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The Biggest Loser
TV Show Review
By Gary F. Zeolla
NBC’s show The Biggest Loser has been called “a phenomenon” for the effect it has had on so many people. It is now in its fourth season. There are good aspects of this show, but I also have some concerns about it as well. I will express both the good and bad points in this review.
For those who have not seen the show, it is a Survivor-type reality show in which the contestants (all of which are obesely overweight) are split into teams and compete in challenges against each other. In the first three seasons, there were two teams, red and blue. But this year, there is a third team, the black team. Each team has a personal trainer working with them. They are Jillian Michaels, Bob Harper, and Kim Lyons.
Each week, the contestants are weighed in. And the team with the largest percentage of weight loss wins for the week. The losing team has to vote one of their team members off. Eventually, as people are voted off, the teams merge into one. Then it becomes an individual competition, and the last person left is declared “the biggest loser” and wins $250,000. For further details on the show, see The Biggest Loser Web site.
The primary good point of this show is that it is bringing awareness to the growing obesity problem in the USA. This is a serious health epidemic. The show also demonstrates that anyone can lose weight through diet and exercise. And in fact, some of the contestants lose dramatic amounts of weight, some even cutting their starting bodyweights in half.
Before this season started, they had a special episode that asked “Did they keep the weight off?” And all of the former contestants profiled on the show had done so. So the diet and training methods promoted on the show do work. And it is hard to argue with success. However, as I said, I have some concerns with the show.
The format of the show:
My first concern with the show is simply the format. Losing weight is very difficult, physically and emotionally. And it helps greatly when doing so to have a support structure. And that is how the show starts, with the team members encouraging each other. But due to the “elimination” nature of the show, eventually, just like on Survivor, people start stabbing their team members in the back and budding friendships get squashed. There are almost always tears shed at each elimination, by both by the person being eliminated and by the ones voting them off.
All of this emotional drama is fine when all that is at stake is money, that is the whole and only point of Survivor. But here, something much more important is at stake, people’s health. And I never saw the reason for the elimination format. The show would have worked just as well if they just kept the two or three teams intact throughout the course of the show, with the team as a whole that lost the most weight declared the winner.
Moreover, the term “biggest loser” is really a misnomer as the person who ends up winning is not necessarily the person who lost the most weight. The winner is just like a Survivor winner, the one who is best at conniving others into not voting them off.
Too aggressive/ injuries/ hormones:
In my book God-given Foods Eating Plan I advocate that a person who is completely out of shape should gradually ease into exercising. I recommend starting with a walk around the block, then gradually increasing the time, distance, and pace of the walk over a period of weeks. Eventually, strength training should be added. But again, the person should start with very light weights and a low intensity and gradually increase the weights and intensity over a period of weeks. In this way, the totally out of shape person will gradually get into shape, and the chance of injury is minimal.
But the very competitive nature of this show necessitates that the exact opposite is done. On the first day of this season, for instance, all of the contestants had to race a couple of miles across the desert. Some of them almost did not make it, almost collapsing on the way. And the ridiculously lengthy and vigorous workouts continue on unabated after that.
So basically, they take a bunch of people who are all at least a 100 pounds overweight and who have not exercised in years, and they have them working out for several hours each day, at a very high intensity. And inevitably, people get injured. It has happened every season. In fact, as I write this I just watched an episode in which one of the contestants was hobbling around because of a knee injury.
And remember, each team has its own personal trainer watching over their every step. I am sure there are also medical personal on hand, to evaluate each member as the show progresses. But despite these precautions, injuries inevitably occur.
In this particular episode, the injured person completely blew his top off at one of his teammates, screaming and yelling at her at the top of his lungs. She ran off crying. Their trainer, Kim Lyons, then admitted that he lost his cool because he was “frustrated and overtrained.” So both physically and emotionally, the excessive workloads can be damaging.
Another problem with this extreme exercise is that rather than encouraging those at home to start exercising, it might discourage them. The average person will think that there is no way they have the time to exercise several hours each day, and there is no way they’ll push themselves as hard as the contestants are pushed on the show for as long as they are pushed, so why bother?
In other words, it is an unrealistic presentation as to how to go about losing weight for the average person who does not have a personal trainer and medical personal on hand and the incentive of a $250,000 prize.
In my book, I recommend working up to doing cardiovascular work three times a week, for 30-60 minutes, at a moderate intensity, while strength training for 60-90 minutes at a high intensity on three opposite days. This type of program can be fit into most people’s lifestyle, and it can lead to significant weight loss and improvements in cardiovascular fitness and strength. In fact, I would say in the long run, you would make better progress with such a program.
The reason for this concerns hormone levels. “Fact: the calories you burn while exercising are insignificant – what maters is the metabolic and hormonal forces set into motion by your workouts” (Faigin). I discuss this issue in depth in my book. But to explain simply here, short intense workouts are much better than longer workouts at increasing growth hormone and testosterone levels and keeping cortisol in check. And it is keeping these hormones in proper balance that can make a dramatic difference in one’s physique. The issue of hormone enhancement is completely ignored by The Biggest Loser.
But I will say that The Biggest Loser is correct in using personal trainers. For someone who is inexperienced at exercise, a personal trainer can be invaluable in teaching correct exercise form and in setting up an exercise program. And as a person progresses, a trainer can push a person harder than they normally would push themselves. But a training partner or partners can also provide such encouragement.
