Date: March 1, 2010
Your memories of summertime likely involve playing outside with friends or riding bikes to the pool. But with concerns about safety and the proliferation of electronic media, and with many parents working outside the home, more and more children are spending their summers inside. That shift can mean extra hours in front of the television or computer along with frequent raids on the pantry — and an unhealthy increase in weight.
This means even children who are at a healthy weight could be at risk of adding pounds as an indirect result of one of the most cherished elements of childhood: summer vacation.
With more than one-third of North Carolina's children ages 10-17 overweight or obese, according to a recent report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2009," and given what is known about the long-term risks of being overweight — diabetes, heart disease, stroke, plus a host of other chronic conditions — the childhood obesity epidemic is one of America's top current health challenges.
The good news is that parents can challenge this trend — and inject extra fun into summertime — by taking advantage of another of childhood's treasures: summer camp.
Picking up the pace
"Researchers have found that children may be more susceptible to obesity during the summer months," explains Karla Henderson, professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at N.C. State University and a frequent contributor to research on the benefits of summer camp. "The summer break from school may result in less structured days for children, leading to less physical activity and a less healthy diet."
Structured programs such as day camps and residential camps can combat that tendency by engaging children and teens in activities that encourage exercise in a fun way. The emphasis on recreation can also reduce stress and enhance their sense of well-being.
"Sometimes [kids] forget how fun it is to be outside interacting with others and playing," says Dave Bell, former executive director of Camp Kanata in Wake Forest and current camping director for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. "Camp encourages this and reminds them that play can happen anytime."
Julie Toone of Winston-Salem sends Noah, 10, and Ben, 7, to Camp Eagle's Nest in Pisgah Forest knowing they will enjoy their time outdoors.
"Each day they can choose from a variety of activities, from art to music to sports," she says. "These activities are presented in a fun, age-appropriate and noncompetitive way that demonstrates that physical activities should be a part of our everyday life and are fun to do."
Indeed, camps that offer children many options for physical activity — including skill development, games, and outdoor adventures such as hiking and canoeing — provide them with a range of new interests to take home, making them more likely to stay active.
Putting down the junk food
The other culprit in summertime weight gain is, of course, food — specifically, the highly processed, higher-fat foods kids are tempted to reach for when they're free to make their own choices.
As a licensed dietician and nutritionist, Mary Brown sees firsthand how extra weight can creep on during summer breaks. "Parents will have the best intentions to have healthy foods available to their kids during the summer, but [when] ease of preparation is important, convenience foods find their way into the kitchen," she notes. "When the child has free range in the refrigerator and pantry, it can be easy to gain weight without realizing it."
If your child heads for junk food during the summer, camp may be one way to get eating habits back on track. Many camps emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains in their meals, and campers are encouraged to try new foods that will provide them with the fuel they need to keep up with the increased activity.
Camp Eagle's Nest features a garden-to-table program that involves campers in meal preparation. "[They are] helping harvest basil from the garden that becomes the pesto for our pasta or making the dough for the pizza that we serve for lunch," says director Paige Lester-Niles. As a result, "campers understand where food comes from. They also taste the difference of our food versus fast food and are able to feel how much better they feel after eating whole foods," she adds.
The rigorous pace of the day also helps discourage snacking due to boredom or restlessness. "Campers spend the majority of their day engaged in classes that are physically active," Lester-Niles notes. "[And] camps have structured mealtimes every day."
Brown applauds this approach. "Routine is really important for meals. It keeps us from thinking too much of food as a reward," she says.
Weighing a weight-loss focus
Clearly, traditional summer camps provide two important elements — fun, age-appropriate activity and healthy foods in a structured schedule — to help kids achieve or maintain a healthy lifestyle. But for some children and teens already struggling with weight concerns, the additional support provided by a camp with an explicit weight-loss component could be the key to attaining that goal.
Camp Shining Stars, a nonprofit camp based at Barton College in Wilson, N.C., provides campers with healthy meals and a structured day offering a variety of activities, like traditional camps do, but it adds nutritional education, enhanced social and emotional support, and a system of rewards to help kids meet their weight-loss goals.
