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Weighing in on The Biggest Loser

Whether you love to watch The Biggest Loser or you find it offensive, you have to admit the primetime TV program has been effective in showcasing health and fitness to millions of people around the world.

Here’s how it works: The hit reality show assembles people who are moderately to morbidly obese for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in shape, lose lots of weight fast and
win cash. Contestants who drop the fewest pounds each week are subject to possible elimination. The objective for contestants—besides drastically changing their bodies and lifestyles—is to be among a handful of players still in contention for the quarter-of-a-million-dollar prize; the finalist who is literally the biggest loser at the season finale wins.

Everything about this show is big. Produced in 25 countries and airing in 90 countries, The Biggest Loser franchise has morphed into a lifestyle brand that includes books, DVDs, video games and even protein powder. Close to 12 million viewers tuned into NBC’s season 7 finale earlier this year. With season 8 airing in September, The Biggest Loser is gaining more fans, more attention and more momentum. And this has some fitness professionals seriously sizing up the show. Is its portrayal of health and fitness helping our industry, or harming it? Industry experts and The Biggest Loser insiders weigh in.

Where’s the Progression?

For fitness pros, perhaps the most memorable segments of The Biggest Loser are the workout scenes. You might see contestants sprinting on indoor cycling bikes, doing plyometric jumps or hustling across the gym while piggybacking a trainer. Scenes such as these have some fitness experts worried that the previously sedentary contestants endure too much intensity, too soon.  

Jonathan Ross is one such fitness pro. “There seems to be little concern for biomechanics, and many contestants who clearly have been avoiding even the simplest forms of activity for years are now doing explosive, full-body plyometric exercises. There is simply no sound reason for doing this,” says Ross, a 2009 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year finalist and personal training director for Sport Fit Total Fitness Clubs in Bowie, Maryland. “Speed is only appropriate when you’ve mastered the basics of movement. Many of the contestants on that show have no business jumping or doing explosive exercise.”

Pete McCall, MS, is a San Diego–based exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), who creates and delivers fitness education programs for ACE. He agrees that the basic principles of exercise progression appear to be missing. “There seems to be no rationale for exercise program design. Clients are pushed to their limits, which places them at risk of injury and overtraining. From the episodes I watched, there was no mention of how to design an effective, efficient workout,” says McCall.  

Going into the specifics of program design or the underlying principle for doing this or that exercise might be fine for a sports-training show, but The Biggest Loser is primetime television, says Mark Koops, co-creator and one of the executive producers of The Biggest Loser. The average viewer tunes in to be entertained and hopefully inspired to live a healthier lifestyle. From the standpoint of ratings, quick cuts of red-faced contestants doing sprinting intervals on treadmills is more compelling than long takes of the steady-state cardio that contestants do most of the time. And even with its indulgent 2-hour timeslot, The Biggest Loser can broadcast only a fraction of what goes on at “the ranch” or “on campus,” two terms that refer to the property where contestants live, eat and exercise for most of the show’s production. Background material gets shifted around and edited out. Bob Harper—one of the show’s two resident personal trainers—confirms that viewers at home don’t see the vast majority of what goes on between the trainers and contestants on the ranch.

“First, contestants have to get used to moving their bodies and getting comfortable in their own skin,” says Harper, who resides in Los Angeles. “At the beginning, contestants walk on a treadmill and walk the Presidential Mile, which is a flat surface outside. They step up on a 6-inch platform before they jump it or try higher steps. There’s definitely a progression in everything we do—but in fast-forward.” And “fast-forward” it is. These “clients” aren’t working out just three or four times a week for an hour at a time, like most folks do. Dropping pounds is a full-time job for The Biggest Loser contestants, and exercise is practically their sole
responsibility on campus. As a result, says Harper, “their fitness capacity increases considerably in a short amount of time.” Given that contestants work out for 4 or 6 hours a day, it’s not surprising that they advance more quickly than the average client. 

