When you think about fitness TV, one show immediately comes to mind: The Biggest Loser. For those not in the know, it is a reality show competition that allows dangerously obese competitors the chance to turn their life around by gaining a better quality of life through weight loss. Sounds great, right? While there is some good that comes of shows like this, there’s also a great deal of misconception that comes right along with it.
A celebration of health and fitness… and the hard work that comes with it.
On a positive note, the show packages health and fitness in an appealing package with high viewership ratings. This kind of exposure has raised awareness about the value of getting healthier (even though we should inherently know this). Contestants quickly become aware that weight loss, particularly on a large scale, is a difficult and grueling task. Viewers are also made aware of this on some level. Much like CrossFit, TBL has reminded people that result worth having aren’t attainable without getting your hands dirty and breaking a sweat.
“Clean” methods are encouraged.
Contestants are given ground rules. They are not permitted to use any weight loss drugs of any sort. that includes over-the-counter supplements such as fat burners or diuretics. This kind of encouragement teaches viewers and contestants that results are achievable without “assistance”.
It brings a competitive spirit into the fold.
Competition breeds success. Ask any capitalist. The same is true in fitness. Competition can be an excellent motivator when viewed through the right lens. It supports a drive to train and improve oneself. However, it does have its downside (more on that later).
It provides hope to the viewer.
TBL selects contestants that are incredibly overweight that all seem to have a back story that tugs on the heart strings a little. When people see cases as hopeless as this lose fat and restore their bodies to a healthy weight, it provides hope that they too can get up off the couch and do something about their situation.
They track weight loss, rather than fat loss.
For one, they seem to rely solely on the scale to determine success through the program. “Weight loss” isn’t and should never be the measuring stick of a successful health and fitness program. Even the least reliable method of body composition measurement is a better variable to work with than weight loss. Anyone’s weight can fluctuate any day. If you stop drinking water, you’ll lose weight. If you eat less that day, you’ll lose weight. If you lose muscle, you lose weight, If you don’t gain muscle in TBL’s program, you’ll lose weight. See where I’m going with this? The contestant’s problem isn’t the weight. It’s all the excess adipose tissue that’s causing the excessive weight.
The extreme methods set a dangerous precedent.
Encouraging rapid weight loss sets a dangerous precedent. Losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time is unsafe. Yes it’s healthier to have less body fat so it should be a good thing, right? Wrong. The methods and intensity required to lose weight (remember, that’s how they measure it) is incredibly dangerous for your health. Therein lies the problem. These contestants are so de-trained and the program is so extreme, it’s a wonder no one has died. To make progress on their scale, contestant have to all but quit eating, maintain less than adequate hydration levels for an inactive person (never mind an active one), and push themselves so far past their limits (while carrying around excess body weight). It’s a heart attack waiting to happen.
The aggressive methods used by TBL take “no pain, no gain” to a whole new level. Even if not fatal, the trainers take periods of strategic overreaching and push them aggressively into periods of overtraining that can lead to overuse injury or other possible short- and long-term side effects. Stress fractures, impingement syndrome, and many other have been documented during their “training.”
The spirit of competition has its dark side.
While the spirit of competition was noted previously as a positive, it’s this same drive to win that motivates the competitors to use unsafe weight loss techniques on the side in order to gain an edge on the competition. While they’re not expressly allowed to use drugs, even Olympians use PED’s when the win is on the line. Some have admitted to using techniques popularized by weight class sports such as wrestling in order to lose weight. These techniques are dangerous for athletes trying to lose 5 lbs to make weight. they’re even more dangerous for the guy trying to lose 100+ lbs.
To be fair to the trainers, the competitive spirit of the contestants isn’t something within their realm of control. However, while competition can be a great motivator, it can also be your worst enemy. People forget that we all have slightly different genetic make-ups. Some are blessed with a metabolism that promotes muscle gain and fat loss and others, well, aren’t. There’s nothing you can do about that. You can however, work on your patience, and focus on improving yourself every day while paying as little attention as possible to the people to your left and right. It’s almost impossible when $250,000 is on the line.
What is on the trainers is the precedent they set where “normal” rates of fat loss are looked upon as some sort of negative. Normal, safe fat loss usually occurs at about a pound per week; 2 lbs if the client is hyper-motivated. 10+ pounds in a week is celebrated as an achievement when it should be looked at as a warning sign of dehydration, eating disorders, and overtraining.
Views on fat loss become distorted.
It promotes a distorted view of what effective fat loss is. It can turn people off because it looks to hard. It can discourage people that are trying because the results from their safe program don’t come quickly enough. TBL sets unrealistic expectations for the very people it inspires. The expectations indicated by the show couldn’t be further from the truth. Safe, sustainable fat loss takes time and patience, as well as systematic hard work. You want to chip away at the boulder with a chisel to create a healthy work of art; not smash it to ruble with a sledgehammer.
The results are unsustainable.
For starters, what these people go through occurs in a vacuum. They live and breathe weight loss zoo for a very short period of time and then are released back into the wild and left to fend for themselves. Despite abnormal results, they haven’t been given the tools to succeed in a world filled with fast food temptation and the never-ending option to not work out; tools such as will power, self-motivation, and patience. The extreme measures taken by TBL and its contestants contribute to yo-yo dieting, causing the fat to come right back. Contestants are so happy to be out of the zoo and they feel like they have some wiggle room in their diet now that they’re “fit”. The tools they are given have little to know relevance once they return to their daily routine.
Long story short, TBL needs to be taken with a grain of salt. use it as a motivator but don’t expect the results to be typical. Especially when you’re trying to lose fat in the real world and the contestants are put in an environment that makes it impossible for them not to lose weight. While the cons outweigh the pros, there is still some good in there to be had.