For Teens, Weight Loss Sculpts New Lives

Second of two stories, which are part of an ongoing series on obesity in America. The first part begins in August as students start their weight-loss journey at Wellspring Academy, a boarding school in Brevard, N.C. The second checks in with students in late October. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates expected change to occur — but what she saw was way more than she ever imagined would take place in two short months.

Students who had trailed behind their parents to check in at Wellspring back in August — some with glum resignation, some with a little trepidation — now own the campus. They rip across the lawns, shout up their dorm staircases and thunder down to the lake shore to take part in team sports.

Kids who had watched from the sidelines while others exercised have themselves turned into exercisers. Justin Moore, 15, from Tampa Bay, Fla., says he feels not only thinner but also healthier.

He remembers that when he first got to Wellspring, “I had shortness of breath running for short distances, and activity was really difficult.” But daily exercise eventually sculpted his body and strengthened his endurance. After six weeks at a Wellspring fitness camp and two months at school, Justin is closing in on a 100-pound loss. “Now I’m one of the most athletic people here,” he says with quiet pride, “and I always try my hardest and things just seem to come a lot easier.”

Sydney Applebaum, 16, says it took a moment to get used to her new profile. “Everyday, I get a little more confident,” she says. “Things like having pants that are too big on me, I’ll feel a lot more confident all of a sudden. Being able to run longer distances. I’m running a 5K coming up soon that I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do before.”

Wellspring trainer Nicole Kaysing says watching students like Sydney and Justin bloom is the best part of her job. “Over time, when they realize they can do things they didn’t think they can do,” she says, “they’re willing to give harder things a try.” So slow walkers become speed walkers — or runners — and kids who hated team sports become an integral part of their team.

Peaks — And Plateaus

Bethany Grace Gomez, 16, came to Wellspring for a few months last spring and continued during the summer camp. She returned for a full semester, hoping she would continue the dramatic weight loss she had achieved so far. She lost about 85 pounds in eight months. But she ran into the same wall that many dieters hit after a while: She admits that reaching a plateau she couldn’t seem to move on from put a big dent in her ego.

“It was a challenge to accept at first,” she sighs. “But it gets easier to accept that not every week is gonna be 10 pounds, 10 pounds, 10 pounds [lost]. Some weeks it’s going to be half a pound, and some weeks when I’m just going to maintain. So I have to be happy with what I get, I guess.”

Visibly slimmer, with defined cheekbones, Bethany seems a lot taller than she was when we first met. “Everyone keeps telling me, ‘You look like you just skyrocketed like 10 inches!’ ” she says with a chuckle. “But I’m the same height.”

Transformations like this are the norm at Wellspring, but the school’s goal is to make sure its students return to their families equipped to carry the success they’ve achieved here into the future. That’s part of what families get for the $62,500 annual tuition here. (See Part 1 for how many have met that financial challenge.)

For six months after they leave, students stay in touch with their counselors and trainers via computer and phone, and they check in with decreasing frequency as time goes on to make sure they remain on track, even as they settle back into their home routines. They pick up diet and nutrition tips, receive encouragement and get checked to make sure they’re still keeping to the Wellspring formula: 10,000 steps a day minimum, 20 grams of fat maximum and journaling everything they eat.

The Wellspring Way

There’s no magic involved here. The secret to Wellspring is that it works, but only if you work at it.

Is it a pain? Sure. To get an idea of what the Wellspring kids were going through, I tried to live as they do for about a week. I could get in the 10,000 steps if I structured my day to include a trip to the walking track or the gym at some point. And I was pretty good about the fat grams. The hardest part for me was the journaling.

Here’s a breakfast entry: 1 cup nonfat plain yogurt, 1/2 cup fresh blueberries, 1 teaspoon Splenda, 1 cup decaf, 1/8 cup nonfat milk, 2 teaspoons Splenda. It’s frustrating. If I ate a piece of chocolate from the bowl on my bookcase, I had to write it down. That cracker with the soup? Yep, into the journal. I did lose a couple of pounds, but work distraction and a general laziness about meal planning made me drop out sooner rather than later — and gave me a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into getting the pounds off.

The super-low-fat diet and the journaling make for substantial work, admits Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Medical School. Kirschenbaum designed the Wellspring eating plan. He believes staying a healthy weight is a lifelong job — one that too many of us put off because we’re choosing to ignore the physical, emotional and economic costs of being overweight.

“You know if your foot is broken, and you didn’t feel like wearing some kind of boot on it, the doctor would say, ‘Well, inconvenient or not, this is what’s going to help you,’ ” he says. “You’d wear the boot so your foot heals properly.” It’s the same with weight loss: You stick to the diet, the journaling, the exercise plan, so you lose weight safely and, you hope, develop habits that will maintain the loss.

Which means the challenge doesn’t stop for these kids once they leave Wellspring.

Of course, it’s one thing to lose weight; it’s another to keep it off.

The Right Mindset

Alfonse Missry, 17, has returned to Wellspring for a refresher semester. He was here two years ago and did well, but he says he needed more structure to stay on track. “I was starting not to like the way I looked. I knew I could do better,” the redheaded New Yorker says. “So I asked my parents if I could come back, and they said yes.”

Alfonse has applied himself to the regimen with alacrity. The adults here cite him as one of the school’s shining examples of someone with a great attitude toward the work it takes to lose weight. He grins when I ask him if there’s anything he’d like to change about being here. I was surprised to see he didn’t immediately bash that daily 7 a.m. walk, something most students view as a maybe necessary evil.

“The walk really helps you,” he says. “It puts a jump-start in your metabolism and really gets your day started.” On the other hand, he confesses, “Making that walk a little later in the day wouldn’t be too bad. And also the hill.”

Ah, yes. Five miles in the chilly dawn and part of it steeply vertical? What’s not to hate?

Still, Alfonse and his Wellspring classmates are committed to making sure the effort they’ve put into getting to a healthy weight will be long term, despite the temptations of the normal teen diet.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he cautions. “There will be mix-ups and lapses and relapses, but you just have to have the right mindset to make sure that that doesn’t happen, and that you continue on your path to healthy living and weight loss — because it is the rest of your life we’re speaking about.”

Then he excused himself to get ready for some exercise down by the lake.

If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.