If you’ve followed this blog much over the years, you understand that I take fitness and the outdoors seriously. Spending time in the outdoors is, I believe, critical to our physical and mental well-being as well as to our understanding of how the planet works. Being fit dovetails nicely into that, as being more fit allows you to do more (and thus enrich the experience) outside.
So I follow fitness trends carefully, partly to help myself, and partly to share things I’ve learned here. Let me say from the outset, I am all for anything that gets people moving, in shape, and healthier.
A little more than a decade ago, a reality TV show and competition emerged on NBC called “The Biggest Loser.” Its premise was to take people whose lives were hijacked and even threatened by their obesity, and to put them through a rigorous diet and exercise program to help them shed the weight, get in shape, and be healthy. The winner of the show was the person who lost the most weight. The promise to the viewers: inspiring stories of how these people, with the help of their trainers and nutritionists, took back their lives.
I’ve watched the show from time to time. And I’ve read quite a bit about it. And I have one conclusion.
I loathe “The Biggest Loser.” Despise it. And I have a few reasons why.
First, the training programs shown on the program are injurious. You can’t take someone who is morbidly obese and have them work out for six or more hours a day. This is a schedule even professional athletes can’t maintain. Contestants are shown running on treadmills, lifting weights and doing all sorts of metabolic conditioning exercises until they drop from exhaustion, all the while being yelled at by celebrity coaches to get off their butts and do more. No trainer in their right mind would ever put these folks on such a program. Their fat-to-muscle ratio is far too out of whack to put that kind of strain on their muscles, tendons and ligaments. Injuries – stress fractures, knee problems and more – have been known to pile up on the show (you can read about that and more here, in this story about former contestant Kai Hibbard). The contestants should be eased into a program, which can intensify as they get stronger and begin to shed weight. But no, that won’t happen because it doesn’t conform to a TV production schedule.
Second, the radical training programs and extreme caloric deprivation from the contestants’ diets create metabolic damage. A recent New York Times article highlighted a study in which past contestants of the show were tracked to see how well they maintained their new weight, and why things did or didn’t work. In nearly every case, they couldn’t keep the weight off after the show, often regaining 100 pounds or more. Many gained all their weight back, and then some. Even the best-case scenarios showed significant weight gain. Contestants who continued to exercise faithfully and maintain low-calorie diets piled the pounds back on. The reason? Their bodies were so shocked by the new regimen (daily food intake would be cut to 1,000 calories or less) that they reset their metabolism to a slower rate to conserve energy. If calories were cut back even further, the body reacted by putting the brakes on their already slowed metabolisms to match. This is metabolic damage, and it runs deep, all the way to the hormonal level. So for the sake of ratings and a spectacular reveal show at each season’s finale, producers set up the contestants to fail miserably once they were outside the “guidance” of their trainers and nutritionists.
Third, the show actually is more discouraging than encouraging to viewers. Winning a shot to be a contestant allows the “lucky” few to have the time and outside advice to radically (if not healthily, and definitely temporarily) transform their physiques. But for the rest of us, who has six months to take off from work and turn working out into a full-time job? Who has the sort of funds to hire expert trainers and nutritionists to monitor every rep, every step, and every bite? The answer: Almost no one. It’s unattainable. And even if it were, the extremes these people go through on the show will, to most sane people, look impossible. Imagine yourself as someone who is a couple hundred ponds overweight, and getting the message that you’ll have to spend the equivalent to a full work day every day doing nothing but hard exercise for half a year. It would be similar to asking a person who can’t run a block to log 30 miles a week right now. People need to know a healthy transformation can occur without these extremes, and be shown how. “The Biggest Loser” does the opposite.
Looking at all this, I cannot imagine celebrity trainers like Jillian Michaels ever putting their “real life” clients through something like this (to her credit, she recently backed out of the show, but not before cashing in on the fame it created for her). I can’t fathom any nutritionist cutting someone’s caloric intake so deeply as to induce a near-permanent metabolic crash. But they do it because the show can make them famous, and that can benefit their own businesses.
Few things would please me more than if the producers of this show would grow a conscience and end it. But “The Biggest Loser” is actively seeking contestants for Season 17, culling a list of a couple hundred thousand applicants to another crew of hopefuls wanting to change their lives. Sponsors like Planet Fitness, Larabar, and others will keep lining up to ride the show’s publicity coattails to profits.
What will happen is that the cast will be led into an unsustainable, unrealistic and probably damaging experience that’s been repeated far too often. And a televised version of frankenfitness rolls on, as long as we keep watching and enabling what is the opposite of health, fitness and well-being.