If you’re a fitness enthusiast like myself, then you probably know about NBC’s hit show The Biggest Loser. For those of you unfamiliar, it is a reality-based fitness show that features morbidly obese contestants training for weight loss and a grand prize of $250,000. The contestants work closely with personal trainers at a dormitory-like ranch and are put through extreme and rigorous training for a number of weeks. The person who sheds the most pounds upon completion of the program is branded The Biggest Loser and gets the money.
Sounds motivational and enticing right? After all anybody offering a quarter million as an incentive to lose weight must have good deeds. Not necessarily.
As a concerned and dedicated fitness professional, I have a plethora of issues with the show. If you’ve had pleasure of catching an episode of The Biggest Loser, then you’ve witnessed the intense training these contestants are put through. There’s no reason why a 300-plus pound deconditioned individual whose lung capacity is very low should be doing plyometric activities like jumping off a box or treadmill. The joints of an obese individual are already too compressed and adding shear forces will only damage and weaken them further and potentially lead to injury. Although I’m an advocate of giving your all and training at a moderately challenging effort level, there are progressive stages that sedentary individuals must go through in a training program.
According a 2009 research article by IDEA, a fitness and wellness organization with whom I’m a member of, the producers of the show maintain that the contestants are screened thoroughly prior to each season and so many things happen behind the scenes that aren’t seen by the viewers. For example, contestants alternate walking on the treadmill at a very low pace for a minute and then slowly progress to 30-second sprints initially. Great! But how do they explain seeing an individual holding on for dear life walking or running on a treadmill and being scolded by the trainers not to let go and to keep pushing? In an episode I saw a while back, an individual who could no longer maintain his pace on the treadmill completely skidded off. Moments earlier this individual waved his white flag and indicated he had nothing left in his tank. But the trainer discouraged him from stopping. These contestants simply do not have the cardiovascular endurance to push for a long time due to their limited threshold. Asking them to train at or near that level is downright risky and dangerous.
Biomechanically speaking, some of the exercises that the contestants are told to do are performed with poor form and some too advanced. In the same IDEA article, some of the fitness professionals who were interviewed expressed their concerns about lack of program design and inadequate regression of exercises. In fact some of the exercises the contestants do should only be reserved for collegiate and world class athletes. But the producers of the show know they are in a business of ratings and what better way to get them than to try the extreme. It is no surprise that The Biggest Loser has become one of NBC’s highest rated shows with over 7.4 million people tuning in to watch the finale of last season.
Some of the views expressed by the various fitness professionals interviewed in the IDEA article are ones I can relate to. These contestants are made to progress to early in their training while ignoring their limitations and weaknesses. I seriously question the screening process and initial assessment protocol of the contestants, who most likely bring with them a host of chronic and preexisting health conditions like high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes and joint pain. Bob Harper, one of the trainers on the show, says the contestants do in fact go through progression stages early in the program but that part isn’t captured by cameras. Still the impression of that part that viewers see is that a morbidly obese person should be able to perform all-out sprints, do plyometric jumps and be able to explosive movements. That bothers me a lot because the physiological response from a sedentary person will be extremely low early in a training program. Muscular endurance, strength and VO2 Max need ample time to adapt to training demands on the body. Due to lack of mobility and resistance on joints and muscles, simple movements like stair climbing can be very difficult for these individuals.
To make matters worse, the contestants work out five to six hours a day while consuming supervised diets. Scientifically speaking, 2 to 4 pounds of fat is the most achievable weight one can lose in a week on a sound training program and good diet. But most of them drop double-digit pounds a week. While that may sound good, keep in mind that fat, muscle, water and bone make up body weight. The majority of these contestants lose mostly water weight and it is no surprise that many of them gain all their weight back after the show. Whether the goal is to lose 5 pounds or 50 pounds, the best approach is taking small steps and gradually increasing over time. Slow and steady always wins the race!
The yelling from the trainers is probably the most entertaining and controversial part of the show and is mostly displayed by the polarizing Jillian Michaels. Her intimidating antics and constant berating towards the contestants has made her a household name. In fact, Michaels is her own brand today as evident by her numerous books, DVDs, dietary supplements and numerous TV guest appearances. Her no-nonsense style of training has earned her the moniker ‘America’s Toughest Trainer’, which many fitness professionals in the industry find laughable, insulting and comical. She is the fiercest and most feared trainer on the show. Subsequent contestants who get assigned to her team automatically quiver at the thought and brace themselves for the ride ahead. Should a potential client be afraid to work with his/her trainer? The idea, though strategically clever to a degree, is preposterous, senseless and risky. Viewers at home get a perception of personal trainers when they see this and could be reluctant to work with one in the future.
Although yelling by personal trainers and boot camp instructors has been around for a long time and has proven to work for some, it is something I’m against. In my humble estimation, any fitness professional should be able to inspire and motivate in a non-confrontational and positive way. I believe Michaels and all those fitness professionals who yell and shout at their clients lack true motivational skills and need to work on ways to encourage their clientele without being belligerent. Michaels, who’s obviously aware that the cameras are always rolling, claims that she pushes her clients the way she does because she knows what their potential is. Fine! I get that! But everyone has an intensity threshold in which if reached can cause some serious fatigue, dizziness and exhaustion. Pushing a sedentary and morbidly obese individual to these threshold levels isn’t only risky and dangerous from a safety perspective but it can also permanently discourage that person from ever training again.
In conclusion, I’m pleased generally with the idea behind The Biggest Loser. As a fitness professional who’s goal is to motivate and inspire the world to fitness, I commend NBC on it’s efforts to do the same. Though extreme to an extent, the fact of the matter is many people’s lives have been saved because of the show and our country is a bit healthier and fitter today. My only appeal to the producers of The Biggest Loser is that they find positive ways to convey their message to the public. I challenge the trainers to come up with better encouraging and inspirational ways to push these contestants without suppressing their self-esteem further and making them feel worthless. Unfortunately with the 15th season of the show slated to air next winter and with ratings continually skyrocketing, I highly doubt much will change.