Weight loss vs. fat loss:
Another point I raise in my book is that it is not weight loss per se that matter but fat loss, and there is a difference. If you lose ten pounds of fat but gain seven pounds of muscle, the scale will show that you only lost three pounds, but the change in your physique will be dramatic. Moreover, in the long run, the gaining of muscle will further aid in fat loss since muscle is more metabolically active than fat.
But given the format of this show, it actually discourages the gaining of muscle mass. If a contestant were to actually do so, it would hurt his or her chances of winning. And in fact, with only a couple of rare exceptions, the men who make it to the final rounds look slim, but never very muscular. But again, the gaining of muscle would be the best thing to do for long-term weight loss and for keeping it off.
In the first season of The Biggest Loser, they did put all of the contestants into a water tank to measure their fat percentage. But that was the last you heard of fat percentage on the show until the final round, when it figured into who was the final winner. But in subsequent seasons, there has been no mention of fat percentage whatsoever.
Probably the main reason body weight rather than fat percentage is used on the show is that is much easier to just weigh someone than to take their fat percentage, and most viewers can associate with weight loss more than with the conception of lowering one’s body fat percentage.
However, there are simpler methods of measuring body fat percentage than a water tank. I mention in my book about the use of skin fold calipers and of newer body fat scales.
Moreover, it is because the general public does not grasp the importance of fat loss versus weight loss that The Biggest Loser could have done a great service for its audience by making fat loss a central part of the show and thus instilling this concept into people’s minds.
At weigh-ins after the first week, it is common for contestants to have double-digit weight losses. And in subsequent weeks, weight losses of 5-10 pounds are common. The contestants are of course ecstatic about such dramatic weight losses. However, when someone “only” loses 2-3 pounds, they are very disappointed. But as one contestant even pointed out this season, a 2-3 pound weight loss per week “in the real world” would be great.
The dramatic weight losses are only possible due to the several hours per day workout schemes. But again, for the average person, such lengthy workouts are unrealistic, and so double-digit weight loses are unrealistic. So my fear is that if someone is inspired to start exercising due to this show but “only” loses a couple of pounds a week, they will be discouraged.
However, a slow weight loss is actually the best way to go about losing weight. People who lose weight slowly and gradually are more likely to keep it off than people who have dramatic weight losses. The reason for this is several-fold.
First off, the slow weight loss enables the body to reset its body weight regulators to the lower body weight, whereas with a dramatic weight loss, the body will be trying to reset itself to the higher weight via increased hunger. Second, a gradual weight loss gives the person time to adapt to a new diet and exercise lifestyle. And third, again, a dramatic weight loss can only be sustained though excessively lengthy workout sessions, but the average person simply cannot sustain such a program indefinitely.
Another reason people on the show have dramatic weight loss is the workouts are not designed for the gaining of muscle mass. This can be seen in that the trainers on the show never have the contestants do heavy squats and deadlifts. But these are the best exercises there are for gaining muscular bodyweight. What is usually done on the show is lots of cardio and high-rep strength training, good for weight loss but not so much for gaining muscular bodyweight.
All of this relates back to the format of the show, quick and dramatic weight loss is what is needed to win the “game.” But in the real world “winning” good health is the most important goal, with attaining a shapely figure important to most people as well. And these are attained by gradual fat loss and muscular bodyweight gain.
The eating plan:
The Biggest Loser often points out the horrible diets of the contestants before they started the show. This season, for instance, they had a scene where they had laid out on tables all of the junk food that the contestants used to consume in a week’s time. The amounts and kinds of foods were truly amazing, but not surprising. People generally get obesely overweight by consuming junk food not from eating healthy foods. Cakes, pies, cookies, fried foods, snack foods, and the like filled the tables in this scene. So the show does a good job at pointing out what foods not to eat.
However, it never goes into a lot of detail as to what to eat. The contestants are shown eating healthy meals, but other than trying to eye what’s one their plates, there’s not much information given to the viewer on what they are eating. The contestants themselves may be getting taught healthy eating habits, but the viewer is not giving much of an education in this regard.
Given the spare details on exactly what type of diet the trainers have their teams consuming, it’s hard to evaluate the prescribed eating plans. But they do seem to be centered on low-fat protein foods and vegetables. And that is very good. Such foods should be the center piece of a fat loss plan, and of a healthy diet in general. But other foods, like healthy fats, are important as well, as I discuss in detail in my book.
On a related point, Bob Harper has mentioned several times about increasing the metabolism by eating several times a day rather than just 2-3 meals. This is an important point that I also emphasize in my book.
In a special episode last season, they had the trainers visit a local school cafeteria. The trainers (along with this writer) were shocked at the junk that the kids were being served. The worse was when Bob asked the lunch lady what the vegetable of the day was, and she pointed to the Tater Tots! Bob even remarked, “There’s nothing on the menu that I would eat!” And I would have concurred with him. It’s because we’re teaching our kids to eat such junk and calling it food, that our society needs shows like the Biggest Loser.
In any case, I would probably agree with the eating plan the trainers put their teams on, but I really would like to see more time spent in this regard on the show. But such details are provided in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book.
The Biggest Loser is an interesting and entertaining show, with an important message. America needs to wake up and address its growing obesity problem. And for bringing attention to this epidemic, The Biggest Loser should be commended. But the show fails at teaching the average viewer the best way to go about losing body fat. The exercise program the contestants are put on is simply unrealistic for the average person and not the best for long-term progress and adherence. And the scarcity of details on diet leaves the view with insufficient information for restructuring their own eating plans.
Faigin, Rob. Hormonally Intelligent Exercise. Extique: 2004, back cover.
The Biggest Loser: TV Show Review. Copyright © 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article was posted on this Web site September 28, 2007.
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