Big & Proud

It’s a Thursday night and the fiance is still celebrating his bachelor party in Europe – so naturally I am at home watching The Biggest Loser.  This show is controversial, not only among the general public but among personal trainers in particular – but i refuse to stop watching.  And here’s why:

Just in case you live under a rock and/or refuse to acknowledge network TV from the past decade (TBL debuted in 2004): obese people from all over the U.S.A. apply and audition to be on The Biggest Loser.  Once chosen as “contestants,” they are brought to “the ranch” (a campus in northern LA county) to endure grueling workouts (6+ hours per day, mostly moderate; some vigorous) and learn how to prepare and cook nutritious food (under the guidance of registered dietitians and doctors).

Though they are offered counseling throughout the time they stay on the ranch, they must also participate in “challenges” to stay on the show (mostly physical, some mental), and they are judged at the end of each week based on percentage of weight lost.  Typically the contestant with the lowest percentage of weight loss goes home (though there are sometimes other factors that determine whether a contestant goes home).

There are endless internet tirades against the program – many claiming that the show encourages unhealthy practices in the name of spectacle; others that say fast and extreme weight loss sets up unrealistic expectations both for the persons on the show and those at home watching, disillusioned when they cannot achieve similar results.

I agree with these critiques.  I am a critical television viewer and I understand that the show isn’t perfect.  That said, I still watch The Biggest Loser because I believe in what it stands for.  

The Biggest Loser (TBL) originated as a way for people to see that there are alternatives to a lifetime of obesity, and that those alternatives do not necessarily involve weight loss surgery.  Even more importantly, TBL helps the greater public understand the role of personal trainers (although these roles did become increasingly caricatured, which led to my fave trainer Jillian leaving the program) and the powerful ways in which one-on-one support – whether it comes in a gym, doctor’s office, kitchen, or home – can make all the difference in a person’s weight loss journey.

Furthermore, TBL shows a wider audience what intense physical exercise can look like (note: it rarely involves an elliptical machine, 5-pound dumbbell, or endless “crunches”), that healthy eating isn’t impossible or expensive, and that teamwork and incentives (sure, money talks – but so do some of the “lesser” prizes on the show, like letters from home) are often the missing links in achieving successful and sustained weight loss.

The fitness industry has this awful propensity to laser focus on whatever workout/trend is “coolest” at the moment and proclaim it to be the final word in fitness – while also suggesting that every other workout/trend that came before it is outdated, irrelevant, and ineffective.

Add to that the fact that each trainer has an individual “style” when working with clients – we include or exclude certain exercises based on our education, background, and beliefs – and the fitness industry is actually deeply segmented with conflicting opinions, practices, and schools of thought on what exactly is the “one true path” to our clients’ success.

So back to The Biggest Loser.  Whether or not it’s “cool” or not does not matter to me; nor do any of the stupid challenges or gimmicks the show uses to garner ratings.  What matters is that it displays the overarching principles of the work that I do – that hard work in the gym, a clean diet, and a positive attitude can change your health and your life – and shows a multitude of different people employing those principles in different ways toward the same goal: to lose weight.

THAT is the message that I think more people need to hear, more trainers need to respect, and more critics need to consider.

Have you ever watched The Biggest Loser or other weight loss programs?  What do you think about their tactics and messaging?

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