Thursday, May 20, 2010

Questioning the Biggest Loser Model

*Update* -- Turns out I didn't get the Target bike. I took B. with me to check it out since he's the cyclist in the family. He showed me several elements of the bike that weren't particularly well made and informed me that when bikes like these break, they're done. It costs way more to fix them than they're worth...So, I'm going to save my pennies a little longer and get a bike from a bike store where they'll custom size it and do all the maintenance.

On to the topic of the day...Last night, I was doing my usual Wednesday night long-ish run. It was one of those runs that reminds you what it felt like to run when you first started out. I think it was a combination of fatigue and allergies, but my legs felt like lead, and it was hard to breathe. So, about 4 miles in, I was desperately trying to get my mind off my discomfort and started thinking about the Biggest Loser Marathon episode I'd finally gotten around to watching on Tivo yesterday.

Whenever I see it, my first response is, "Well, if those people can do a marathon, it looks good for me..." But during this season's episode, I was struck by the ridiculousness of asking people who have only recently become active to complete a marathon. Granted, the contestants aren't required to run, although many of them do run at least part of it. During the pre-race segment, I watched Daris put on a knee brace and say, "This is what training too hard gets you." Duh. Even experienced runners usually spend more than 4 weeks prepping for a marathon. It seems like the show is risking the orthopedic health of the contestants for the drama of a long race.

I was also very surprised by the state of the former contestants who joined this season's final four at different points in the run. With the exception of the petite dark-haired woman, they were all quite a bit larger now than in the clips they showed of their particular season finale show. It got me thinking that they must have been working themselves silly and restricting their calories to the extreme to get that thin for the finale--something that was unsustainable in the long term. I've only watched the past two seasons of the show, and I do like watching, although sometimes I'm not sure why. I do enjoying hearing the contestants personal stories and seeing them take control of their lives. One major thing I don't like is the way weight loss is obtained. While the weight loss the contestants make in the 5 months or so of the show is dramatic and, on some level, inspiring, I don't think it's the healthiest.

Take for example, Koli (and even Sam while he was on the show). Once they started getting to a reasonable weight, they were in it for the money, whether they still "needed to be there" or not. There was more than one instance of footage of them working out at all hours of the night to burn extra calories. And, when he went home, Koli found out how hard it was and went to another training camp in Las Vegas. The show is setting up an abnormal expectation. People don't have the leisure to work out like that in the real world. To me, that will inevitably lead to either an unhealthy obsession with exercise or weight gain.

As far as injuries, I hate the footage of Jillian pushing someone to keep running when they're physically exhausted that ends with them falling and skidding off the back of the treadmill. That would be an injury risk for a fit person whose joints aren't already under extreme stress. When Ashley fell of the treadmill at at least two different times I can recall earlier in the season, I couldn't believe that her knees/ankles were still in working order when she got up. I know Jillian and Bob are professional trainers and there are doctors monitoring the contestants, but I feel like safety is sometimes pushed to the limits for the excitement factor the producers want to see.

The changes I'd make to the show would make for terrible television (nothing like reality tv as we know it). I'd take away those stupid temptations and even the prize money (saving your life is a pretty good prize). I'd lose the concept of voting people off. It undermines the support system they're encouraged to develop by turning it into a back-stabbing drama-fest. I think there should be group and individual therapy sessions so they can figure out why they're unhealthy instead of having Jillian give them her oversimplified cliches about being unhappy with themselves. There would be more segments about teaching them to shop and cook and eat out. The workouts would be tough but focus on listening to their body/knowing physical limits and extending those limits safely without over training. And, if anyone has to go home at all, it wouldn't be the one who didn't lose enough weight...People who are losing weight are doing fine. The person who's still struggling needs to stay in the supportive, structured environment. My show would be more like Intervention than the a reality tv game show. Like, I said, really boring television, but probably more helpful for the morbidly obese than the equivalent of crash weight loss.

Anyway, that's my rant for the day...

What do you think? Are you a fan of the Biggest Loser?
How do you feel about their methods?


  1. I love the show, but I completely agree with a lot of your points. When you think of it in terms of "just a television show" you don't care about the REAL how and why of these people's problems, but in actuality, even being mildly overweight signals that there are deeper problems and having Jillian pretend to analyze these people irritates me. They need real intervention for their food issues. And, while it's great television to watch them break down, I wonder how real that part of it is. It's a reality show, yes, but it's still edited to the nth degree and I HOPE that some of it is clipped together for dramatic effect and not an actual representation of all that goes on.

  2. I've watched the show for years, but like you, I sometimes wonder why. I can clearly see the unrealistic nature of it, and the hype - but I still enjoy it. The marathon thing really pisses me off and I completely disagree with it. It's no doubt that their long term success rate is so horrible with the crazines that goes on in that show. But I still watch it.

    You may want to check out used bikes on craigslist or something, espeially if you have a knowledgable friend. We got a smokin' deal for my son last year on a very lightly used bike. The guy bought it and realized he just wasn't that into it. His loss, our gain. You do have to know what you're looking for though.

  3. I just wrote about BL on my blog, too. I love the show to death and will continue to watch it. But it drives me crazy sometimes!

  4. Ha, your version of TBL would indeed make for dull TV! I agree with you in many ways, though. My gripes include the way the weight loss expectations seem to get bigger and bigger every time. I know that it is possible to lose some big amounts in the early days when you have a lot to lose, but I hate the way 2-4 pounds lost is considered failure. I hate the food temptations b/c I think they encourage disordered eating. Usually to "win" the money or whatever you have to binge, or to be "good" you have to abstain entirely. It would be nice if there was some encouragement of moderation instead of extremes one way or another. And though the TBL marathon fascinates me, it is so wrong to have such untrained persons running or walking that distance. However, I will be watching the finale next Tuesday night!