Challenge by Choice: Fitness At Our Weight Loss Camp

Most weight loss camps push campers to tackle whatever fitness activity is on the day’s schedule.

Scared of horseback riding? Too bad, that’s today’s plan, and we’re going to push you to do it no matter what.

Scared of heights? Too bad, today’s the day for the climbing wall. If you hang back, we’ll call you out and make sure your fear is the center of everyone’s attention.

Don’t know how to swim? Just sit over there, while everyone else has a blast.

Campers either have to push themselves to take risks they’re not comfortable with, which can reinforce poor coping skills, or sit alone on the sidelines. Yet that can reinforce the self-doubt and self-criticism that often accompany weight issues in teens and young adults.

Why that approach doesn’t work

Pushing yourself to overcome fear no matter what is not actually a smart life strategy.

It creates new stress and anxiety and often leads to bad outcomes by pushing people to question their own judgement.

What each of us needs is a way to approach new situations constructively and positively, taking into account what our hearts and minds are telling us without letting fear of the unknown rule our reactions and decisions.

Weight gain is often in part associated with how people respond to emotionally challenging situations. If your primary coping skill for dealing with stress, fear or anxiety is to fall back on food, you’re more likely to overeat.

The most useful thing to do is to use new camp activities as a way to teach new coping skills. That way campers develop positive ways to handle the unknown, instead of being paralyzed by fear of the unknown, or falling back on food behaviors as a crutch when they feel stressed, anxious or upset.

A better answer: challenge by choice.

All of our activities rely on the “challenge by choice” principle.

When a camper doesn’t want to participate in an activity, we don’t twist their arms to do it, ridicule them into it, or otherwise force them to do it.

Instead, we work them to think through why they don’t want to participate and what the consequences might be from their decision. If they don’t like those potential consequencesmissing out on fun, for example we help them come up with ways they can participate that then lead to outcomes they like better.

This approach fosters independence in the campers. It also increases their self-efficacy. What’s self-efficacy? The confidence that you can find a way forward that’s right for you when you encounter a new situation.

We want our campers to know the pride of accomplishment as they head home. Even better, we want them to know that they’ve now got strategies for tackling new situations, breaking them down into goals they can confidently achieve, and successfully making decisions on their own.

Putting Challenge by Choice Into Practice

Yes, one of our activities is surfing! Now, some campers lack swimming skills, so they’re nervous about participating.

Here’s how we might handle that situation: 
  • First, encourage them to just go with the group and hang out at the beach, do the land exercises and watch their bunkmates in the water
  • Then, a counselor with swimming experience might encourage that camper to wade in the water while simply touching a surfboard
  • Eventually, that camper might lie on the board on their stomach while a counselor pulled the board through water shallow enough that they can both still stand

Surfing: A Real-Life Example

In this example, look for two Empowered Wellness principles at work: the importance of a growth mindset—”I can find a way” vs “There’s no way I can…”—as well as “challenge by choice.”

One of our 2018 weight loss campers had an injured foot, so she didn’t think she could surf. She was therefore thinking about skipping our surfing activity entirely.

Friends and counselors encouraged her to check it out anyway.

Guess what? She learned that she could surf on her stomach and knees!

She didn’t need to use her injured foot at all, and she could successfully surf for the first time ever. When other campers saw how she was surfing, they tried surfing on their knees and stomachs too.

It’s not hard to see how this applies to weight loss. Instead of thinking “I’ll never be able to lose weight,” someone with a growth mindset thinks “I know I can find a way to lose weight, I just have to find the best strategies for me individually.”

And “challenge by choice” helps you say “I want to be active because I love the energy and confidence it gives me, but I don’t enjoy cycling, so I’m going to take a yoga class with my friend.”

Success Outside the “Camp Bubble”

Putting campers in an unfamiliar environment and allowing them to make the decision about when and how to participate helps them back home, when they’re no longer in the “camp bubble.”

We use a technique called “metaphoric learning” to help them relate the feelings from a camp activity to real-life situations they’ll experience after camp ends.

We want them to remember how they overcame the obstacle without resorting to food in the midst of high stress: they relied on their own capabilities, plus encouragement from friends.

It’s a model that works after camp ends, at every stage of life.

Why don’t other weight loss camps use this approach?

Some weight loss camps still use programs they developed decades ago, based primarily on calorie restriction and high levels of exercise. They may also have recently added a few cognitive-behavioral elements.

However, building a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral weight loss program from the ground up, while the best evidence-based approach, is a major and expensive undertaking. It requires year-round, permanent staff licensed and certified in these fields.

As a result, most weight loss camps tend to rely on summer camp directors who mean well, but don’t have education and experience in the latest science of weight management and behavior change. Their experience draws on years of helping kids lose weight by limiting food intake and keeping them extremely active. They also tend to rely on inexpensive college students to supervise campers and camp activities.

Here, Eliza Kingsford, MA, LPC, NCC, our founder and the developer of our entire cognitive-behavioral camp program, is a nationally-acclaimed licensed, degreed psychotherapist specializing in health and weight.

Nikki Downey, our camp director, is a nationally-certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) with an MS in therapeutic recreation and undergraduate degrees in health education and exercise physiology. As she puts it, “Recreation therapists are like the jack of all trades when it comes to therapy. We study everything the physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers and professional counselors, and we work alongside them.” That’s the kind of skillset that helps us individualize each camper’s experience at Empowered Wellness to their specific needs.

And our behavior coaches are experienced professionals with advanced degrees in psychology and other relevant health fields.

What that means for your son or daughter is that they’re surrounded all day, every day, by people with specialized training and education in the science of weight management and the science of lasting behavioral change. They’re surrounded by experts who tailor all that knowledge to each camper, individually.

Hiring students and other seasonal employees from fields unrelated to adolescent psychology, behavior change, and weight management to supervise large groups of kids during camp activities is perfectly reasonable for a regular summer camp, and it’s definitely cheaper.

But it doesn’t help campers reach their happiest, healthiest weight.

It doesn’t help them build new skills and coping behaviors related to food, weight, stress and anxiety. Nor does it help them learn how to use “challenge by choice” principles to regain control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to food and weight.

And most important, it doesn’t help them develop new cognitive-behavioral life skills that help them move beyond a reliance on food as a coping and self-soothing strategy.

Our campers are ready for change that lasts. They’ve tried other approaches that didn’t help. They’ve seen that shortcuts never lead to the right destination.

Here, they find the deep professional expertise in weight management and behavior change that lets us say with confidence: this time will be different.