In China’s Weight Loss Camps, a Dangerous Obsession With Numbers
With summer just around the corner, an all-too-familiar sight is sweeping through China: ads for weight loss camps that promise dramatic transformations within weeks.
They juxtapose images of slim, seemingly perfect models alongside overweight individuals, insinuating that only the attractive can find love and acceptance. Most camps urge young women to eat less and exercise more before wearing lighter clothing that reveals more of one’s body.
But this year, the tragic death of a 22-year-old influencer, known as Cuihua on the short video app Douyin, at a weight loss camp in the northwestern Shaanxi province has cast a somber light on the practice. Aiming to lose 100 kilograms, Cuihua was documenting her weight loss journey to fans on social media when she collapsed during a workout.
Though such crash programs have gained popularity in recent years, experts are raising serious concerns regarding the safety, effectiveness, and long-term impact of these camps.
The extreme exercise regimes, potential lack of nutrition, and focus on appearance can pose risks to the physical and mental well-being of the trainees. Moreover, experts say the lack of individualization and failure to address sustainable lifestyle habits beyond weight loss contribute to the overall skepticism surrounding these camps.
The slogan “summer showdown” — a popular social media trend, in which women are encouraged to post photos of their beach bodies — is facing a growing backlash on social media too, as critics argue that it fuels unnecessary anxiety.
On the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu, a related hashtag has garnered over 4.6 million views, with numerous posts and videos advocating for a more sustainable approach to health. These discussions emphasize the importance of adopting exercise routines, healthier eating habits, and ultimately prioritizing self-fulfillment over “beauty duty.”
Selling the dream
“Summer is the peak time of the year, for sure,” Liu Guanfu, a manager of a camp at DFFIT, a leading chain with over 50 camps around the country, told Sixth Tone. He added that DFFIT is devoted to helping worried parents deal with obesity among adolescents.
When Sixth Tone called another weight loss camp in Shanghai posing as a potential customer, a senior trainer responded in a manner consistent with social media advertisements.
“Who in the world doesn’t want to look better and show off their bodies in dresses and win the summer fitness competition?” said the trainer.
And in direct messages, the wording was stark: “It’s already May, aren’t you planning to get moving? When do you intend to start?” Another read: “Summer is coming soon, and it’s the season to wear skirts. It’s time to control your weight. When do you plan to start your journey to become a goddess?”
At a DFFIT camp in Shanghai, which Sixth Tone visited, the sole focus on achieving desired outcomes was evident as progress was measured exclusively by the numbers on the scales.
Boards displaying the daily weight of each participant were prominently displayed throughout the camp, emphasizing the significance placed on weight as the primary measure of success.
“To encourage trainees to exercise harder, we compete based on how much weight each trainee loses in a day. The one who loses the most can have a cheat meal,” said a senior trainer in the camp. Such cheat meals are often hamburgers or fried chicken.
Also extending to the digital realm, all trainees are now required to download an internal app that records daily weight changes. According to a trainer who requested anonymity, on registering, a trainee can track their own progress as well as view how others fare and make comparisons.
Capable of hosting hundreds of customers, the DFFIT camp boasts a dormitory, an outdoor basketball court, and a comprehensive training building, further subdivided into multiple training rooms. In the aerobic equipment area, dozens of elliptical trainers and exercise bikes are lined cheek by jowl, leaving just a narrow path for people to walk through the room.
The trainer also said that each individual is required to complete a minimum of five to seven hours of aerobic training a day.
In the main hall, a series of roll-up banners showcase the transformation of each trainee, displaying their name, photographs, weight, and the duration of their weight loss journey. Often, they capture the attention of onlookers, particularly on seeing many individuals who started at over 100 kg and were visibly larger in size.
Before and after ads garner even more attention on social media, particularly Douyin. In 2022, a woman named Wang Zhaojun made headlines after successfully shedding over 150 kg over 18 months at a DFFIT camp in Yancheng, in the eastern Jiangsu province.
Amy Yao, 29, was among the many women who signed up after being tempted by such ads. In 2019, she registered at a camp in Shenzhen. Having recently returned to China after completing her studies in Australia, she sought a camp that emphasized outdoor activities such as hiking.
“I was a photographer, a job that requires a lot of stamina,” says Yao. “I weighed about 105 kg back in 2019 and my body struggled to keep up with the physical demands of my job.”
After two months diligently following the program, Yao lost about 14 kg. But her trainers weren’t very impressed.
She says weight loss camps often prioritize individuals who initially weigh much more, since their transformations yield more visually impressive results. The initial months, she adds, are typically easier for this group, as the camps can restrict their food intake, leading to significant weight loss.
When an overweight individual enrolls, the staff are ecstatic, says Yao, because “they are walking advertisements for the next intake.”
Hailing from Xi’an, Shaanxi, a city renowned for its noodles, Yao grew up in a family hooked on wheat-based dishes, much like everyone else where she came from. Together with the weight she gained after developing polycystic ovarian syndrome, Yao had always had a larger physique since her early years.