Despite the extreme amount of time contestants devote to
exercise during the show’s production, some fitness experts wonder about safety. In fact, contestants are sometimes shown doing progressions that trainers might never teach to the majority of their clients. “My perspective is that the exercises and workouts are much too challenging, given the contestants’ rudimentary level of fitness and overall health status,” says Diane Raymond, founder of Blue Sky Gym in Dublin, Ohio, who has worked as a personal trainer for more than 10 years. “I understand they are monitored closely by physicians—or so we are led to believe by the disclaimer posted at the end of the show—but the impression it gives viewers who may not know better is that a morbidly obese person should be able to hop on a treadmill and perform an all-out sprint, or jump up onto a balance trainer that is placed on top of a plyo platform!” 

The Biggest Loser presents a unique situation that does not compare to an everyday training environment, says Koops, who confirms that doctors monitor the contestants every week and medical staff are on-site with the trainers at all times. “The trainers are working with contestants on a daily basis to make sure their health is obviously the first priority,” says Koops.

That’s not quite how Laura Gideon, MS, sees it from her experience watching the show. In addition to being a personal trainer and an exercise physiologist, Gideon co-owns Bamboo Balance LLC, a fitness, Pilates and aquatics company in Los Angeles. “The participants come in deconditioned, grossly overweight and completely without knowledge of exercise. They are then forced into hitting the ground running, ‘literally,’” says Gideon. “This is dangerous TV.”

Ali Vincent—the Phoenix-based winner of The Biggest Loser season 5, who is now a spokesperson for 24 Hour Fitness—
reports that she did not literally hit the ground running when she first set foot on The Biggest Loser campus. “We start out very, very slow,” she says. “I started walking on a treadmill, 1 minute on and 1 minute off, at what I thought was high intensity—and it was like 2.6 [miles per hour]. At the time, it was the fastest I’d ever walked in my life. It was hard.” Vincent says she ran at high speeds only for short bouts—such as 30 seconds or 1 minute. “And that was at the very end when I was extraordinarily healthy compared to the beginning,” she says.

While contestants aren’t doing wind sprints and plyometrics when they first arrive at the ranch, they are encouraged to work out vigorously from the get-go. However, “vigorous” for the drastically out-of-shape contestants might be a slow to moderately paced walk on flat terrain or a minor incline. In the process, Harper says contestants progress on more than just a physical level. “In the beginning,” he says, “exercise feels like Mount Everest [for these contestants]. Then a month later, they can do it and laugh, saying, ‘I can’t believe I couldn’t do this a month ago.’ If you watch the show, you see the progression of self-esteem.”

The progression of self-esteem is apparent, even if the details of exercise progression are not. Still, the lack of insight about what happens before contestants run fast or jump high leaves some fitness pros uneasy. No one wants sedentary clients—obese or not—to think exercise is something they can’t handle even from square one. “The main objective, given the nature of the contest, is to burn up lots of calories. Exercises chosen to that end make sense,” says Ross. “But we don’t see enough of how the workouts are put together to see if there is even any design to the workouts or if it is just a random collection of movements thrown together for that day.” In response to members of the fitness industry who question whether there is rhyme or reason to the barrage of exercises shown on The Biggest Loser, Koops says, “There is a method behind whatever madness they may perceive. It’s not just thrown together, I can assure you.”

What’s With the Last-Chance Workout?

Exercise design and progression may be dealt with mostly off-camera, but the grueling exercises that get air time are a main attraction. These exercises are mostly shown during a segment called the “last-chance workout,” which is the final exercise session before contestants weigh in for the week. The last-chance workout is one last-ditch effort to zap as many calories as possible and avoid potential elimination from the show.

During these segments, many contestants perform the kind of aggressive exercise that is typically reserved for athletes. Some of the industry sources interviewed for this article referred to certain exercises shown on The Biggest Loser as “exotic,” “far-fetched,” “bizarre” or “unnecessary.” According to Scott Pullen, MS, a fitness and nutrition specialist with dotFIT and a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the show’s training methods “fly in the face of what, hopefully, most responsible trainers would do.” 

“The extreme methods employed on The Biggest Loser appear to pay no consideration to the structural or physical abilities of the contestants,” says Pullen. A number of fitness experts interviewed for this article assert that the exercises are too difficult and complex for most contestants’ skills and abilities. They’re wrong, says Harper. “Contestants are able to do [them],” he says. And just because you see one contestant performing a particular move doesn’t mean they’re all doing it or doing it to the same degree. For example, a contestant with particularly strong legs might be encouraged to do plyo jumps at a higher level than other contestants. And some contestants might not do plyo jumps at all. “There are no blanket workouts on The Biggest Loser,“ says Harper.

