Biggest Loser Returns: My Thoughts

“You’re not going to yell at me, are you?”

Jillian Michaels being a

Not what we do

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a prospective client and had them ask me this question. It always surprises me until I realize that for many people their only exposure to personal training is The Biggest Loser. When I think of that, and then think that they still want to come to a personal trainer for help, it makes me realize how important getting healthy is to them and how desperate they are for something, ANYTHING to work.

I’ve been training people for over 10 years and I haven’t yelled at one person. I can’t imagine doing that. It goes against everything I believe.

I was pretty surprised when I saw that The Biggest Loser was coming back on the air. I thought that all the controversy saying that contestants took drugs to help lose weight, grave physical and psychological affects were suffered by the contestants, contestants metabolisms were permanently damaged by the extreme weight loss methods they were put through, most of the contestants have regained most if not all the weight back, among other things would put this thing off the air for good. I guess not.

According to the article I read they are going to change things up now and focus more on holistic changes for their contestants. According to USA Networks president Chris McCumber, “We’re re-imagining The Biggest Loser for today’s audiences, providing a new holistic, 360-degree look at wellness, while retaining the franchise’s competition format and legendary jaw-dropping moments.”

Sounds good, I guess.

Last week I decided to take care of all my loyal readers and “take one for the team” as the saying goes. Basically,  I watched the season premiere so you don’t have to.

I told myself I’d go into it with an open mind.

Maybe they updated the problematic focus on weight loss at all costs.

Maybe they’ve started to treat their contestants like actual people instead of like things they can attack and punish for having the inexcusable audacity of being big.

Maybe they’d give their viewers a real look at how to establish sustainable fitness and dietary habits that allow them to live healthier lives based on their personal values.

via GIPHY

I’m sure you’ve guessed that this is not what they’ve done.

Let’s go over it.

The show starts off innocently enough. All of the contestants seem very excited to be there. You may recognize the host, Bob Harper, who was previously one of the trainers. He’s always come across as the “nice one”. He assigns everyone to be on one of two teams and they’re all happy.

Interspersed throughout are different profiles of the contestants and their struggles. A general theme from them is some kind of emotional or phyisical trauma in their lives and a lot of emotional eating.

Let me clear about this next point.

This is very real and it can go very deep. Fitness can, and likely should be a big part of the recovery process, but a personal trainer is just not qualified to truly deal with this in the deep and meaningful way it deserves, any more than a psycho-therapist would be qualified to help someone with movement patterns relating to back pain. 

Another important point here is that for someone dealing with these kinds of issues, a focus on weight loss is likely to be extremely counterproductive! Especially when factoring in what this show considers important, which can best be described as “losing weight is the only thing that matters!”

Back to the show.

The next thing we see is their first challenge. Everyone has to run a mile and the team that finishes first gets a 6 pound advantage at the first weigh-in. Now, I’m not going to mention (well, I guess I am) the fact that running is a high impact activity and that the average person takes about 2500 steps per mile. So they’re asking these people, who we know aren’t in the greatest physical shape, to essentially do 2500 reps of a high impact activity and then judge them for how poorly they do it. There are basically three possible outcomes here.

  1. They do well
  2. They don’t do well
  3. They get hurt

Options 2 and 3 are by far the most likely.

Let me describe two scenarios to you surrounding the same activity (running a mile) and please think about the one you feel would lead to a better experience with physical activity and a more sustainable lifestyle change for someone who has had a history of bad experiences with exercise.

  1. People are pushed into going as fast as they can no matter how they feel and are made to feel inadequate, like failures and like they let their team down for not going fast enough.
  2. People are asked to go for a mile at a pace that feels good and are encouraged to keep a healthy pace. When they finish they are congratulated for taking a great first step toward getting healthy.

Yes, I know that insulting and belittling people probably make for more exciting TV than encouraging and supporting them, but now we’re starting to get to the heart of the problems with this show and why the statement about a “360-degree holistic view of wellness” rings so false.

There is a lot of talk after the run about the contestants getting a “wake-up call” about their physical condition, as if it’s something that hasn’t dominated their thoughts for years. What they really experience is nothing more than a public shaming. This does nothing more than confirm to them that physical activity is just a punishment for being big. Not something to be enjoyed. Not something that can be part of a healthy and meaningful life for them. Just a punishment.

Let me ask you how eagerly you’d look forward to doing something that has been demonstrated to you over and over again to result in you feeling like an incompetent failure.

Anyway, after they complete their run we next see them all huddled together in what looks like the living room of the house they’re all living in. Bob tells everyone that this is going to be the most important room in the house. This is where they will all get together and talk about their experiences. He then adds that they can’t lose the weight without addressing what is going mentally.

This actually gets pretty emotional as Bob shares his story of almost dying from a heart attack about 3 years ago. He talks about waking up from a coma not knowing where he was, how he had to conquer his fear of physical activity and about how he was petrified of even entering a gym after the doctors cleared him to exercise.

Harper learned he has a hereditary condition involving high levels of lipoprotein (a) in his blood, a particle that contributes to plaque in the arteries and blood clots, and can increase the risk of heart attacks.”

According to the article it’s a little known condition that doctors don’t commonly test for.

I don’t want to make light of this at all. He was in a coma and almost died while seeming by every appearance to be in perfect health. It is great that he is trying to relate to the contestants by showing them how he has been able to overcome his fear. Helping people to face their fears is a crucial step for anyone to be able make healthier choices in their lives.

