Friday, April 17, 2009

Biggest Loser - an exercise physiologist weighs in

This is a guest blog by Laura Gideon, an exercise physiologist who was kind enough to write this for us. You can contact her on her website:

Q:Who really is “The BIGGEST Loser?” A: The Viewing Audience…
The most “Non- Reality” Show on Television

By: Laura Gideon M.S., CPT Exercise Physiologist & Owner Bamboo Balance LLC –

Fitness Training Company - Los Angeles, CA

From the minute this so called “reality” show came on television, I have been annoyed. With every season that goes by and this show remains on the NBC network, new desperate, unknowing victims are being subjected to cruel punishment (disguised as exercise) and my annoyance grows deeper. The bar keeps getting raised after each “winner” takes home their quarter million dollar prize, cover of People magazine and talk show interviews. Seasons go by and viewers keep tuning in. As long as the ratings stay high, the network and the producers are happy, money‘s being made and who gives a crap about the message being sent.

Well..I DO!

And so do many of my Fitness /Health/ Wellness colleagues out in the real fitness world. We have remained virtually silent and in the background way too long and it is now time to speak up and let the public know what is reality and what is hyped infotainment disguised as Reality TV.

Another season - another the new crop of willing volunteers (or shall I call them victims) line up to get on and bare their souls to millions of TV viewers. Little do these poor unsuspecting, overweight contestants know the danger they will be subjected to physically, mentally, medically and most of all emotionally. The sad part is - that is exactly what the producers want in order to have this show be viewed as “authentic” while pulling at the heart strings of the unsuspecting public. Meanwhile, the actual beating heart muscle of every contestant is being put to a very dangerous test the entire time they are on the ranch. The saying “desperate people do desperate things” is very evident regarding this show. Contestants are clearly desperate and that is what makes them vulnerable and so easy to prey upon.

I recently read an LA Times article published this past November titled “The Biggest Loser: Should you mimic its weight-loss methods at home?” The article included perspectives from experts in the fitness industry (including a kinesiology professor and an IDEA fitness trainer of the year) along with the show’s co-creator/ executive producer and medical consultant. The two opposing opinions could not be more polar opposite with the fitness industry professionals comments airing on the side of “viewers beware this show may cause severe injury or heart attack” to the show’s producer and medical consultant touting that its “inspiring the obese to lose weight and they should not feel hopeless anymore because on this show people learn things no one has taught them before, like how to exercise.” That comment came from the show’s medical consultant.

Has he actually watched the show?

I would love to hear what he has to say when the first contestant actually does die of a heart attack as a result of this show. By the way, is a crash cart within arm’s reach? Do Bob and Jillian have CPR certifications and know how to operate a defibrillator? Unfortunately, it will probably take more than one person to suffer something life threatening before NBC takes notice to the dangers these contestants are subjected to. Apparently a recent stress fracture of the hip of one contestant (Laura) is not enough to send up a red flag. Little does she realize how fortunate she is to be sent packing.

As a fitness professional in this industry for more than 28 years I was curious as to how my colleagues in the health arena felt about this show. The impetus for writing this article came after reading a recent commentary in the IDEA (International Dance Exercise Association) monthly Fitness Journal regarding the “distortion of reality” of the Biggest Loser Show. The comment was written by a well respected fitness professional and educator who’s appalled at this TV reality series, and could not hold in his anger one more moment. Needless to say, I did a happy dance after reading it! -FINALLY…someone was speaking out in our trade journal – YES! His final words: “I am furious that the profession I have cultivated for 28 years is portrayed in this fashion.” I could not agree with him more.

I decided to take the baton and run with it.

I perused the internet to read everything I could about how other fitness professionals felt about this show and the comments were all very similar – mostly disdain. I decided to post a discussion question to my fitness professional groups on LinkedIn (one is the IDEA fitness group): “In your professional opinion what do you think of the show The Biggest Loser and the trainers Bob and Jillian…Do you feel the message being sent to the public is inspiring or dangerous?” The response was over whelming!

These are some of the comments:

“The biggest downside to this show is that it sets up unreal expectations of weight loss”

“As fitness professionals we need to stop associating exercise with punishment! (The simplest example is in public schools where the gym teacher will make a student do pushups when they are fooling around or not performing well).”

“The main problem I have is the lack of risk messaging that I see on the show”

“I am troubled with their choice of incentives for losing weight-using money as a prize encourages people to cheat or lose weight through unhealthy measures such as diuretics”

“The show does not explain often enough that for the average person, obese or not, anything beyond 2pounds of weight loss per week is counterproductive”

“The yelling…it makes for great ratings - but at the expense of what?”

“Great question simple answer…DANGEROUS, DANGEROUS, DANGEROUS.”

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. We are fitness professionals who tune in for five minutes and instantly realize the danger in the message being sent. However the viewing public does not. That is why this show is going into its what? Eighth season? A well informed viewing audience who knows what genuine fitness training is, along with proper nutrition and sustainable healthy weight loss practices, would never buy into this load of crap. All they see is in three months an “amazing” transformation from obese to buff and none of the smoke and mirrors. Viewers don’t see how they are being manipulated through emotional, gut-wrenching stories and crocodile tears to pull at the heartstrings.

Never mind the heartstrings. Here are some things to wrap your brain around….

