Notorious celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels found herself in hot water last week for giving her team on The Biggest Loser caffeine pills without a doctor’s permission. While some pegged it as cheating, to me it’s not that big of a deal. Caffeine is a well-researched and reasonably harmless supplement that actually can enhance the effects of exercise.
What’s strange to me that this incident would cause such alarm, when other practices of the show are much more problematic. Allow me to explain.
As a personal trainer, my relationship with The Biggest Loser is of the love-hate variety. The popular weight-loss competition show puts contestants through hours of grueling workouts every day to ostensibly “cure” their obesity. To me, this approach is like watering an herb garden with a fire hose: Even if it gets the job done, is it worth the damage?
There are important lessons to be learned from Loser’s mistakes. Here are the top three ways the show misses the mark on weight loss.
1) Training to obliteration: Don't try this at home, kids.
The show is infamous for its montages of obese contestants working out until they break—physically, mentally, emotionally. Stress fractures and joint injuries are common, as is vomiting, crying, dizziness and hyperventilation.
There’s no diplomatic way for me to put this, so here it is: It is NEVER productive or appropriate to train until you vomit or fracture a bone. Obese individuals in particular often need the least training stimulus to start making progress. A month or two of walking hills, hiking and light kettlebell swings is the perfect place to begin.
Bottom line, while you do need to get outside of your comfort zone to see changes in your body, you can’t shift into fifth gear directly from first. Small, incremental upticks in activity add up.
2) Posting radical results every week is not realistic.
The Biggest Loser’s contestants often post amazing weight loss per week—sometimes 10 pounds or more—so they must be doing something right. Right?
I don’t think so. While weight loss can be encouragingly rapid in the first stages of a solid regimen, contestants routinely go to unsafe measures to weigh less, such as extreme dehydration and starvation diets.
There’s a morbid joke among personal trainers: Want to lose 20 pounds instantly? Cut off your arm. The point is, weight loss and fat loss are two different things. I recommend budgeting one week for each pound you want to lose. Some weeks you’ll make tremendous progress; others you’ll feel like you’re barely treading water. That’s okay. Stay the course, and check in with yourself regularly. You could use a scale, or my favorite method: How do you look? How do your clothes fit? How do you feel? Let those metrics be your guide. They’re much harder to cheat than the scale.
3) Eating Subway and chewing gum does not a healthy diet make.
Once The Biggest Loser took off in the ratings, it seemed like every company wanted a piece of the pie, and product placement in the show skyrocketed. Contestants are constantly shown eating Subway sandwiches and curbing cravings by chewing a certain brand of gum.
When undergoing a fat loss regimen, nutrition is vitally important, and it’s good that the show addresses it. But fast food (whatever the calorie count) is still inside-the-box thinking. The most important nutritional habit healthy people cultivate is taking responsibility for their own food and nourishment. This means grocery shopping and cooking as often as possible, rather than buying a pre-made meal.
Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of sneaking in more commercials, all that product-placement airtime was devoted to providing people with a more valuable service: teaching them principles of sound nutrition and how to affordably incorporate it into their lives? We'll consider that, um, food for thought.
If The Biggest Loser ultimately inspires people to pursue healthier lifestyles, then the show does help combat the mounting obesity crisis. Just remember, though, that reality TV is a medium of dramatization and spectacle, and actual reality—the one you live in—plays by a different set of rules.
Marshall Roy is the owner of RISE gym in King of Prussia, a kettlebell and barbell studio offering personal training and group strength & conditioning classes. During his career he’s trained rugby players, triathletes, news anchors, Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters, middle-aged men and women, the obese, and even figure competitors. Learn more about what RISE has to offer at www.RISEgym.com.