‘The Biggest Loser’: Should you mimic its weight-loss methods at home?
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.”
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. email@example.com
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