I just want to point out one seemingly obvious thing that is never mentioned:

Maybe since Bob Harper seemed to be the epitome of health at his size and bodyweight there is more to be considered when thinking about health than just size and bodyweight.

After this we see what is called the “Last Chance Workout.” This is the last workout they do before their weigh-in. Of course, the trainers are talking it up and telling everyone how hard they have to go.

Let me say this: The idea of one single workout making any kind of major difference in someones physical condition or body weight is the exact opposite of everything I believe in. I believe that is also the belief of any other conscientious trainer.

The body just DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!!!!!

This is the kind of thinking that gets people to feel good or bad about themselves based solely on what their scale says each morning.

I wonder if I’m a failure today?

In case you didn’t know this let me tell you, it is nearly impossible for the body to gain or lose anything significant other than water weight or glycogen (a substance your body stores in its muscles and uses as energy) over the course of one workout, one day or even several days. When you get up in the morning weighing 2-4 pounds more or less than you did the day before all it means is that you’re storing more or less water. Not that that you have gained or lost fat.

This knowledge, of course, isn’t something that makes for exciting TV. It’s much better to drive everyone into the ground and dehydrate them as much as possible. That sounds healthy and sustainable, right?

As a trainer, this is the part of the show I hate the most. There is nothing at all we see during these workouts that is effective for the long-term. Quite the opposite in fact.

Here is a quick rundown.

At one point a contestant says while obviously exhausted, “I’m in so much pain right now.” Let me tell you that if I heard anyone in my gym say that they wouldn’t be continuing that workout.

Again I ask, is doing something that makes you utter that statement likely going to be sustainable for you?

We see three different people puking into buckets and we even hear trainer Steve Cook yell at one point in reference to the other trainer, Erica Lugo’s team, “She’s got people puking! You guys aren’t working hard enough!”

Puking is not a sign that you are having a good workout. It’s a sign that you should probably stop what you’re doing.

We hear someone say that they feel dizzy and light-headed. Again, NOT WHAT WE WANT FROM A WORKOUT!!

We actually see Erica tell one contestant that she should feel light-headed because she’s pushing herself so hard. Again, NOT GOOD!!!

Predictably, we then see this poor contestant puke and Erica telling her to “Get it out” while her head is in the puke bucket. Presumably so she can get back to the workout.

We hear one contestant tell Steve that because the workout is so hard “I don’t know if I even want to be skinny.” Steve answers back, “It’s not about being skinny. It’s about being healthy.” On the surface this statement couldn’t be more true. Unfortunately nothing going on with this workout is even remotely in the same hemisphere as healthy.

The form on display with almost every exercise is horrible. In seeing this, I’d be shocked if there weren’t several injuries that occurred during this workout alone.

Exhausted people + bad form = problems

I know I keep coming back to this, but they talk such a good game about teaching their contestants sustainable, healthy habits. Nothing about this kind of workout is healthy, sustainable or even effective! It is only meant to exhaust and dehydrate people.

This is the kind of thing that is incredibly damaging. Not only to the poor people on the show, but to those watching, as well. The implication is that this is what you have to do to get healthy. Nothing else will do. If you don’t, you’re a failure. You don’t have the willpower. You don’t work hard enough. Forget everything else you may have accomplished in your life. It doesn’t compare to losing weight.

What do people think when they watch this? I can’t do that. I don’t want to go to the gym and puke and be in pain. I don’t know what to do but I don’t want to hire someone just to yell at me and make me feel worthless.

It breaks my heart to see this and know what people must think. Knowing that what they’re seeing is the polar opposite of what really matters and works.

Last up is the weigh-in. This is where we see how much weight the contestants have lost during the week. It’s not uncommon to see that people have lost over 10 pounds. During this weigh-in the weight loss ranged from 6 pounds to 22 pounds.

Do I need to tell anyone that losing this amount of weight in such a short amount of time is problematic and very unhealthy? Every bit of research done on this topic has shown that anyone losing weight like this is almost certain to gain it all back and then some. Likely, with a huge bit of emotional stress on top of it. Again, there is nothing healthy or sustainable about any of this.

There is one woman on the show who was previously a contestant in the Miss America pageant. They make it pretty clear how much more valuable she was in her thinner body as opposed to her bigger body that hasn’t done much of worth except raise a family, I suppose.

I guess you can tell that I’m not a fan of this show. It creates unrealistic expectations and practices methods that have shown beyond a doubt to be ineffective for long-term health at best and very damaging both mentally and physically at worst.

I hate how they try to present the methods as healthy and sustainable when they are anything but.

I hate how they completely ignore methods that have actually been shown to help people.

I hate how they make sport of punishing and shaming the people on the show and through them, millions of other people.

I hate how the show gives an incredibly wrong impression of what fitness and health are and how to achieve them.

I hate how the show prioritizes something as meaningless as bodyweight.

It’s obviously something I feel pretty deeply about. One of the things I think about most is how to make people understand what really works when it comes to fitness. Nothing about this show promotes anything but unhealthy, outdated and disproven methods and attitudes about fitness, diet, body weight, body size and health in general. I hope this helps clear some things up for you.

Thanks for reading this and please let me know if you agree disagree or have any questions. This is a very important subject.

Mitch Rothbardt, CPT, PN Level 2 Lean Eating Coach, Egoscue PAS, FMS
Castro Valley Fitness
2861 Grove Way
510-755-9191
Mitch@CastroValleyFitness.com