Recently The Biggest Loser returned to our TVs with a claim that they are focused on making Australians healthy again. Unfortunately, the methods used are not evidenced based and often utilise drastic and abusive exercise & diet regimes. So, who is this show really helping? What does this punitive approach to health and exercise achieve for the general public viewing? And what kind of physical and mental scarring does it do to the unknowing participants and public viewing audience, desperate to find a solution to their “weight problems”, willing and desperate to do whatever it takes, no matter the consequences?
Since this Reality TV show started in Australia in 2006, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the obesity crisis has seen the adult Australian population rise from 54% overweight or obese to 63.4%, it’s a worldwide concern (1). Alongside this has been the more concerning rapid increase in chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke. Now this is not saying that rise is a direct correlation to the show by any means, as the factors are far bigger than that such as social, cultural, work/life balance, and increased access to processed foods. What I am saying is whatever approaches are currently being used to tackle this crisis we are losing the battle, and given the national exposure this show has it should be doing more.
This year The Biggest Loser is saying they are looking at “relatable” weight problems, with a new format supposedly more focused on body image, “self-love” and the impact weight and fitness has on overall health. Even the winner isn’t the contestant who loses the most weight. The public will vote for the winner based on who they think has had the “greatest transformation”, both mentally and physically. However, when watching the show, right from the start we see the same punitive patterns emerging, and what is really lost is not weight, but a realistic perspective on what health & fitness should be about. I will break this article up into sections to address just a few of the major concerns I feel this has on the contestants and the Australian population alike.
The Physical Dangers of Exercising Beyond Your Capabilities
Most of the contestants and the viewers this program is attempting to reach are drastically untrained with little to no previous exercise experience and very sedentary lifestyles. The extreme training these contestants are thrown into leads to incredibly high risks of injury, in particular the high impact training. For someone who is untrained and carrying large amounts of adipose tissue (fat), even skipping or light jogging would be considered high impact, yet these poor guys and girls are thrown into box jumps, sprint running and burpees. According to the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) beginners should perform approximately 80 to 100 foot contacts per session, maximum, for very low intensity exercises like sub-maximal jumps in place (2), yet the type of impact these participants are undertaking would require years of training experience and base strength levels of a 2 x bodyweight back squat!
All this exercise beyond their capabilities leads to a range of injury risks; tendinopathies (around the knee in particular), increased damage to the joints, lower back pain and dysfunction, disc injuries and soft tissue injuries such as muscle, tendon & ligament strains, sprains & tears.
Beyond the poor exercise selection, lifting technique is completely ignored, forcing participants to perform exercises they are no way near ready for or educated on, allowing terrible technique just for the sake of them ‘feeling the burn’ or ‘destroying more calories’. This does not set great examples to the contestants or the viewers on how they should be training, and the injuries sustained destroy their ability to maintain good consistency, which is key.
Psychological Damage of Extreme & Punitive Approach to Health
The psychological scarring to participants is horrible to witness, but there is greater damage behind the scenes from the hundreds of thousands that watch and believe that this is the way to achieving a healthy lifestyle, achieving weight loss and health goals. The humiliation of public shaming at weigh ins, wearing just their underpants for people clearly already body conscious and unhappy with their appearance is just the start of damage. There is also the injury cycle frustration as per above section, a poor sense of achievement from training challenges too extreme so they gain no mastery experiences, constantly being told what to do and what is good for them so there is no autonomy, none of this helps in anyway with long term adoption of positive healthy habits and psychological health for anyone (6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14).
The drill sergeant style training, yelling at participants to work harder, creates a mentality to them and to viewers that exercise is punishment. That if you eat a so called bad food that you must punish yourself with extremes amounts of exercise. A negative relationship with exercise is then created, which leads to removal from exercise itself and lower compliance long term to a healthy lifestyle.
Unrealistic and Unsustainable Training Load
Every day the contestants participate in hours of training, multiple sessions in a day, minimal recovery days, a training load even a well-trained athlete would struggle to sustain without breaking down through illness or injury. And because of what the viewers see on this popular TV show, people think they need to enter the gym for hours at a time and destroy themselves every session, that if their trainer doesn’t make them vomit it was worth nothing. This is also incredibly damaging to the professionalism of the personal training industry, reducing the quality of personal trainers, and the ignoring the importance of an educated approach.
When starting out from a low base, even 30 min of low intensity exercise like walking or cycling can be extremely tiring and create large amounts of soreness. It is important for people just starting out or returning to training to realise that every little bit of movement counts and is doing wonderful things for them, no matter the intensity. It is vital that the general public is educated that a slow, progressive and sustainable increase of training load must be utilised if long term adoption is priority, an opportunity sorely missed by The Biggest Loser and one I hope they think about in future series.
Unrealistic and Unsustainable Goals for Weight Loss and Diet
The ridiculous amounts of weight the contestants lose on a weekly basis, the expectations set by the trainers, and then the disappointment you see in them when they only lose a few kilograms sets a horrible precedent for the participant and the viewing audience.