However, even if contestants can do the exercises, some fitness pros think form is sometimes sloppy. “Seventy-five percent of the workouts and exercises are great,” says Jim Willett, a
personal trainer in Toronto, Ontario, and owner of FABS CyberFitness™. “They are probably similar to how any good trainer would train their clients. The other quarter of the time, however, I question what I see. It’s not the exercises; it’s who’s performing them. Form and technique occasionally seem to get thrown out the window. I believe, as a trainer, you shouldn’t get ahead of your clients; you shouldn’t have them doing exercises they can’t properly perform. I realize it makes for better TV to show the struggle, but anything can be modified,” says Willett, who has appeared as a featured trainer in a Canadian reality show about weight loss, called X-Weighted.

And The Biggest Loser contestants are by no means immune to injury. In season 7, for example, one young woman was sent home with a stress fracture along her pelvis. To that end, some fitness pros wonder why any of the obese contestants do potentially high-risk and high-impact activity. “I’m appalled at times by some of the things I see being said and done to individuals who have obvious risk issues, orthopedic concerns and many other considerations to contend with,” says Amy Bomar, an ACE faculty master practical trainer, and the owner and education
director of FIT Launch, a fitness education and training studio in Snohomish, Washington.

“I have seen the contestants attempting exercises that are more appropriate for collegiate and professional athletes than for the general population, much less someone who likely has a slew of risk factors that place them in a higher risk stratification,” says Raymond.

“Some contestants do go to a place that only an athlete can go to,” says Harper. “It’s the triumph of the spirit.” Take Helen Phillips as an example. The Sterling Heights, Michigan, resident won season 7 after losing 54.47% of her body weight. “I never thought I could run fast or do interval sprints the way I did,” Phillips says. “I am so proud that I accomplished that. I think sometimes you need someone to push you. That’s how I lost the weight.”

“We want to be safe,” says Harper, “but we do push boundaries.” Part of a trainer’s role is to inspire and motivate clients to do their best, but how do you avoid overstepping boundaries in the process? “It’s intuitive,” says Harper, who has been a trainer for 20 years. “You know how far to push. It’s an instinct; a good trainer assesses the situation and the client.”    

Phillips says she was never pushed past her ability when she trained with both Harper and Jillian Michaels, the other trainer on the show. “Our health and welfare was their main concern, so [the exercise] was never something we couldn’t handle,” she says. (Phillips and Vincent say the trainers were also diligent about ensuring contestants got adequate rest and nutrition to counterbalance all the “amped up” activity.)

Even though the last-chance workout looks “crazy” and animated for the purposes of TV, it’s just a sliver of reality. Viewers at home don’t know the background behind exercise selection. “There is an art and science to training, and we all practice our art in different manners,” says Jay Dawes, MS, director of education for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Before one can fully evaluate the safety and effectiveness of any training program, you have to see the entire picture and not just a snapshot.” It’s similar to someone walking past your boot camp or a training session. That person doesn’t know why you chose a given exercise for your client(s) at that moment. “The trainers on this show have far greater insight into the current health status, abilities and skills of the contestants than the public,” says Dawes. “Thus, they may use some techniques that would otherwise be considered more aggressive in certain populations.“ 

Still, some extreme techniques just don’t make sense, ever,
according to McCall. “I was appalled at the positions [trainers] placed themselves in with some of the clients—between the client’s legs or kneeling on a client’s back. These are completely inappropriate actions for a fitness professional. Trainers can provide an overload to a client through other methods,” he says.

Why the Yelling?

Like the last-chance workouts, the relationships between contestants and the two trainers are intense. Tune into most recent episodes of The Biggest Loser and you are bound to witness a trainer swearing and/or yelling at contestants. “Screaming and yelling in a negative manner wouldn’t fly with paying clients,” says Willett. It’s not just the yelling that has some fitness pros raising eyebrows; it’s also the perception that what’s being said is intimidating. “Making a person feel badly about his or her effort, mental/emotional status or progress is not a strong motivator, and it gives trainers a bad rap if viewers think this is how all of us
behave with clients,” says Raymond. (True, some drill-sergeant-type boot camp trainers have a reputation for shouting at clients.)

