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‘The Biggest Loser’: Should you mimic its weight-loss methods at home?

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Medical experts weigh in on intense versus moderate workouts for those who are seriously overweight. But no matter which approach you choose, be sure to have a physician’s guiding hand.
By Jeannine Stein, LATimes.com

On “The Biggest Loser,” contestants arrive fat and leave thin. And in between, they go through an intense fitness regimen that is, to put a good face on it, grueling.

The hours-long, athlete-level routines take place from the get-go. Some contestants have completed a quasi-mini-triathlon consisting of a 250-meter swim, a 2-mile bike ride and a climb up 42 flights of stairs. Others have pulled airplanes down a runway or climbed up and down a hill as many times as they could from sunup to sundown — not just sweating copiously but sometimes feeling dizzy, vomiting and crying.

With the show taping its seventh season and continuing to spawn an ever-larger assortment of books, videos, online clubs and forums, “The Biggest Loser” has made über-boot-camp-style training sessions seem a sure-fire ticket to weight loss for sedentary, morbidly obese people. And the success of its contestants suggests there’s little risk — contrary to common advice that such programs should be undertaken only with a physician’s seal of approval.

Mainstream physical health experts are appalled by such extreme workouts. “This is another example of taking a serious health condition and almost mocking it,” says Jeffrey Potteiger, kinesiology professor and director of the Center for Health Enhancement at Miami University in Ohio. “I find it deplorable.”

For starters, he points out that overweight people may have undiagnosed medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

“If you go out and do this type of workout,” Potteiger says, “you are going to dramatically increase your risk for some abnormal event and possibly exacerbate the condition. People could certainly have a heart attack, a stroke, or become hypoglycemic. People need to be aware of these kinds of things.”

Second, the truly obese need moderate workouts that help them gradually build up their strength and stamina, he says, not ones that send them sprinting out of the blocks, risking injury. “This is not the way we deal with this kind of weight issue,” Potteiger says. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about behavior change — nutritional, psychological — and that’s hard to change. If it were easy, we’d be able to change all sorts of behaviors. The question in putting on a program like this is that in having people watch, it isn’t a scenario that will help people change their behavior and become healthy.”

Nicki Anderson, named trainer of the year by IDEA Health & Fitness Assn., criticizes the show’s portrayal of exercise as an almost Herculean effort. “All the show does is reinforce to those who are overweight and inactive ‘See how hard [exercise] is?’ . . . For most people, exercise is going to be hard, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.”

Although some of her clients find the show motivating, Anderson, owner of Reality Fitness, a Naperville, Ill.-based personal training studio, thinks they’re being duped. “It looks like in six weeks they lose 130 pounds. I have to struggle against what’s reality and what’s perceived reality. . . . Our job is to help you develop steps that will develop a normal, healthy lifestyle. And nothing they’re watching is about being normal and balanced.” Even if her clients do have the drive to hit the ground running — literally — the vast majority, she says, don’t have the means, the time or the resources to accomplish it safely.

And then there’s the matter of muscle strain that extreme exercise produces — and that can quickly crush idealistic workout goals. “They’re going to be fatigued and sore and they’re probably not going to be doing it the next day unless they’re highly motivated,” Anderson says.

Pushing old limits

Co-creator and executive producer JD Roth says the show is simply redefining what is realistically possible.

Most people — including doctors and fitness professionals — still cling to the idea that standard recommendations of moderate exercise and moderate weight loss are right for almost everyone, including the morbidly obese, he says. And some heavy folks have convinced themselves they can’t do one push-up, let alone 10.

“Bob and Jillian had so much conviction about how much more these people could do,” he says of the show’s trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. And as for the contestants: “In a way, these guys are trained like special forces. They’re tired, they’re overworked, but they’re changing their food and exercise habits.”

The severe workouts and stunts people do are the “extreme” part of the show, Roth says, adding that viewers will use common sense in building their own weight-loss programs.

“People are watching the show to be inspired and not to feel hopeless anymore. Viewers are saying, ‘If that guy who weighs 300 pounds can do it, so can I. I can go on that run tomorrow morning.’ But they’re not expecting to lose 30 pounds in a week.” Diet and exercise tips offered during commercial breaks reinforce more prudent ideas, he says.

If the show has a true believer about the power of abundant, intense exercise, it’s Dr. Rob Huizenga, associate professor of clinical medicine at UCLA and the show’s medical consultant. He knew from working with professional football players that serious workouts lead to serious weight loss, and thought that concept could be employed for severely overweight people.

“One of the big selling points of the show,” he says, “is that people learn things no one has taught them before, like how to exercise. People have no idea what they’re capable of and they don’t understand that there are different exercise programs for heart health, for weight maintenance and for weight loss.”

Intense workouts

He scoffs at the notion that minimal amounts of low to moderate exercise, even done every day, will make a serious dent in a large weight-loss goal and advocates longer, tougher workouts — providing they are done with a doctor’s OK and supervised if necessary. (Contestants on “The Biggest Loser” get rigorous health screenings — something viewers may not know — including a stress test, plus tests for diabetes and high blood pressure. An emergency medical technician is always on the set.)