As a young girl, her family constantly derided her for being overweight. It often began with her figure and then escalated into discussions about what clothes would make her “look thinner” and the lifestyle choices she needed. At one point, her father even went as far as suggesting she undergo stomach reduction surgery.
“My dad wanted me to have surgery because he thought I was too fat. I don’t like hospitals, and I couldn’t see why I should compromise a perfectly healthy organ just to pursue my goal of becoming healthier,” she says.
At thousands of weight loss camps across the country, women like Yao were the primary target group. But in recent years, camp participants have become more diverse.
According to Yao, when she was there in 2019, some trainees went before their weddings. “They wanted to look better even though I thought they already looked fine,” she says.
Some were attempting to meet the physical requirements to enter the military, while others were preparing their bodies for pregnancy.
Chen Zujian, a trainer with six years of experience at two different weight loss camps, told Sixth Tone that over 90% of his customers are now women weighing between 50 and 75 kg.
“Women have higher standards. They always want to be more beautiful,” says Chen, adding that weight anxiety is common in such training camps. “Weight loss camps are now too focused on the outcome, which is the number that appears on the scales.”
Often, Chen’s trainees don’t lose any weight over several days despite how hard they’ve worked, leaving them frustrated.
At a DFFIT camp in Shanghai, a man in his 20s waited for his results in the medical room. He was sweating profusely, and had just ended a workout.
As he stepped onto the scales, his face immediately darkened. And as a trainer standing by his side asked, “How much do you weigh?” the man, who’d been training for around two weeks, ran out of the room without saying a word.
“Camps should try their best to make people who attend them happy,” says Chen. “This way, we can help them fall in love with sports from the bottom of their hearts.”
While Yao says she was satisfied with the weight she lost at the camp, she emphasized that their methods weren’t the best.
She recalls waking up one day unable to straighten her back, and was later diagnosed with a lumbar strain. However, the camp she attended adamantly denied any connection between her condition and an excessive and unreasonable amount of exercise.
“You can’t force larger-sized people to do the same exercise as slimmer ones,” says Yao. “Our knees are just unable to support some running and jumping activities. Weight loss camps should care more about everyone’s physical condition. After all, this is what they promote in the ads.”
Chen Chu, a Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN), has concerns about the exercise regimes in these camps, raising questions about whether the intensity and volume of workouts are excessive.
“People who go to weight loss camps are not usually in the habit of exercising. It’s easy for them to overexert themselves when asked to exercise every day for five hours,” says Chen, after reviewing a week’s sample exercise schedule.
“Exercising over five hours a day is really too much. It’s almost impossible for professional athletes to even handle that.”
While collecting information to make videos comparing different weight loss programs, Yao found that such is the focus on weight reduction at some camps that trainees expected to miss their targets are only given one 350ml tub of yogurt each night as dinner for a week.
But in their ads on social media, camps claim that the food for trainees is prepared by nutritionists and well-cooked. What isn’t mentioned, however, is that meal sizes are the same for all trainees despite their height and weight differences.
“It’s insane,” says Yao. “Especially given the fact that, for everyone, the meal size is nowhere near enough. And we have to exercise all day long.”
After reviewing a sample diet provided by a leading weight loss camp, Wang Jialu, a nutritionist at Renji Hospital Affiliated with Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine, told Sixth Tone that she is concerned about how everyone, regardless of their weight and height, receives the same amount of food.
Wang says the diets are “generally fine,” as they offer a wide variety of food such as meat and vegetables, coarse and fine grains, fruit, soy products, and mushrooms.
But across the week, she says, food suitable for fat loss including beef, fish, and shrimp is not sufficient, and the amount of dairy intake is also low.
Chen says having this kind of health regime may lead to one’s body “going into shock.” She explains that diets should be specially designed based on the metabolism of each trainee.
“It’s dangerous when you have burnt a lot of calories but don’t eat enough over a long period, since this will last for another two or three weeks,” says Chen. “That is starvation. What’s more, after this, your body won’t understand what you are trying to do, and the metabolic rate will reduce, which can cause problems.”
Chen says this result-centered way of weight loss is unsustainable, as it leads individuals to eat more to compensate, which eventually brings them back to the camps to seek help time and time again.
Yao tried her best to follow the new eating habits she developed at the camp and says she initially enjoyed eating vegetables. But once she was back home, where the dining table was often full of buns, rice, and noodles, she could barely hold herself back.
Like many who have left training camps, Yao soon gained all the weight she lost. This time, however, she’s decided to never go back to the camps again.
But unlike Yao, some go to extremes to lose weight at such training camps. Wang Zhaojun is one.
“It’s not scientific at all to force yourself to lose weight. You just can’t do this to your body,” says Chen. “There’s no shortcut to losing weight. It should be a natural result of day-to-day consistency.”
Nutritionist Wang Jialu echoes this sentiment. She suggests that weight should not be lost too quickly, otherwise it may only result in short-term gains and could come at the cost of endocrine disorders.
“I don’t care about how much I weigh anymore. I like myself no matter how I look,” says Yao. “But after being introduced to hiking, I’m now into similarly healthy outdoor activities. It’s good in the end, I think.”
(Header image: A promotional ad for DFFIT on Weibo.)