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Weight Loss and More, A World Away

Some day, ideally, we will convert the world we live in to a place where eating well and being active are the norm for us all.
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Some day, ideally, we will convert the world we live in to a place where eating well and being active are the norm for us all. A world where health and vitality lie along paths of lesser resistance, rather than roads less traveled. Where weight control just tends to happen, children don't get adult-onset diabetes and adolescents virtually never need to consider bariatric surgery.

We will, perhaps, revise our world so that better understanding of overweight prevails, there is a lesser tendency to blame the victims of a global pandemic and a recognition that obesity affecting more than 65 percent of adults is not about a sudden, global loss of willpower. Some day, we will talk about personal responsibility while acknowledging that to express it, people need to be empowered. Some day we will recognize that skill power matters as much as will power; that bathroom scales don't measure human worth; and that the person may indeed be "OK at any size," but that the size of the person may not be OK if it means increased risk for chronic disease.

And some day, we might all find ourselves in a world where we know that what sounds too good to be true is exactly that; where slow and steady wins the race; and where the prize is not losing weight as fast as possible, but finding health that lasts.

Some day, soon, ideally -- but not this day.

This day, like the days and years before it, and the days and years of the foreseeable future, are lived in a profoundly obesigenic world. A world where only 1.5 percent of Americans meet daily recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake; only 12 percent of high school students get the recommended daily dose of physical activity; and where a brisk rise in the rate of stroke among five- to 14-year-olds has been observed.

This is a world where bias against obesity, and every basis for its propagation -- from the tasty calories one cannot avoid, to the physical activity one cannot fit in -- predominate together. A world in which a profound stigma still attaches to obesity, even as it becomes ever more the norm and less the exception. A world in which ever younger people in ever greater numbers turn to scalpels to fix what better use of feet and forks could prevent, and in which the costs attached to obesity and consequent chronic disease are a threat to personal advancement, corporate success and national viability alike.

In the face of these and other rather grim aspects of our current reality, many of us are working to alter such conditions. Many of us are hoping that forewarned about dire trends means forearmed to prevent them. And many of us are doing all we can to introduce empowering programming where the rubber hits the road, and change the nature of the journey.

But even at their best, these efforts are slow and incremental -- like stacking sandbags in a levee to contain a flood. This will work, but not fast enough for those already in water up to their necks. Some of us -- and most compellingly, some of our kids -- are in mortal peril right now. Some of our kids, quite simply, cannot afford to wait on the world to change.

These kids, right now, need to change the world they're on.

So thank goodness for Ray Travaglione and his colleagues, who have provided the alternative reality. That other-worldly alternative, which I am just back from visiting, is called Mindstream Academy. Superficially, it is a boarding school on 43 gorgeous acres that used to be an Arabian horse farm in rural South Carolina not far from the famed Hilton Head Island. But actually, Mindstream is an entire world away.

The Academy is a full-service boarding school for high school students, capable of providing a fully credentialed semester of course work to any student, at any level. But uniquely, the school is designed for kids whose health, and future, and very lives are on the line -- due to obesity, and its attendant physical and psychological burdens.

Along with a semester of course work (which the students I met told me was more rigorous than the one it was replacing), students at Mindstream are taught nutrition, cooking and fitness. Their instruction ranges from biofeedback to gardening, psychological counseling to the care of horses and from lengthy bike rides to the preparation of wholesome, gourmet meals.

The early results I encountered firsthand look to be just as unique and extraordinary as the program. One student I spoke to lost roughly 90 pounds over the course of the semester, and went from literally suicidal, to confident and full of hope. I believe a semester at Mindstream may have saved this young person's life.

Another student lost more than 60 pounds, and went from physical infirmity to showing off a variety of calisthenics with obvious pleasure and enthusiasm.

Among the Mindstream staff is Patrick House, the 2010 winner of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." Patrick -- a delightful guy -- impressed me with his commitment not to rapid, reality-TV-style weight loss, but to the promise and power of turning a life around. While Patrick emphasizes sustainable lifestyle change to the kids and advises against the ardors designed for The Biggest Loser's made-for-TV results, the kids at Mindstream nonetheless are not all that far off the show's weight loss pace. Yet every student I spoke to felt confident in their ability to sustain the change, to take what they had learned and carry it with them and practice it at home.

The Mindstream staff is commensurate to the size of its lofty goals, including dietitian and chef; fitness instructors and psychologists; equestrians and educators. I'm guessing that Ray, as I, likes the expression "the best way to predict the future, is to create it." He had the crazy idea that the lives of kids in jeopardy could be turned around in a semester, and then created what was necessary to make that really happen.

Ray's back story makes for pretty fascinating icing on the Mindstream cake. He was, at first, a successful business man who wasn't satisfied making money without making the world a better place. A devoted golfer, he noted the incompatibility between the training requirements of elite student athletes, and their academic schedules. So Ray did what anyone (well, maybe not anyone ...) would do: He created a high school. The Heritage Academy, the International Junior Golf Academy, and the International Junior Golf Tournament are all successes to Ray's credit.

But it is that much more to his credit that he left these ventures to others, to invest his obvious talents, his passion and his money into Mindstream Academy, and the chance to help kids who most need it.

I have no intention of altering my efforts to convert the world we all live in to a place that fosters health. I know many colleagues who feel the same.

But the harsh reality is that some kids simply can't wait on this world to change. For them and their families, Mindstream offers a world away where they can spend a semester, and change right now- lose weight, find themselves -- and in some cases, it seems, save their lives.