"The five [pillars] of our program are structure, support, accountability, freedom to be honest, and a reward system," explains Ira Green of Durham, the camp's director. The close relationships campers develop with one another and with staff members provide continued support as they strive to maintain their progress at home.
Former camper Nicolle Murray of Knightdale, who attended Camp Shining Stars to slim down and combat a family history of diabetes, says, "I made some of the best friendships of my life there." The 17-year-old also stays in touch with Green. "Ira calls it our strong support system, because the other campers know what you've been through and how hard you've worked to lose weight," she says.
Brown, the dietician, notes that the emphasis on mutual support and noncompetitive activities could be especially beneficial to overweight children or teens who lack the self-confidence to want to participate in a traditional camp. "Weight-loss camps will likely tailor their activities to put these kids at ease and help them feel comfortable in any new activities they try," she says.
Henderson at N.C. State says there is some proof that weight-loss camps can work, and with new guidelines urging physicians to screen and treat children and teens for obesity, such programs can help children lead healthier lives. "Studies have shown some evidence that these camps, with a certain threshold of intentional social relationships, environments and programs, can increase levels of physical activity participation and reduce prevalence of obesity," she concludes.
Making it stick
Whether your interest is weight loss or just an emphasis on healthy behaviors, a fun-filled session at a quality camp can send your children home with wonderful memories, new friends, and a commitment to keeping that spirit alive through engaging in the activities they enjoyed there. Support them in their newfound skills and interests, experts agree, by making time for healthy activity year-round.
Nicolle's mother, Pam, says they have joined a gym so that her daughter, a high school athlete, can stay active when she's out of school. And the change has been more than physical. "Her self-esteem, how she feels about herself, her whole attitude is better," she says.
"I learned to be comfortable in my body, no matter how it looks or what the scales say," Nicolle adds. "It's about feeling good and being healthy."
Karen Taylor is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Apex with her husband and two daughters.
Is your child's camp health-friendly?
* Ask to see a typical daily schedule. Be sure your child's day will include time for a variety of activities that encourage physical fitness. Ask what kinds of activities are planned in the event of inclement weather.
* Ask about food. Determine what kinds of food they typically serve campers to ensure that your child will eat fresh, healthy meals and snacks. Discuss any food restrictions or allergies your child may have. And if you're responsible for sending in snacks, be sure what you pack reflects your goals for your child's overall eating habits.
* Ask whether the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA). ACA accreditation ensures that the camp meets the highest standards for health and safety, nutrition and programming.
Worried about weight?
New guidelines issued in January by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which makes medical-care recommendations based on the latest research, urge pediatricians to screen children 6 and older for obesity and to refer obese children to a comprehensive weight-management program. If you're concerned about your child's weight:
* Talk to your pediatrician. Consider your child's BMI (body mass index),growth trends, and any relevant family medical history and determine how you can best help him or her reach a healthier weight. Summer camp may be part of the solution. "Summer is actually a great time for a child to lose weight if needed," says Dave Bell, a YMCA director of camping. "It's an easier time to get in extra activity."
* Talk to your child about his or her interests and goals. "There are camps for everything around, every level of interest," notes weight-loss camp director Ira Green, "and sending a child to a camp that encourages his or her interests will be most worthwhile." Many camps that appeal to specific areas of interest — technology, science and nature, or the arts, for example — will also involve structured physical activities that could help your child reach a healthier weight without focusing specifically on weight loss.
* Talk to staff and former campers about what to expect from a weight-loss program and make sure your child also is on board. A commitment to weight-loss camp generally involves a prolonged stay (three to six weeks) and can come with a hefty price tag even at a nonprofit camp, so it's critical that this is something your child is willing to try and is emotionally prepared for. "Parents need to think about the type of experience that will be best for their children," suggests Karla Henderson, N.C. State University professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management who contributes to research about summer camp.
— Karen Taylor