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Is the Biggest Loser Hurting it's Audience?

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When the TV show "The Biggest Loser" first aired in October 2004, I was excited. I thought it was going to be a show that would give exercise tips, promote sensible weight loss and demonstrate how a professional personal trainer did his or her job. What it turned out to be was a show that sacrificed the contestant's health for ratings.

In season after season, ever-larger people are brought on and encouraged to lose weight at levels that damage their bodies, destroy muscle and paint a completely unrealistic picture for the general public of how to drop the fat.

The rules of weight loss are simple. Most people should strive for a loss of 1-2 pounds per week. If a doctor is monitoring you, you can set a goal of up to 1% of your body weight weekly. Lose weight faster than that and your body goes into starvation mode. You hang onto fat while muscle and water are sacrificed. As muscle drops, so does your metabolism, making further weight loss even more difficult. But that's not all.

When I watched contestant Michael Ventrella weigh in with a 34-pound loss in ONE WEEK, I half expected him to be rushed off to the hospital. Extremely rapid weight loss like he experienced causes mineral deficiencies, reduces bone density and increases the risk of gallstones.

What's worse, people that have sudden rapid weight loss often experience a yo-yo effect. Since your body thinks it's starving, you crave food even more. With the muscle loss, any food you eat isn't burned off as quickly and you pack more of it away as fat. Frequently the gain will replace everything you lost. The end result is all the weight goes back on but now your body has less muscle and a lower metabolism than when you first started. Several former Biggest Loser contestants have put on most or all the weight they originally lost.

Unfortunately, anyone who attempted to lose weight responsibly would be quickly voted off the show. Slow and steady just doesn't make for good television.

Then there's the whole issue of exercise. Contestants that have led completely sedentary lives up to their starting the show must now work out with personal trainers that push them up to 6 hours every day. They're doing rapid full-body, high impact exercises without learning the basics of movement (at least on camera). A couple of contestants have experienced stress fractures as a result of improper or excessive training.

In one episode when they were taking a spinning class, the trainers removed the seats (or saddles) of the bikes to make the contestants work harder. It was a move so foolhardy and dangerous, I was amazed the bike's manufacturer didn't pull their sponsorship immediately.

When interviewed, people associated with the Biggest Loser insist that the television audience is only given a tiny glimpse into the comprehensive training program contestants are put through. Viewers don't see how they move from walking, to jogging, to running. Instead, we watch only the most extreme part of their workouts when their faces are red from exhaustion and they're on the verge of collapse.

To help the viewers of The Biggest Loser, I've put together these:

Simple rules for watching the show.

  1. The contestants don't start by doing the tough things first. They start slowly and build up to the harder stuff over several days or even weeks. You only see the extreme because it makes for better TV.

  2. Contestants lose weight quicker than you because that's their job. Most of us don't have the luxury of spending several hours a day working with a personal trainer, having meals made by a professional chef or our health monitored daily by a physician. If you're losing 1-2 pounds a week, you're doing exactly what health professionals recommend. 10-30 pounds a week is dangerous and unrealistic.

  3. Not all trainers spend their sessions with clients yelling. A personal trainer is there to educate and motivate, not beat down a client's self-esteem. The Biggest Loser trainers may have nurturing moments with their clients, you just won't see it broadcast because it's not as sensational to watch.

  4. The Biggest Loser is entertainment, not reality. Watch it for motivation and inspiration. Don't watch expecting to learn anything about proper exercise form or healthy diet tips, because that wouldn't be as much fun to watch.

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