Scientific fact: Healthy FAT loss is no greater than 2 pounds per week – period. For every 3,500 calories you do not consume or a 500 kcal deficit per day amounts to a 1 pound (fat) weight loss. That’s ONE POUND per week! The shows results are completely unrealistic according to basic human physiology. The weight loss numbers do not add up – it is totally impossible for this rate of FAT loss (which the show alludes to as FAT loss) to occur. Contestants show a supposed 7 day weight (fat) loss sometimes in excess of 20 pounds. A 20 pound weight loss (of FAT) in one week is 70,000 calories, which is a 10,000 calorie deficit PER DAY. An Iron Man athlete would have trouble doing that, even Michael Phelps during the Olympics would have trouble doing that and these people are unfit, overweight individuals NOT elite athletes. They should NOT even be working out 6-8 hours a day! To burn off that amount of calories would mean constant fueling. You can’t exercise 6-8 hours a day without fuel – period. Am I clear here? The contestants are NOT losing fat – they are losing mostly everything but that (like water weight). The people who are actually losing weight slowly with a more realistic number for of weight loss are penalized, humiliated and punished by being sent home with their tail tucked between their legs as if they did something horrible. How sick is that?

Have we as a society become so desensitized that we do not recognize torment and torture to individuals disguised as “made for reality TV?”

These contestants are ridiculed and yelled at by their “trainers” (which by the way is NOT the way you get someone to embrace exercise), asked to participate while being subjected to highly injurious workouts and bated with rewards of being able to choose who gets to be eliminated while being enticed by highly caloric cupcakes. I have seen negligence regularly on the part of both trainers with regard to safety, improper technique and form in execution of movement while resistance training, spinning and kettlebell training in addition to numerous other workout routines. Nutrition education seems to be almost entirely excluded on this show in addition to any emotional (eating) issues being addressed by a professional (which I would think would be of the utmost importance). Don’t you think there are deeply rooted emotional and psychological issues that should be addressed here? What is NOT seen leaves the mind to wonder? When the Biggest Loser does do a “follow up” show they seem to glaze over the fact that most of the contestants have re-gained weight (some almost back to the size they were pre-show) in addition to the feelings of embarrassment that overwhelmed them enough to feel sequestered in their own home.

Why is this show still on the air?

Now tell me. Is this show really about health? Being socially acceptable? Or is it about making bucks by marginalizing a segment of the population based on appearance?

I say it is the latter of the three and wholeheartedly believe that all the real fitness professionals out there would absolutely agree.

Contact Laura at


Andrea said...

Sue, thank you for this post. I watched the fist season of this show. Seasons later I caught one episode where one of the trainers was very disappointed when one of the contestants only lost 8 pounds in a week. I was floored.
As a soon to be grad (3 weeks!) with a B.S. in Kinesiology myself, and a PT certification from ACE, it angers and saddens me that this show is so popular. It's dangerous and careless. Thanks for speaking out.

Unknown said...

Thanks for letting us hear your side on this issue. It's greatly appreciated.
We have to accept the fact that weight loss is one of the most coveted dreams of many. And if you combine money with it, then I guess all hell breaks loose. Just think about it, weight loss with a prize money! Can this combination get even better?
The fact that the show is "juicy" doesn't help much either. "Juicy" in the sense that it's packed with drama, tension, and all other elements a producer could wish for. To the public, the show is just entertaining. But for those who understand what's really going on, there's nothing funny about the struggles of weight loss.
Once again, thanks for posting this!

Irrevenant said...

I totally agree with you. In the 2nd Australian series of this show, one contestant won by deliberately and knowingly overexercising to break down his muscle tissue. His words on winning were "The first thing I'm going to do is regain some bulk - I have the guns of a little girl".

Numbers on the scale are NOT fat and they're NOT health, and obsession with them at all costs does no one any good.

Jess said...

Ladies and gentlemen thank you for speaking out about this dangerous situation. I am a Exercise Scientist and this show is going to kill someone. They are taking the most at risk people and putting them through hell. I hope that we can all speak up and put this show off the air. Stay true to the findings in the research and proven facts. I commend you all.

Jess said...

Yes finally some educated people! This show is ridiculous. I am an Exercise Scientist and I can tell now someone is going to die from this show!! Thanks for Speaking out!

Laura G said...

Thank you for your comment Jess! I am so glad you liked the article. Each season the show gets increasingly "ramped up" and it will unfortunately take someone dying (probably on camera) to get this show off the air. It's a cash cow (no pun intended) for them so until the public STOPS tuning in - the show will remain sad to say. keep up the rant though and so will I!

Sue Joan said...

From Amber:

>>>Sudden changes in body stress levels caused by strenuous cardio exercises seen in the show does risk the person's heart. Since obese people usually have high blood pressure, the added strain during exercise will most likely cause heart failure.
Best Regards<<<<

Amber, in fairness to the Biggest Loser, they very much screen applicants and everyone they choose, if you look closely, are former athletes who are used to hard training and also have been carefully checked out as to their health state. They are under constant medical guidance also. This blog is rather objecting to the message the show is giving the public, almost more than the danger to the applicants although that danger always exists.

Additionally, exercise is so healthy an activity that you truly are more likely to get heart failure if you DON'T exercise rather than if you do! And that's true of both overweight and normal weight folks.

More sensible however, than the BL ideas is a gentle cardio program of 30 - 40 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. Cardio is supposed to be the exercise which does not hurt!

Bottom line, it's far more dangerous to not exercise than to exercise. Thanks for your comment.