School helps overweight teens thrive

January 9, 2011 4:18:56 PM PST
Obesity among teenagers has been called an epidemic in this country. And there are certainly factors like fast food contributing to the problem.

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But in a quiet corner of the Central Valley, a group of grossly overweight teens are changing their bodies and their lives.

Watching Dillon Starr amble along, it's hard to believe that a few months ago, the San Diego teenager struggled just to finish a walk.

"I was morbidly obese, 330 lbs, I was a big kid. I wasn't satisfied with the way I was running out of breath going up the stairs," said Starr.

Now down below 200, he says he's a golden example of what dozens of classmates are accomplishing, at a unique kind of boarding school where learning to lose weight, is the core curriculum.

"I was 220 lbs when I got here and I lost 43 pounds, and I ran six miles this morning," said Wellspring student Kay Young.

Founded in a farming community east of Fresno in 2004, the Wellspring Academy helps obese teenagers shed pounds with a no-nonsense program of exercise, diet and more exercise -- three hours a day, every day.

Fitness director Jeremy Berumen says the program is a steady burn that starts slowly.

"We might start with low key sports and low key strength training. Again these are students who don't go to the gym, they abuse their bodies when they are at home," said Berumen.

Every morning starts with a three miles walk or run, and students keep walking throughout the day to achieve a goal of 10,000 steps.

"We encourage them to get a good workout, but also to do exercises that they can retain," said Berumen.

And if the exercise is straight forward, so is the diet philosophy -- with a focus on cutting the fat.

"Our actual goal for fat grams is zero and we do allow up to 20 per day," said Wellness Executive Director David Melear.

Students learn to track calories as well as fat grams. Besides the main meal, they're allowed unmonitored snacks like fruit and yogurt.

Academy counselors work on issues like building self esteem, while many of the students we talked to pointed out the support they get from each other.

"By having them come in and band together for common goal of becoming more healthy, then it creates a community that's really the first time for a lot of these kids where they've found a place to fit in," said Melear.

The academy says multi-year studies show their graduates have a better success rate at keeping weight off than at-home diets.

Starr plans to return to his old school in the fall, taking what he's learned with him.

"It isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle. You don't just stick with it, lose a bunch of weight and go back, you have to stick with it forever," said Starr.

While the program has produced documented results, it doesn't come cheap. Tuition runs more than $6,000 a month and students are required two stay a minimum of four months.

Some scholarships are available based on need.

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