It is important to be setting realistic goals on weight loss if that is your driver. Ultimately a focus on health is a better approach, but as many are driven by numbers I will address that specifically. You must use an educated and scientific approach, guided by professionals, and set limits to lose a maximum of 0.5-1kg per week (3). To put this in to perspective 1kg takes 7000Kcal of energy deficit, so to lose 1kg per week reduces daily energy consumption by 1000Kcal – even this is a drastic amount to take off your diet for humans, so think about the damage if you try push for larger weekly weight loss! Extreme and unsustainable low calorie diets like those seen on the Biggest Loser have many negative effects in the physical sense (psychological to come later) including(4):
- Loss of nutrients: Limiting the amount of food you eat to hit extreme low calorie numbers means that you will also be missing many key vitamins and minerals too so supplementation becomes critical to sustain normal bodily function.
- Gallstones: The most common side effect of low calorie diets. When you lose weight too quickly, your liver secretes extra cholesterol leading to too much cholesterol in the bile, which can lead to these gallstones.
- Nausea: Due to lack of nutrients, especially carbohydrates and sodium with low calorie diets, will bring on nausea, and can even cause vision disturbances in extreme cases.
- Fatigue: Your glucose sources drop so therefore your fuel sources drop. Your brain, muscles and just about every other cell in your body relies on this to do what they need to do, without it energy is effected rapidly.
- Headaches: The low blood sugar experienced due to lack of glucose as per above leads to increased rates of headaches.
- Constipation: Fibre is critical for gut health and regular bowel movements, this also goes missing with low calorie diets.
- Menstrual Issues: Often contestants go on the show with the aim to lose weight to be able to have children, yet the methods they use make it even harder! Rapid loss of weight in extreme low calorie diets forces the body to go in to starvation mode, shutting off functions not needed for survival, the menstrual cycle is one of these. This leads to long term higher health risks including bone mineral loss and low levels of oestrogen and progesterone production.
- Muscle Loss: With low glucose circulating in the blood, the body will seek new sources of energy, and will break down muscle to convert to glucose, causing muscle wastage. Muscle is absolutely critical for long term health, which you can find out more about in a previous article of mine by clicking here.
- Heart Complications: Low calorie diets can lead to irregular blood pressure, this in turn creates greater risks of heart arrhythmia, stroke, and brain haemorrhage.
Along with the above risks of extreme low calorie diets, there is always a yo-yo effect with regards to weight loss (5). The drastic calorie reduction is unsustainable long term, and with the starvation mode the body goes in to, the natural metabolism rate slows down. When calorie consumption returns to normal your metabolism is no longer as efficient at burning energy. All of this means you end up putting back on more weight than you lost with the diet.
Psychological Damages and Attitude to Food
When exercise and diet is used as punishment, along with the negative attitudes that will develop towards exercise as mentioned above, we also create negative attitudes to food. People start to categorise foods in to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, ‘cheat meals’, as opposed to thinking about food as a source of nourishment and enjoyment. This leads to feelings of guilt and shame when a ‘bad’ food is eaten, which then leads to more poor choices in food. The constant diet cycling effect also leads us to lose touch of our sense of hunger, our sense of when we have had enough too eat, things which should be innate and part of our DNA. For more information on this I recommend you look in to The Moderation Movement group, qualified dieticians who are experts in the field of HAES (Healthy at Every Size).
More Important Markers to Look at For Health
Research suggest that if the focus is on weight loss and “diet” instead of healthy and sustainable habits, then there is never success in weight loss or any of the far more important health markers & mortality risks (5).
While there is association between obesity and increased risks for many diseases, causation is far less established (5). Many studies on increased disease risks for people classified as obese do not factor in critical areas such as fitness, activity, nutrient intake, weight cycling or socioeconomic status. When studies do control for these factors, increased risk of disease disappears or is significantly reduced (15). We need to stop looking at health in terms of fatness and be focusing more on fitness, whatever the BMI score (A very poor measure, a discussion for another day).
As you can see from chart above (16), just one of many research studies in to this area of fatness vs fitness, if people are fit, body fat % makes little difference to all-cause mortality risks. Goals should be focused on keeping fit and healthy, not losing body weight. If in the process of keeping fit and healthy that person loses some weight, then it was meant to be for that individual, not a forced process, but a lifelong sustainable one.
Moral and Social Responsibilities Being Ignored
This show has an international reach with its many versions and is strongly in the public eye – because of this they have opportunity to make a positive change. Scratch that, they have a responsibility to make positive change in people’s lives struggling to find what health and fitness means to them. With so many fads in media on diets, fitness, weight loss and everything in between, you can see how confusing it can be for anyone outside the industry. This type of ratings driven physical and psychological abuse surely breaches our moral and ethical responsibilities.
Two key principles of ethics are completely ignored by The Biggest Loser; Non-Maleficence – the duty to do no harm, a stringent obligation not to harm others, and Beneficence – the duty to do good, to benefit the person, a positive obligation to contribute to the other’s wellbeing through care & compassion. This is troubling indeed.
Health Habits You Should Really Be Aiming For
So, what should really be promoted? Find activities and exercise you enjoy, utilise a sustainable nutrition approach that allows you to find joy and nourishment not shame and punishment in what you eat. Do it for the intrinsic motivation of just moving and feeling better about yourself, not an obscure number on the scales or ‘social norms’.
Health is not about counting calories and burpees, it is about balance, eating to nourish and fuel energy & activity. It is about pleasure, a sense of achievement, socialising with friends & colleagues, about satisfaction and ultimately happiness in oneself, whatever shape or size that come in.
Written by Head Performance Coach & Co-founder David Smith
- Retrieved 27.4.16 – ABS Stats http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4338.0~2011-13~Main%20Features~Overweight%20and%20obesity~10007
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