The History of Fat Camps & Fat Farms

Modern weight loss camps and wellness retreats are a distillation, of sorts.

When did fat camps start?

It's hard to say exactly when the first "fat camp" opened its doors. Weight loss retreats are an evolutionary product, born of health spas. The concept as we know it today, seems to have distilled in its rough form somewhere during the 1940s.

Health Spas - The Early Beginnings

Before it was commonly called a weight loss camp or fat camp, destinations to lose weight in a remote residential setting were known popularly as "fat farms". And before fat farms became a thing, there were health spas.

Health spas have been around in one form or another for millenia. The word spa originally referred to mineral springs, and structures were eventually built around these springs when they were discovered. [1] Bathing in such a spring was seen as a curative health remedy. One of the first written accounts of bathing for health purposes comes from Hippocrates, who lived between 460 and 370 B.C. [2]

It is around the same in history, that we also see evidence of dieting and exercise being done for the purpose of looking good or being healthy. The Romans took both of these concepts to the next level, with heated communal baths and a trend for citizens to perform various fitness exercises in the ancient-world-equivalent of gyms. [3]

Modern Weight Loss and Modern Medicine

The 1800's were a "wild west" in the health field. Fashion trends of the time meant that obesity was widely scorned in the public eye, and a whirlwind industry developed around trying to cure it. Countless self professed experts whipped up elaborate - and sometimes incredibly dangerous - remedies for weight loss, and set out make a profit on them. This practice has, unfortunately, continued into the modern day.

To be fair, bloodletting, blistering and the consumption of various poisons were still mainstream in the medical field during most of the 1800's. [4] [5] With the widespread acceptance of germ theory [6] in the 1880's, the dawn of modern medicine [7] was beginning to rise.

Health spas during this time, were still considered curative remedies for a number of ailments - and their popularity was booming. The first popularly recognized health spa in the United States was launched in Saratoga Springs, New York, [8] and by 1815 had nearly 500 rooms for clients on site. As medicine took a turn towards modern science however, health spas shifted away from the medical field and took more of a focus towards leisure, wellness and beauty.

Weight loss remained a serious industry through the early 1900's, so it was only natural for health spas to begin catering to the overweight and obese, seeking a weight loss retreat.

Rise of the Fat Farm

Weight loss programs in general, come and go at an alarming rate - and are often lost to history. Some of the first true weight loss retreats whose stories have lasted until the modern day appeared around 1940. The most prominent of these was Maine Chance, a health and wellness resort in Phoenix, Arizona. [9] The cost to attend was nearly $1,000 per week - in the 1940's - so it was an option strictly for the rich and elite.

Fast forward to the 1960's, and the concept has begun to take hold in earnest across the United States, with weight loss camps popping up across the country at a rate of 2 or 3 per year. [10] Referred to commonly as Fat Farms, these weight loss programs were usually an expansion on the services already offered by a spa or resort. Some of the more prominent players in the industry included The Greenhouse in Texas, La Costa near San Diego, and The Golden Door in California.

Another such retreat was Palm Aire, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. At a price of $71-115 per day, Palm Aire gained some notoriety among the upper class, and famously saw such high profile clients as Liz Taylor [11] along with a constant stream of executives (or mor often, their wives). Fat farms continued in popularity, and several of the health spas mentioned above remain open to this day, with other clients of interest during the 70's including Carrie Fisher, in preparation for her iconic role in Star Wars. [12]

The only remaining obstacles between the fat farms of the 1960's-70's and weight loss camps of the modern day, were the ultra luxury component and the aggressive focus on calories. With obesity continuing to rise, residential weight loss needed to be available to the common man - not just celebrities, politicians and corporate CEOs. And it needed to provide sustainable results, not just a high water mark on the scale.

A Paradigm Shift - The Modern Weight Loss Camp

The 1980's would bring us many things. Legendary movies, [13] awesome jackets, the end of disco, and Michael Jackson's Thriller. [14] They also brought us the modern weight loss camp.

Weight loss retreats such as Genesis in Park City, Utah [15] and Equinox Health Spa in Vermont [16] began pushing the fundamental concepts that modern weight loss camps have come to hold as holy canon: Streamlined, efficient, affordable programs designed not only to promote weight loss, but to also engender lasting lifestyle changes.

That means healthy, satisfying meals - not starvation. It means building healthy habits in a structured environment. And it means exercising for the purpose of improving health - not purely shedding pounds on the scale.

Perhaps one of the biggest industry changers in recent memory was the TV reality show, The Biggest Loser. [17] While the weight loss model depicted on the show is far from the realities [18] of actual fitness retreats and weight loss camps, The Biggest Loser certainly brought the concept of residential weight loss into the public consciousness like never before.

Weight loss pills have supplanted the miracle elixers and snake oils of the olden days, [19] and fad diets and bizarre exercise routines continue to crop up like weeds every year. The weight loss retreat however, has finally hit its stride.

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