WARNING: The Biggest Loser kills weight loss

We are all familiar with the show – where larger folk get yelled at by trainers, and get put in impossible challenges that test their willpower to the extreme. Seeing all of the exercise, and learning the healthier food habits would surely rub off and give you a better chance at following in the path to success, right? Maybe not, it turns out.

Believe it or not, that time spent watching people exercising could in fact be turning you away from exercising yourself – the exact opposite of what you might think, and desire.

A recent study published (American Journal of Health Behavior (2013; 37[1], 96-103), shows that people were specifically turned off exercise after watching the show, compared to people who had watched something else. The exact reason for this is still up for debate, but one thing is for sure: If you’re keen on getting active, you might like to avoid watching the show that celebrates the extreme exercise and diet method of weight loss. To be fair to the show, however, this study looked at exercise, and not nutrition habits. In that regard, the Biggest Loser often promotes calorie restriction, which has been demonstrated in other studies to provide short term (3-6 months) results, at the expense of long term weight loss.

One theory is that seeing people performing activities with such a level of difficulty actually interrupts the mental image that we hold when we imagine ourselves doing an exercise – a mental image that shows fluid movement, grace, coordination and power. When provided which images to the contrary, we can get turned off fitness. Especially when that awkward movement on screen in accompanied by trainers yelling instructions, pushing people to the point of collapse or tears, and then being judged on their results, for all to see.

If you ask me, I think any show on TV that promotes extremes of any lifestyle (I’m looking at you, ridiculous ‘Housewives of’ shows) is bound to turn people off that sort of lifestyle. Extremes are not something the human body is programmed to seek out. Extremes tend to be dangerous, unsustainable, difficult to work with and unappealing. Think about any personality trait, any physical feature and any lifestyle choice. If any of the above are taken to extreme, they become very unlivable, and not something that we seek out.

Further to this, the fact that this show still promotes extreme amounts of exercise and dangerous behaviors, in the pursuit solely of losing pounds on a scale makes my blood boil. If you think you’re 10-15 pounds overweight right now, I could coach and train you so that you are more than happy with your body at exactly the same weight.

There’s a huge problem with focusing on your weight as your benchmark for success: weight is one factor in a list of dozens of factors that change when you lose weight. Focusing on one is like shopping for a house based solely on the taps in the bathroom, and then buying the one you find that has exactly what you’re looking for.

I recommend that my clients forget about the scales and start using some more meaningful measures to them. We’re all unique and while I might be concerned with how many pounds I can bench press, you might be more interested in fitting in to a certain pair of pants, or feeling a certain amount of energy when you wake up. Measures of success tend to be individual, don’t fall into the trap of measuring by the scale alone.

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2 Responses to WARNING: The Biggest Loser kills weight loss

  • Tom says:

    “I’m looking at you, ridiculous ‘Housewives of’ shows”
    LOL! Well said, Luke.
    This is an intersting article. I had not run across that study. Thanks for sharing it. I confess that my wife and I both watch the Biggest Loser show… and I also confess that I regularly grouse about the single minded focus on weight loss rather than ‘body fat vs lean mass,’ and the way they ignore insulin effects from diet choices. Bleah.

    BTW, when you say “If you think you’re 10-15 pounds overweight right now, I could coach and train you so that you are more than happy with your body at exactly the same weight.” I assume you mean that you would help them convert those 15 pounds from fat to lean. True?

    Keep at it, Luke.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Tom, thanks for your feedback! Interestingly, you might be intrigued to know that someone tweeted to me about the actual diet menu used in the house in earlier seasons – for all the talk about low fat, etc, they in fact were on limited carbohydrate diets to achieve the fat loss that was shown in the show.

      As for your question – exactly. I think if someone feels like they just have 10-15 pounds to lose, the chances are that if they lost 5 or 10 pounds of fat, and gained 5 or 10 pounds of muscle, that they would be very happy with how they looked and felt.

      Cheers and all the best!

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