It’s past time to scrap ‘The Biggest Loser’

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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.

"Give me another 100 reps! NBC demands it!"

“Give me another 100 reps! NBC demands it!”

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.

Bob Doucette

A lesson that ‘House of Cards’ taught me

"House of Cards" is a great show, but the lives depicted in it are not for me.

“House of Cards” is a great show, but the lives depicted in it are not for me.

 

After all the hype over the release of the third season of “House of Cards,” I finally gave it a whirl. You know, just to see what the fuss was about.

For the record, the show lives up to the hype. It’s that good. Kevin Spacey channels LBJ in a way I’m not sure many other actors can.

But something else I got from the show was a sense of “homecoming,” I guess, in that I recognized so many of the places filmed in the show. Those row houses in Georgetown, the lesser-known parks and greasy spoon cafes, and the Capitol office building cafeterias — all those Washington nooks and crannies that most folks don’t think about because the times they’ve been there were to see Capitol, or take a picture of the White House, or view the exhibits at the Smithsonian. The show includes the out-of-the-way places, and it was fun to pick ’em out.

I know a smattering of such locales because there was a time that I was certain I was going to be having a career there.

Funny how things turn out.

Back in my college days, I was all about finding a way into public service. I studied politics and government, learned about other countries, and dreamed of working for the State Department, or perhaps the CIA. Maybe I’d spend some time on the hill as a legislative researcher, or become a high-powered advocate for a  think tank or something.

But my time there, while making quite an impression on me, was limited to a summer as an intern at the Capitol, working for a Minnesota congressman by doing mostly benign administrative tasks. By the time I wrapped up college, I was snapping up the best available job I could find in media, with hopes that maybe one day I’d find my ticket to D.C. by being sent to a Washington Bureau. Or something like that.

Ah, the Capitol. Great place to visit. Not sure I want to live there.

Ah, the Capitol. Great place to visit. Not sure I want to live there.

Obviously, none of that ever happened. No stint in the diplomatic corps, no long nights at Langley, no big stories as part of the fiercely competitive D.C. press corps. I had to find work in a small Oklahoma community, and I had to do it right away – keeping a roof overhead and food on the table squeezed out far-flung dreams.

So life took me to other places. At first, small towns writing about football games and small-time crimes, then frying bigger fish for bigger outfits.

On my own time, I got to travel some, sometimes abroad. And of course, there was plenty of time hiking and running trails, climbing mountains and driving across the country finding — and making — stories far more dear to my heart than anything I could have done slaving away in the middle of the Capitol Hill  boiler room.

I’ve been back to Washington a couple of times since those intern days, and I must say it’s a fantastic city. So much to do and see, and filled with smart, dedicated and talented people. I have incredible memories of that place, but usually they have nothing to do with high-stakes politics or important figures. More often, it’s about meeting who was then my brother Steve’s future wife, playing softball in after-hours beer leagues and getting to know normal people doing normal things in one of the most extraordinary cities on the planet.

There are times when I wonder if I missed out. Had I not been so hard-pressed to find work instead of going to grad school — getting that doctorate, learning a foreign language, or doing whatever else it took to break into one of those sweet federal gigs — could I have somehow cracked that inner circle? Some of my college friends did.

Or what if I’d really put my media career first, gave my ambition a shot of steroids, and really gone for broke on joining the Washington media circus? Could I have done it?

If so, what sort of life would I have?

Here’s what I do know: When you’re working in high-stakes careers, the job comes first. Everything else comes second. Rare is the man or woman who can put their family, health or whatever before their profession in a place like Washington. I’m sure the same could be said in many New York circles, too. Power and riches come with a price, one partially purchased by your undivided attention. Other costs pile up, too.

And I guess you could predict that you might have to sacrifice other things in a “succeed at any cost” or “ends justify the means” sort of way, but I don’t accept that as a given. I know it’s common (or even expected), but I don’t think it’s automatic. Maybe it just seems like it is.

I believe that had things gone according to “plan” I might have had a shot at some or all of those scenarios, but I think I would have lost out in many other ways. How many friends would I have never met, or distant lands would I have never seen? Would I have bothered to ever return to the Rockies, except as a drive-through tourist tethered to a lodge? Would I have ever seen the expansive views from a high summit in the San Juan range if I were chasing political stories all day?

Would I have already died of a heart attack?

I'm pretty sure there is no view in D.C. that can come close to this.

I’m pretty sure there is no view in D.C. that can come close to this.

Life takes funny turns. I’m sure I never would have been a Francis Underwood-type politician (I hate the nasty side of politics too much), and I barely got out of German with a passing grade, so you can kiss that diplomatic career good-bye. The whole CIA thing was probably a pipe dream, too. Ditto for the Washington press corps.

But I did become a bit of a traveler. I got to see some great places on three continents. I somehow found a way to become a marathoner. I’ve even dabbled in mountaineering, which is every bit as cool as it sounds.

Could I have been all those things and had a big career in Washington? Maybe, but I doubt it. And given the choice, with hindsight as a guide, I wouldn’t choose any different. Quiet solitude on a mountaintop or breezing through the trees on a run just sounds way better than becoming a slave to the grind. When 2016 rolls around, or some new political or international crisis strikes, there is a good chance I could be somewhere much more peaceful and interesting than what my younger self envisioned.

A wise choice or serendipity, I’m not sure. But it certainly is a better fit.

Bob Doucette

‘Survivorman’ is back!

Les Stroud in “Survivorman.” (Discover Channel photo)

After a four-year hiatus, Les Stroud is getting back behind the camera and out into the woods for a new season of his television program “Survivorman.”

The show last went into production in 2008. He’s done several projects since then, but he’s most remembered for going out into wilderness areas, camera gear in tow, alone and putting himself in survival situations to show what you can do if you’re caught in a similar predicament.

Stroud’s show is just one of many pitting man against nature in survival situations. Bear Grylls’ wildly popular “Man vs. Wild” had a similar format, and other programs have followed suit. But with the exception of “Alone in the Wild,” none have featured the host also being the sole member of the crew and completely alone.

You can read more about Stroud’s Aug. 19 return in “Survivorman” on this link.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Discovery cans Bear Grylls, so now what?

Bear Grylls

We got news from the Hollywood Reporter that Discovery has terminated its dealing with Bear Grylls, star of the “Man vs. Wild” series that had attracted more than 1 million viewers per episode. Although news as to why this occurred has been scant (something about not being able to get Grylls to work on two new projects), HR says that production on any series involving Grylls has ceased.

You can read about it here.

The questions that come to mind:

— What will Discovery do to replace the potential lost viewers? Although “Man vs. Wild” is not the network’s top show, it is among its most lucrative. How do they propose to feed viewers’ appetite for the program?

— Is it permanent? We all saw how the breakdown between the network and part of the cast of “Deadliest Catch” went down. First, the Hillstrands were out. But they eventually worked things out when other cast members were ready to end their affiliation with the show as well. Will Grylls and Discovery patch things up later as well?

— Most importantly, what does this mean for adventure TV? I would argue that “Man vs. Wild” was not the best show when it came to explaining and demonstrating wilderness survival. “Survivorman” and “Alone in the Wild” were far better, in my opinion. But Grylls’ program was the most popular. Will he come up with something new somewhere else? And if so, will it be in a similar vein, or will it take a new turn? I think it would be a good opportunity to make a better show. Grylls has some good tips in there, but some of the stunts are decidedly dubious demonstrations of wilderness survival and safety. A reboot would give him a chance to do something better. In any case, suitors will be lining up to get him on board.

Bob Doucette

on Twitter @RMHigh7088