Thin School

A boarding program in California for overweight kids helps a Baltimore teenager drop about 180 pounds

July 10, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

Zachary Aaronson scoured the nearly dozen photo albums in the home library, searching for the one pre-weight-loss picture that underscored what it's like to go from about 360 pounds more than a year ago to his current weight of 179.

The 6-foot, 3-inch 18-year-old from Baltimore held up snapshots of himself as a youngster, wearing shirts that couldn't be buttoned over his protruding stomach and waistline. He wore colorful T-shirts underneath so the undersized garment wouldn't stand out.

"It gets much worse," he says. "I have to show you."

Then he pulls out more photos, including one from his junior prom of him in a size 60 jacket and size 52 dress slacks. In most of the images, Aaronson's wearing a smile that he says masked his shame.

But that was before his 11-month stint at the Wellspring Academy of California, a boarding school in the Sierra Nevada. Some families are turning to the academy, often as a last resort, as 15.3 percent of the nation's children (ages 6 to 11) and 15.5 percent of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) are obese, according to the Silver Spring-based nonprofit Obesity Society. As a result, hypertension and other obesity-related chronic diseases that are prevalent among adults are now increasingly common in youngsters. Just this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for more aggressive screening and treatment of children to combat high cholesterol.

With no federally approved weight-loss drug for kids, and surgery considered an option only to improve severe medical conditions brought on by obesity, the most popular treatments are the traditional diet and exercise.

Dr. Maureen Black, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says that what makes some weight-loss options better than others is how their approaches to diet and exercise incorporate a healthy lifestyle.

"Whatever you do to lose weight, be it surgical or nonsurgical, if you don't have a lifestyle change, you will not sustain it," Black said.

The Wellspring school opened four years ago in Reedley, Calif., on 68 acres 30 miles southeast of Fresno. The campus is for students ages 13 to 24 who weigh at least 20 percent above the normal weight for someone their age. A second Wellspring school has since opened in Brevard, N.C. Wellspring says its two boarding-school camps are the first of their kind in the United States. The weight-loss organization also has nine summer camps in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia.

The California school enrolls 100 students at $6,250 per month, which includes room, board and meals. The minimum stay is four months; most students stay an average of six months. The average weight loss per student is 3.5 pounds a week.

The environment is not for everyone. There are restrictions on cell phone use and contact with the opposite sex. All students are fitted with a pedometer and must clock at least 10,000 steps each day. Punishment for violating the rules includes a stint of temporary isolation called "solo." These students are kept away from other campers, and staff must evaluate their behavior. Solo can last up to 72 hours.

But the strictures appealed to Aaronson, who began struggling with poor eating habits during elementary school. By his mid-teens, he would eat enough Chinese food for a family of four in one sitting. When his mother, Paula, replaced all the white starches, refined sugars and junk food in the home with diet foods and snacks, Aaronson would binge on that.

He then took to hiding food he shouldn't eat in places he knew she'd never look, consuming it all within two days of stashing it. All the while, he ballooned in size, alarming his parents. His father, Dr. Scott Aaronson, is director of clinical research programs and associate medical director at The Retreat at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

"My husband said, 'I'm afraid he's not going to live to be 30,' " said Paula Aaronson, who works in Johns Hopkins' Office of Annual Giving. "I felt that his future health was very jeopardized, and with all the things you hear about heart disease and diabetes, I was heartsick."

Zachary Aaronson enrolled in the weight-loss academy a year ago, after his mother saw Wellspring featured on a network news program and after failed attempts to lose pounds using nutritionists, weight-loss programs at hospitals and health clubs, diet drinks and personal trainers. Wellspring Academy introduced him to the joy of exercise. He began a daily regimen of three-mile walks each day, gradually interspersing jogging and running intervals until he was running the route in less than an hour.

"A lot of times, we had to provoke or incite him to take another step with his physical activity," said Bob Rice, Aaronson's behavior coach at Wellspring. "When the ball got rolling, he was encouraged with the success he discovered. So many kids walk out of here with not just weight control, but they say, 'Now I have control over my whole life,' and they exert that control."

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