with them and not feel embarrassed."

Krista had lost almost 33 pounds. "It's incredible," she said. "I'm really inspired by Collin, but we get out and we walk every morning, or most mornings. We have very low-fat foods for the most part. I think probably four days since we've been home, we went over 20 grams of fat a day. Some days we only eat about 1,000 calories."

"She's had a lot more energy since we came back from the camp," Collin says about his mother. "And she wants to get out and do more."

Collin revealed that having an overweight mom used to worry him deeply. "I was worried she wasn't going to make it until she could lose the weight, but I tried not to think about that," he said.

All those dire health fears are gone now; instead, there's a newfound sense of confidence, and an even bigger sense of pride.

"I am very proud of her for losing all that weight," said Collin. "I'm also pretty proud of myself."

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