Late last week, I got notice of a study that was conducted in Alberta, Canada that looked at how the television show “The Biggest Loser” makes people feel about exercise.  It seems, despite the holier-than-thou rhetoric of the show’s creators, the show is more likely to turn people away from exercise than towards it.  And you know what?  I can’t say I’m even one tiny bit surprised.

The Biggest Loser depicts people going through hell in the name of losing weight.  These people are berated and screamed at by a nasty drill instructor/piece of work.  (I’ve heard rumors from insiders that she has a naturally fast metabolism and can eat a whole lot and still maintain that figure.  So she makes sport of screaming at people less genetically blessed than she is.  Nice.)  Show participants are put through a dangerous program where they are worked until they are in extreme pain, vomit, and/or collapse from exhaustion and dehydration.  Exercisers are often depicted weeping from frustration and pain.  And so I ask you, does this look like fun?  Does this look like something you want to jump up off the couch and try?

In my decades as a fitness instructor, I’ve learned a thing or two.  And one thing I’ve learned is that if you want people to exercise, you need to show people that it is FUN.  It needs to seem pleasurable and enjoyable.  It needs to be accessible so people think, “I could DO that!”  If it looks painful and shameful and miserable and dangerous, most people will not do it.

The study indicated that after watching just a short clip of The Biggest Loser people had a more negative view towards exercise than after watching the control clip (a segment from American Idol).  There are varying hypothesis as to why this is so.  Some researchers suggest that beginning exercisers might mistakenly believe that The Biggest Loser depicts “normal” exercise.  And as I mentioned, it certainly doesn’t look pleasurable or fun.

The Biggest Loser is extremely successful at their actual (as opposed to their often stated) goal.  It gets ratings.  People watch.  But do they watch to be inspired?  I don’t think so.  I don’t have a study to back me up on this, but my strong opinion is that The Biggest Loser is yet another example of the modern Roman Colosseum.  People aren’t watching other people be torn apart by lions because they want to learn to run faster and be better lion tamers.  People are watching other people be torn apart by lions because they want to feel superior, they want to feel in the right, and they want to feel better about themselves.  Because no matter how bad the viewer’s day is going, at least he isn’t that guy with the wrong religion getting torn apart by lions.

Look, we need to see the Biggest Loser as entertainment and understand it within the  context of voyeuristic entertainment.  Any talk about it being a way to help people get happier and healthier needs to be shut down right now.  It’s a blueprint for how to get disordered ideas around food and exercise.  It’s a handy guide to how to get sick and injured while engaging in “healthy” behaviors.

This study is just one more small piece of evidence on top of the growing heap that proves you can’t shame people into being thin.  So maybe it’s time we showed people fitness for what it really is, pleasurable, accessible, fun and great for every BODY.  Let’s throw out the vinegar and share a little honey.  Then maybe we can ALL enjoy the sweet, sweet taste of success.


The Fat Chick

P.S. Interested in finding a pleasurable way to integrate fitness into your life?  How about trying my DVD “The Fat Chick Works Out”?  It’s progressive (starting with just a 10 minute workout) and it’s super fun!

6 Comments. Leave new

  • Donna Skelton
    October 29, 2012 8:55 am

    Great entry! (Though the link for the study doesn’t work.) I was first exposed to Greatest Loser while, ironically enough, working out one night at the gym. My thought was much the same, that the name of the game is ratings, though I was horrified upon reading the BodyLoveWellness blog interviews with a past participant at just how much the ratings trump absolutely everything else. I guess I should have realized that in order to drop pounds like that, that extreme disordered practices would have to be used. But all I thought was, well that’s fine if you’re cracked enough to move to a farm, give up your life, and do nothing but exercise and eat Subway sandwiches–but that’s not my life.

    I’d love to see what a 5-year follow-up with any of the participants looks like–not solely in terms of weight but in terms of their mental health (or, I suspect, complete lack thereof if they’re still in the midst of eating and exercise disorders). But you know we’ll never see that… because you know it wouldn’t be good for … ratings.

  • I haven’t gotten much farther than the foreward but JM does talk about having been overweight when she was younger in her book about boosting your metabolism. I don’t know how much she has to work for that figure NOW, but she USED to.

    I think that the methods used by the trainers on BL would work for me, HOWEVER, I began with a strong sense of self and value for myself when I began this journey. For someone with a weaker constitution or less of a sense of self-worth, I could see this methodology as being very discouraging and damaging.

  • I think Biggest Loser is one of the most horrid shows on television. Likening it to the Roman Colosseum is an excellent analogy! No one can maintain what’s done on that show so I don’t think it is helpful or inspiring; in fact, I think the those who go on the program need counseling. Why would you do that to yourself, allow others to treat you with such disrespect? Allow yourself to be degraded, show yourself at your worst so others cant taunt, laugh, and help you down the path of further degradation. And Jillian… don’t even get me started. I have heard her described as a weight loss drill sergeant – that’s much too nice a description, IMO. This show is extremely negative, nasty, and promotes self-loathing. And obviously pushed my buttons! ; )

  • […] work but let’s try it again” approach, I’ll feel honor-bound to keep repeating […]

  • […] show is unhealthy not only for those who participate in it, but also for people who simply watch.  Several studies came out showing that the show negatively impacts viewer opinions regarding people of size.  Additional […]

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