OF THE SIERRAS
"…a vital investment
in their child’s
words By Jackie
by Andrew Shinn
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
what are known as “controlled foods,”
like the entrees and desserts (about 1,200 calories
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.