Lessons and illusions of the biggest loser

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I have never really watched the biggest loser but I have started watching this season. Man is it good television! But I am not quite sure how they get away with some of the things they do and some of the things they say. I do acknowledge that there is a lot of ‘theatrics’ going on here which is not necessarily best practice training methodology but certainly part of ‘watchable television’ 101.

Let’s start with what I like. Before starting their ‘weigh loss journey’ (more on this misnomer later). They got all them to jump off a 10 m cliff in to the water which was a great exercise in overcoming fear and pushing yourself to do what you think you can’t, both really good metaphorical lessons in what needs to happen when undertaking such a massive project. Just as an aside: Let me just say I have nothing but respect for these people who take this on. They have everything going against them – genetics, environment, social conditioning and usually, a massively negative attitude seriously ingrained over time. Make no mistake, getting past all these things to turn their lives around will take nothing less than olympic level dedication and determination. The only difference I see between these people and Olympic athletes is, natural talent and ability. The effort and the pain to achieve great things is no different regardless of whether you are buff or not.

Now for what I don’t like. The head trainer Shannan was berating one of the members for only doing 10 minutes of training and shouted that it “wasn’t even worth doing”. Now in the biggest loser house this might be fair enough as time is of the essence (and shouting looks good on TV) but the message for the general public couldn’t be more wrong.  Something is ALWAYS better than nothing and it is not about time but intensity.

He was also ranting about the need for “600 calories worth of training” both morning and night in a classic perpetuation of the myth of the need for excessive cardio training to offset or ‘pay for’ calories consumed. What about strength training aimed at building muscle to increase metabolism which is more important? What about monitoring heart rate and intensity to ensure that the right effort is being put in to stimulate growth hormone to help with fat metabolism? What about measuring fat loss instead of weight loss? What about the risk of losing muscle and stimulating cortisol which blocks fat metabolism from excessive cardio? This is where the show is seriously flawed. It is not in the interest of the participants on a week to week basis to build muscle as muscle weighs more than fat. They would be better off chopping off a leg as far as the goals of the game goes. It is all about weight, which it shouldn’t be. Why don’t they track body composition change via skinfolds, bioimpedance or a dexa scan. The other issue that the biggest loser doesn’t really address (and probably can’t due to the demand of ratings and the reality of budget) is long term change and change that can be maintained in an at home environment. What happens to these contestants when the cameras aren’t there any more?

It is unfortunate that these lessons aren’t apparent from watching the show and some seriously damaging myths of ‘weight loss’ are perpetuated but the upside is that the show does at least get people a little closer to taking action. And it is pretty clear our society needs more of that.


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