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Local Feature

"…a vital investment in their child’s
healthy future”

words By Jackie Dale
mages by Andrew Shinn

MENS ET SALVERE-The literal Latin translation is “Mind and Health”. The motto of the Academy of the Sierras is “The development of the mind in lockstep with overall health”. The Academy of the Sierras operates the most effective weight loss program in the world. Students enrolled for at least 2 semesters reduced their overweight percentage by an average of 58%.
However, weight loss is the secondary goal of AOS. The main goal is to teach the skills necessary to sustain long-term weight control. The success rate for teens maintaining a sustained average weight loss of 100 lbs upon returning home is 87%! Those are extremely impressive statistics!
Opened in 2004, the Academy of the Sierras is the only therapeutic boarding school program for overweight adolescents. Located just outside of Reedley, AOS sits on 68 acres. The academy is nestled among the trees and flanked by the Kings River in the back and peach orchards in the front. AOS is a fully accredited high school and students are required to carry a full course load.
Upon arriving at AOS, we were met by Phil Obbard, the Executive Director since 2005. Phil was eager to talk about the schools philosophy. Along with losing weight, students are taught healthy habits such as making wise food choices, learning about nutrition, gaining culinary skills and practicing portion control. He stated that popular diet programs may initially produce weight loss but are simply not sustainable over the long term. He went on to say that the goal of the Academy is to work towards changing the student’s mindset with regard to food; changes that will last a lifetime. Long term weight control is the ultimate goal and a mantra that is oft repeated around campus.
We are “fighting biology,” adds Phil. “We have come from a past where there was a lot of physical activity and very little food The ability to build and retain fat was an asset that just might ensure your survival as opposed to your thinner counterpart. But now everything has flipped. We are now living in a society of little physical activity and we are surrounded by an overabundance of food. However, just because we are designed to gain weight, doesn’t mean that we should”

Prospective students must be between the ages of 11-18, be at least 30 pounds overweight and must have struggled with weight for at least 2 years. Although AOS is a year-round boarding school, 2 summer sessions are also offered. In addition, 2 _ day family workshops are held several times a year to ensure the utmost in family support.
Although it has been described as “more brutal than boot camp,” I did not get that feeling as we toured the facilities. While hardly a boot camp, the school is no vacation resort either. There are no cell phones,
Gameboys or personal DVD players allowed. Portable personal music players are allowed, but the use is strictly limited. The only television is in the exercise machine room and you have to be using one of the machines in order to watch it. Laptop computers are allowed but only for academic purposes.

Upon arrival each student is assigned a therapist/behavioral coach who provides guidance as to what measurable steps can be taken to achieve his/her goals. Cognitive behavioral therapy enables the student to examine “why” they’ve made bad choices and how can they avoid making those same bad choices in the future. “Self-monitoring” has been found to be a successful approach. Each student is given a journal and a copy of “The Doctor’s Pocket Calorie, Fat and Carbohydrate Counter”. All food and drinks consumed are supposed to be recorded in the journal along with number of calories and grams of fats, carbohydrates and protein.

Meals are low in fat and calories and high in protein and fiber. Students are only allowed certain amounts of
what are known as “controlled foods,” like the entrees and desserts (about 1,200 calories daily). Students
comments about the quality of the meals were all very positive. “Uncontrolled foods” are allowed in unlimited amounts provided the student writes everything down. Choices are then discussed during behavioral counseling sessions. Uncontrolled foods include fruits, vegetables and fat-free soups, yogurt and cottage cheese. Students and staff alike all wear pedometers, aiming for a minimum of 10,000 steps (equal to 5 miles) a day.

Under the shade of the trees, a group of students were having an informal art class. I spoke to a pretty, amiable 14-year old with a ready smile named Lily. When asked when she had arrived, she replied, “September 4th” without hesitation. A long way from her home in Midland, Michigan, Lily first attended a family camp before coming to AOS in California. When I asked her how she felt about being here, Lily said, “It has its ups and downs, but I would never say it wasn’t worth it. I really miss my home and family though. Plus a lot of the friends I have made are leaving to go home and that makes me sad.” An anonymous voice from the back yelled out; “we all have fun at AOS”! As we continued on with our tour of the facilities, Phil told me that Lily is a very committed student who has lost 67 lbs since arriving.

Motivation to follow the program is encouraged by way of a privilege earning system consisting of 5 levels. Each level is progressively more challenging and takes longer to complete. Successful completion of each level means significantly more privileges. For example, new students remain at level one for a minimum 2 weeks. In order to move to the next level the student must average 10,000 steps a day, complete the food log for 20 out of 36 meals/snacks, develop a personal commitment statement, attend extra physical activity sessions and complete 75% of academic assignments. They must also adhere to personal and community responsibilities and much more. Each level has about 10 requirements that must be accomplished and different colored bracelets signify the level the student has achieved. Among others, some privileges include more and more phone time, off-campus movies or activities and shopping trips.
Additionally, there is a 5 level system that works in the other direction. Failure to self-monitor, missing therapy sessions and not completing homework are among the reasons that will result in privileges being rescinded. Restoration of privileges depends on how hard the student works to correct the problem.
Tuition to AOS is not cheap at $5,900 a month with a minimum stay of 4 months. The average stay is 8 months. Many families take out loans similar to those you might take to pay for college. Medical insurance will often pay a portion of the cost and since 2002 physician prescribed weight loss programs can be claimed as a medical deduction. Phil says that many families view this expense as a vital investment in their child’s healthy future and AOS works closely with health insurers and student lenders to make to affordability feasible.
As we were readying to leave, it was time for the students to choose a before lunch physical activity. They could choose between the air-conditioned exercise room with television, the pool or a 2 mile walk. I admit I was surprised to see that many chose the walk despite the rapidly rising temperature. Then I remembered…the pedometers and those 10,000 steps!
For more information about the Academy of the Sierras or to schedule a tour call 638-4570 or 866-364-0808. You can also contact them via email at admissions@academyofthesierras or visit www.academyofthesierras.com.



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