“It does get crazy in there because we all feel so passionate about what we are doing,” says Harper. “There’s a purpose for it if I yell at anyone, and there’s an arc to the yelling. We are in a situation where it’s a matter of life and death for the contestants, and sometimes they are looking for the easy way out. We are not beating them down emotionally—it’s about building up their self-esteem.”  

Trainer Jillian Michaels, in particular, has been criticized by some fitness pros for what’s perceived as her “bullying” style with contestants. For example, on YouTube, there’s a clip from season 6 of Michaels shouting at two contestants on treadmills: “So unless you faint, puke or die, keep walking,” she says. IDEA requested an interview with Michaels for this article, but she declined due to a busy schedule. However, Phillips, who trained closely with Michaels, had this to say: “Jillian knows how much you can give of yourself. She can read you like a book. [And when she yells], it makes you move! She wants you to succeed,” Phillips says.

Harper says he doesn’t scream at his “regular” clients in a “regular” gym. The Biggest Loser campus is simply a different atmosphere. Whereas a “real-world” trainer might see a client up to a few times a week, The Biggest Loser trainers are in constant contact with the show’s contestants. Harper says he and Michaels are not on campus just for the 3 or 4 shoot days per week. They are there 6 days per week, assisting contestants with everything from training to nutrition to behavior changes. Both trainers keep lines of communication open with contestants from past seasons, as well.

“If we scream, it’s because we care,” says Harper, “maybe too much.”

“Being a trainer is tough,” says Pullen. “At some point a trainer is called upon to take on the role of psychiatrist, best friend,
enemy, motivator, evil dictator and other varied personae. It is not necessarily right that it should be that way, but it is. I would say that the trainers on the show obviously do a great job of building relationships with contestants, as they are able to influence their eating, exercise habits and behaviors.”

Regardless of how much time the show’s trainers spend with contestants or how much they might care about them, some fitness pros could do without the yelling. According to them, you just don’t threaten, yell or swear at clients. “The Biggest Loser trainers may be great, horrible or something in between,” says Ross, who writes “TV Trainer Watchdog Blog,” where he posts his thoughts about the show. “But until we see them conducting themselves in a similar fashion to personal trainers, we can’t
really call them trainers. They are really Mean Camp Counselors at the world’s most watched fat camp.”

What About Public Perception?

In addition to the yelling, fitness pros who question what they see on The Biggest Loser are most concerned with what messages the show sends to the general public. “I believe [the show] sets unrealistic expectations for many people who have a large amount of weight to lose,” says Bomar, a 17-year veteran in the fitness industry. “The show encourages such an effort to see such substantial reward (15-pound weight loss in a week) that it
really discourages many individuals from exercise.” Since contestants strive to lose 5, 10, 15 or more pounds per week, Gideon adds that the show makes it seem as if losing 1 or 2 pounds per week (which is a safe recommendation) is worthless. However, Pullen doesn’t share that worry. “I would like to think that most viewers are smart enough to know that it is simply not realistic to expect that degree or rate of weight loss,” he says.

“The positive message that [the show] sends is that weight loss is possible through hard work and behavior modification,” says McCall. “The negative message that is communicated is that exercise has to be extreme. In reality, the exact opposite is true: at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity along with proper nutritional habits can have a significant impact on long-term health and weight loss.”  

However, The Biggest Loser relies on more immediate results to keep it compelling. “The contestants are not people who are looking to lose 1, 2 or 3 pounds per week. They need to lose 100, 150, 200 pounds. It’s hard for them to stay motivated if they don’t see rapid change,” says Koops, who estimates that about 50% of contestants keep to their goal weight after the show, another 25% keep off a significant amount of weight and a final 25% “struggle. “We’ve never claimed it’s a magic pill,” he says.

