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The Biggest Loser Challenge: Separating Myth From Reality

By Janet Bertrand

Television has become a major force in society today. We plan our lives around certain TV shows and rely on TiVo to keep us updated and currently informed. In the fitness world there is much less emphasis on TV and anything else that requires long periods of sedentary behavior. However, there is one show that has received the attention of some fitness professionals. Although this show seems to have raised awareness about obesity and overcoming challenges, it may also be sending the wrong message to some people.

The Biggest Loser is one of the most popular shows on television today. It portrays morbidly obese contestants and their quest for losing large amounts of weight in a very short amount of time. The show has two teams lead by two personal fitness trainers. The teams are given different challenges all of which are focused around weight and health. Then teams are periodically weighed and given points according to the team that has lost the most weight. At the end of the show these same contestants emerge much leaner, stronger with a total head to toe make-over.

The Biggest Loser seems like a great idea, until one looks into the details of the show. From the beginning these contestants are separated from the outside world and every part of their lives is controlled. From their diets, to their effort output, they are monitored and told what to do. This kind of scenario would never be available in the real world. The extreme workouts that the contestants are asked to do could even be fatal for someone with an undiagnosed health condition such as heart disease and diabetes. What these people need are moderate workouts that gradually build up their strength and stamina and are the safe and healthy ways to achieve long term results.

What this specific population needs is behavioral modification. The hardest things to change in this type of situation are the nutritional and psychological issues at hand. This type of show sets up some people for unrealistic expectations of themselves and their results. Getting to the root of the problem is the key to long term success at losing large amounts of weight. Only when one looks into the reasons that support these unhealthy habits can a person expect to change their life.

There are some positives about the show. One is the inspiration to get up and do something. The trainers, Bob and Jillian, are very motivational, getting the contestants to overcome fears and self doubt. There is also a sense of hope associated to The Biggest Loser, a feeling that “if this person who weighs 300 pounds can run a marathon than I can walk a mile.” Then there is the fact that the show itself has raised awarness and education on obesity in America. The show has made it clear we can no longer turn our heads and look the other way. With this show a sense of power over our circumstances has become evident; we as a society can change this downward spiral into disease and premature death. 

The problem is when they have the contestants working so hard that it is not uncommon to see one of them vomit. Sometimes this happens on a regular basis. For most people exercise is going to be hard. Exercise is going to be a challenge to doing something new and pushing yourself past your comfort zone, but it does not always have to make you sick. That expectation is not realistic and the process is downright dangerous. In fact when it comes to how we as a society look at exercise, it should be more of a positive and inviting experience. Although the show does focus on the importance of a daily routine of cardio and strength training, adapting a more active lifestyle can incorporate an afternoon at the park with a soccer ball. It can include a walk after dinner instead of dessert. It can be part of a vacation planned around movement, bike trails, and hiking. True change involves every aspect of ones life and that includes family and friends. It would include how we look at food, how we prepare our food, even how we purchase food. Think about the benefits of growing our own fruits and vegetables, harvesting them and then preparing them to eat. The whole concept would change how we sit down and enjoy the experience of a meal.

The Biggest loser is a television show and should be viewed that way. One should understand that it is an extreme situation and although these people really are doing theses physically demanding tasks, they are also taking a real risk. Workouts should not be potentially harmful to ones health. Before an individual, especially someone morbidly obese, first starts an exercise routine, one should seek the help of their primary doctor just to make sure they are safe for that specific activity. Something viewers may not know is that all of the contestants on the Biggest Loser get rigorous health screenings before the show begins. This includes a test for diabetes, high blood pressure and a stress test. There is also a emergency technician on the set at all times. This is important to point out because if the average viewer decides to do one of these intense workouts on their own, without careful monitoring, they could face a serious health risk.

Sitting still and doing nothing is also just as, if not more, dangerous. So what should one do if they are facing obesity and disease? The first step would be to simply move (once cleared with their doctor), and go for a 30 minute walk. Find a movement you love and do it. It can be rollerblading, belly dancing, or kickboxing. It does not always have to be running or some boring machine at a gym. The second would be to educate yourself about nutrition. How about a basic community collage course on nutrition? Learning the basics about food and what the body truly needs to function at optimal levels. The third step would be accountability. This could be through a friend, family member or even through a service such as personal training. This person would be someone with whom you can confide in and share your goals, and someone who will stay on your case, encouraging you to keep trying.

It is a love hate relationship the fitness world has with The Biggest Loser. The best case scenario would be if one watched the show, became inspired and then sought the help of a professional. If they came to the understanding that it would be a complete change in direction in their life. That the hardest part of losing the weight would actually be inside their heads. Oh and maybe turning off the television! 

Janet Bertrand is a personal fitness trainer at Fitness Quest 10 who loves to motivate and inspire people to achieve their goals. Working with a diverse range of fitness levels Janet believes the power to create change in one’s life is already there, just waiting to be taped into.

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