“Biggest Loser” Viewers Turned Off to Exercise.

Back before I canceled cable, I managed to catch a few episodes of “The Biggest Loser.”

In a nutshell, severely overweight contestants compete to lose weight and win a million dollar prize. Doctors remind the participants that their current path is one that will likely end in early death – and thus the competition begins!

I remember being taken aback by the Hollywood-ification of weight loss. Even without screaming celebrity trainers, extreme diets, tears, vomiting, obstacle courses and dozens of cameras in your face, losing weight still tends to be a pretty dramatic process. Even though “The Biggest Loser” is far from the typical experience of following a sustainable exercise and nutrition regimen, it certainly makes for good TV. And great ratings.

I’ve always wondered how watching shows like the biggest loser – wherein contestants literally run, jump and climb until they collapse in a pool of their own puke – shapes viewers’ perceptions of exercise. A new study, which will be published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, aims to answer that very question.

According to the study’s lead author:

The depictions of exercise on shows like “The Biggest Loser” are really negative. People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is – that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

For the study, researchers had college students watch either an exercise clip from “The Biggest Loser” or a performance clip from “American Idol.” After watching the clip, participants’ attitudes about exercise were examined. Regardless of fitness level, participants who watched “The Biggest Loser” had more negative attitudes about exercise.

While the study is fairly limited and not without its flaws, the conclusion is no surprise. I, for one, am traumatized just at the thought of Jillian Michaels screaming in my ear while strapped to a treadmill and begging for mercy.

In actuality, sustainable weight loss isn’t about extremes. Sure, you need to push yourself. But it’s done in a practical, realistic and even enjoyable way. It’s not something to fear, but rather something to relish and appreciate. Finding small ways to make your life healthier is a joyful experience. But who wants to watch that on TV?

Do you think shows like “The Biggest Loser” inspire viewers to improve their health – or do you think these types of shows make viewers even more intimated and reluctant to change their lives with exercise? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Rusty Redfield says:

    I can only speak personally, but three years ago I started a weight-loss program of my own and coincidentally started watching “Biggest Loser” for the first time. I came to the realization that although I only wanted to lose 40 pounds, if the contestants could lose half their (enormous) bodyweight through diet and exercise, so could I — and I did. I never thought that their experience was supposed to be analogous to mine; I lost about two pounds a week for five months and at least one of the contestants lost my entire body weight. I didn’t find it enormously inspiring but I occasionally found it useful and I remember remarking that, after a day of working out and dining on salad, I rather enjoyed watching people embarking on a much more dramatic course of exercise and diet than I had required.
    But you’re right. If I’d had to do it with Jillian Michaels screaming in my ear, I’d’ve brained her with a dumbbell and walked out. That’s more like S&M porn than sensible weight loss.

  2. The result could be the factor that inspires people to actually take up exercising. But I somehow agree with you, it does look intimidating looking back at their exercises. Well, i know result doesnt come easy…haha

  3. My take on how The Biggest Loser affects sedentary people is this- they see the extremes of what a person like them can do and feel very inspired. That’s great! But… I think they keep the idea in their mind that they can breeze through this as quick as the TV show. They understand the work invested and they suddenly feel capable of that, but they don’t get the time they need to invest because not only are the contestants of Biggest Loser going through an extremely short program for their goals, but we also only see what’s edited down to the length of the show each week. So, in my experience, though it may inspire people to start exercising, more people may lose interest in exercising faster as well. But a good personal trainer should be able to modify a clients expectations and keep them enthused about reaching their goals. As far as it scaring people away from exercising in the first place, I don’t see that. I remember reading a statistic from ACE comparing the earnings of the fitness industry before and after Jillian Michaels/Biggest Loser and it was something like a 400% increase.

  4. I agree with Matt, people who have never exercised before don’t know how much time is actually invested in eating right and exercising, it’s a slow and steady program. Consistancy is the key. In “The Biggest Loser” you see people in an unrealistic environment where all they do is exercise for hours every day and their meals are planned for them, It’s as though they are in a bubble and not ready to face the real world when they leave it.

  5. I find it funny that the ad at the top of the page is back to Jillian Michaels after this post. I’ve never watched the show fully, but I have a general idea of her programs outside of The Biggest Loser. Those that are intimidated by watching the biggest loser aren’t the ones that are that serious about becoming healthy.

    I guess a lot of people turn to their TV for inspiration, but how many people decided to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity after seeing Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? I’d wager not many. Those that are serious are going to either build a program with their doctor, or a trainer. Those that are not will continue to buy into the quick sell “get abs in 8 minutes a day”

  6. I don’t know about everyone else but as for me that show always inspired me to get up and start working out. : )

  7. Foysal Ahmed says:

    Ha ha, quite amazing , though inspiring too. I think keeping the diet is most important. While I regularly follow http://howtoloseweight-tips.com, I also try to work out whenever possible.

  8. liz gunning says:

    Dave-as a fit pro, i agree with you completely.