Regardless, fitness consumers may adopt weighty expectations, and most trainers lack the on-site resources and/or desire to achieve the highly motivating weight loss results seen on the show. “The contestants on The Biggest Loser, at least while at the [ranch], have trainers, support and time that allow them to get a lot of physical activity. The trainers can oversee all aspects of their exercise training, so it is able to work for them. My greatest concern is that everyone sees this on TV and thinks that this is the only way to do it—like boot camp,” says John M. Jakicic, PhD, FACSM, director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. “For some, starting with this level of intensity and dose is simply not the best approach given their physical conditions, which in my opinion means that this may send an unreasonable message to the general public. Moreover, there is no need to exercise to the point of getting sick, which is a common theme of The Biggest Loser approach,” says Jakicic. 

McCall says the show has the potential to teach its contestants and audience about the components of well-rounded exercise—but fails to do so. “The Biggest Loser doesn’t focus on teaching clients how to create a comprehensive exercise program but instead tries to throw as much stress on the body as possible in order to create short-term losses,” says McCall. However, Harper disagrees. “How sad if I, as a fitness professional, only focused on the results of the show,” says Harper. “This is an opportunity to help contestants change their lives. I tell them the small picture is the show, and the big picture is what they do when they go back home.”

While Gideon feels the show is guilty of “marginalizing a segment of the population based on appearance,” Harper says the show does the exact opposite. It offers hope to a segment of the population that is largely under-represented on TV—and in the fitness industry, for that matter. “I get a lot of e-mail from people who are inspired by the show,” says Harper. “They see the contestants, who are just like them, and it brings validation to their lives.”

“Ultimately,” says Pullen, “I think the show does a good job at getting the point across that people need to take responsibility for their health and that eating better and less, combined with consistent, challenging physical activity, can keep weight and health in check.”

“I can understand why The Biggest Loser is a popular show,” says Raymond. “Seeing contestants transform their appearances, gain confidence, conquer difficult tasks and change their lives can be inspirational and motivating, especially for the sedentary/
obese individual sitting on the couch wondering, ‘If they can do it, maybe I can too.’ But I think it sets an unrealistic expectation for what healthy weight loss is, and it also creates an image that all trainers are like Bob and Jillian—loud and mean.” 

Whether you perceive Bob and Jillian as loud and mean or motivating and caring, one thing is certain: the enormous popularity of The Biggest Loser casts a bright light on the benefits of exercise and proper nutrition to a worldwide audience. In that sense, says Willett, the show’s been wonderful for our industry. “It’s given personal training more exposure than it could have wished for,” he says.

What’s the Fitness Industry’s Responsibility?

Moving forward, then, what can we do to extend the inspiration that is so clearly a trademark of The Biggest Loser to our own communities, gyms, clients and fitness classes? You don’t have to agree with all the show’s tactics—or even any of them—to use it as an opportunity to reach out to prospects and clients who need sound fitness/weight loss advice and guidance. The show is popular partly because the physical and emotional results that contestants achieve are very inspiring to a great many people. For example, The Biggest Loser’s involvement with Feeding America’s Pound For Pound Challenge has inspired viewers at home to pledge to lose a collective 3.5 million pounds (at press time) while helping to fight hunger across the U.S.  

For the most part, people who watch The Biggest Loser probably already know in basic terms that exercise is good for them and poor eating habits are bad for them. After all, educational resources to help people exercise or eat better are aplenty. Yet, the obesity epidemic continues to be a problem. Maybe people could use a stronger shot of inspiration. The Biggest Loser and its trainers provide that, whether you agree with the show on a professional level or not. Ultimately, primetime television is concerned with the “bells and whistles” that make for exciting TV. So perhaps it is better to have clients who watch the show come to us for what is actually feasible versus not coming to us at all because they would rather sit on the couch all day.

According to Koops, the central tenet of The Biggest Loser is to inspire people to live a healthy, active lifestyle—with no excuses—and with the idea that it is never too late. “If the show has one legacy,” he says, “it would be to help everyone get active and healthy whether it’s at a gym or with a personal trainer or by doing fitness classes.”

Lo and behold, it appears we are all on the same page, at least enough for it to matter. So what about learning from each other and perhaps working in tandem to some degree? Maybe then we can all “win big” in our efforts to inspire more people to enjoy healthier lives.   

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