Huizenga vehemently disagrees with the belief that most people don’t have two hours to exercise and couldn’t stick with such a regimen. “I don’t think we’ve educated [overweight] people to understand their level of risk,” he says. “If someone has renal failure, they’ll go for dialysis for three to four hours a day. When you’re talking about possibly losing 16 years of your life [due to being obese], I think the amount of time we’re suggesting over six months is easily doable.”

About 50% of the contestants had stayed within 5 to 10 pounds of their “finale” weight at a two-year follow-up, he says, a percentage far higher than in most clinical research that typically results in far less weight loss, usually 8% to 10% of total body weight. Perhaps the closest comparison would be in published studies on the Amish, who maintain low obesity levels by engaging in several hours of moderate to intense physical activity each day, despite eating diets high in fat and calories.

The show has made believers out of some of the contestants who think an intense, boot-camp style of training isn’t such a bad thing for extremely heavy people. Jim Germanakos was a contestant on Season 4 and although he didn’t win the ultimate prize, he was able to lose 186 pounds, going from 361 to 175 pounds. The 42-year-old police officer from Massapequa, N.Y., currently carries 215 pounds on his 5-foot-8-inch frame and although he’d be happy to drop 5 or 10 pounds, he’s content with his weight and his healthier lifestyle — something he vows he won’t ever change.

Germanakos says not being in the best condition when the show started cost him: “I thought I was going to die during the stress test,” he says. During the show, he says, Michaels “always figured out a way to make the exercise intense. It was probably what I expected it would be, and although it really hurt a lot, Jillian is the type who knows how to pull the most out of someone.”

It’s made him accept that moderate and brief isn’t the way to go when it comes to exercise, especially for people like him. He still works out two hours a day, something he thinks most people can do.

“People don’t realize how much time they’re wasting,” he says. “If you want to see how much time you can save not watching TV, get rid of it.”

“Biggest Loser” fans being exempt, of course.

Stein is a Times staff writer. jeannine.stein@latimes.com

Originally posted 2014-11-30 20:00:13. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

16 Comments

  1. Gaye Miller Cook

    June 26, 2015 at 12:43 am

    Awesome! Sadly, for most folks it’s not sustainable. Changes have to be for life or you end up right back where you started.

  2. Darius Franchot

    June 25, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    i lost 230lbs following their methods. i quit my joband changed everything now i am a trainer. being 30 40 lbs overweight is a differentball game. achieving the extreme is what helps wake a morbidly obese person up, and realizing they are capable of so much more. the psychology of such a transformation is very powerful. realistic is the fact that anything is possible. you can choose to go the distance or not. and relizing anything is possible is worth the price of admission.

  3. Stephanie von Blackwood

    June 25, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    This article contradicts itself. Some people think yes, some people think no. So…there’s really no answer to this question.

  4. Pat Scheck

    June 25, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    It is too extreme. That being said, I watched it with realistic expectations for myself. It was motivation in the fact that I was walking on my treadmill the entire time the show was on air.

  5. Frances Caratozzolo

    June 25, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Agree totally this way of training is not a normal balance, i have trained with some of the biggest loser contestants and they have nearly all stacked on weight : its too extreme :

  6. Thomas Moshier

    January 20, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    love that show

  7. Paula Tetzloff

    January 20, 2015 at 2:06 am

    Sirius, congrats to you. Glad it worked and maybe u weren’t as intense about it. Yes, following the program ” moderately” would work and be healthy.

  8. Paula Tetzloff

    January 20, 2015 at 2:02 am

    Well, I did watch it but don’t anymore. It’s unrealistic and not healthy. I don’t enjoy watching them being tortured (imo) by exercising for endless hours. The original trainers have expressed concern about people getting hurt or I’ll from it. Other contestants talk about starving or going without fluids before weighing. The show has to know this and permit this. Very bad message.

  9. Darius Franchot

    January 20, 2015 at 12:47 am

    I quit my job and copied the show because i couldnt afford a personal tainer and i lost 230lbs and thenwent to school then became a personal trainer.

  10. Aurora Suominen

    January 19, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t watch it, but I know I have a workout video of theirs. It has 3 levels, starting with beginner.

  11. Crista S David G

    January 19, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    Their methods scare the heck out of me. I had to stop watching the show as I think it is very unsafe. If you have to have a doctor around at all times during your weight loss, do not do that practice. Safety first.

  12. Miriam Ramirez

    January 19, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    Interesting.

  13. Joy Koopman-Ludlow

    January 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    I do find the show inspiring however as a health care professional I am well aware of the safeguards they put in place and how very dangerous it can be. I wish they’d highlight the safety precautions a little more as well as the nutrition but it’s still a good show. Personally I prefer extreme weight loss with Chris Powell.

  14. Valerie Nickerson Loveland

    January 19, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    I agree with Dr H in the article

  15. Sara Saint Jean

    January 19, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    I stopped watching when people would lose 1, 2, 3 pounds and their coach and others would flacidly clap with frowns on their faces. But 5 or more pounds? They are dancing in the street. Felt like a double standard to me, like losing a couple pounds wasn’t good enough. Not the kind of message that viewers should see. It may be a game but it’s people’s lives at stake. And maybe it’s just me, but yelling at me to work harder is not motivating. It’s one thing to motivate but another to do it for ratings.

    Thank you for this FB page! It’s a great community!

  16. Barb Forbish Knight

    January 19, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    I enjoy the show and find inspiration from it, but I would like it more if they would show more of the nutition side of it.

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