In response to the airing of the 14th season of the primetime reality show The Biggest Loser, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the largest fitness certification and education organization in the U.S., issued the following statement:
As is well known, the United States suffers from an epidemic of obesity, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition with two-thirds of its adults and one-third of its children and adolescents categorized as overweight or obese (Flegal et al., 2012). At any given time, 108 million Americans (54 percent of adults) are on diets spending upwards of $65 billion dollars per year for weight loss tools and products (MarketData, 2012). Despite the widespread interest in weight management, available information confirms that long-term weight loss successes are rare, especially among those at the highest end of the weight spectrum.
The Biggest Loser, which first aired in 2004, aims to jump-start weight loss in the most severely obese individuals through an intensive fitness, nutrition, and behavioral reconditioning program under the supervision of physicians, registered dietitians, and professional fitness trainers (like Jillian, Bob, or Dolvett) who use varying approaches to motivate, inspire, and sometimes embarrass and shame the Biggest Loser participants into pushing through grueling workouts, oftentimes lasting up to a reported four hours per day. Only selected excerpts of the experiences of the contestants are shown to a worldwide audience that is watching comfortably from living rooms around the nation and the world. The show focuses almost exclusively on the participants’ workout regimens and minimally on their nutrition choices or the changes in their dietary patterns.
Of the limited amount of research that has been conducted related to the Biggest Loser, the studies have found that show viewers tend to attribute weight to personal responsibility and are more likely to have “anti-fat” attitudes compared to non-viewers. Viewers of the show have also been observed to display a less favorable attitude towards exercise (Berry et al, 2013; Yoo, 2012; Domoff et al, 2012). The long-term effects on the show’s participants have not been fully captured, but include weight gain and mental health struggles, as well as success stories of permanent lifestyle changes.
With this said, ACE strongly encourages the fitness community to:
- Acknowledge that the Biggest Loser may inspire weight-loss intenders to begin physical activity programs.
- Applaud the opportunity created by the Biggest Loser to engage more people in the pursuit of healthy, physically-active lifestyles while also setting realistic expectations for weight loss such as recommended weight loss not to exceed one to two pounds per week.
- Emphasize that weight loss programs should be designed and supervised by professionals and should adhere to industry and physiological guidelines for safe and effective program design and progression.
- Advise clients to resist the temptation to emulate a Biggest Loser-style weight loss mentality which can be unsafe, ineffective, and demotivating for many people.
- Warn clients that programs and products sponsored by shows like the Biggest Loser might not be effective or right for them.
- Reinforce for clients that weight loss maintenance is much more difficult than weight loss, and making permanent lifestyle changes will be key to their successes.
- Embrace individuals who struggle with their weight and have expressed an interest in beginning or escalating a physical-activity regimen while being sensitive to the effects of weight-based stigmatization.
- Teach clients that many factors determine a person’s body weight and shape and that the most successful strategies for weight loss include a combination of physical activity, healthy nutrition, and behavioral change within the context of a supportive social network and larger-scale efforts to improve community health.
- Support positive messages offered on the Biggest Loser such as the importance of social support and a family approach to change while, at the same time, taking a stand against potentially harmful and hurtful tactics employed on the show such as embarrassing participants and testing them with hard-to-resist rewards in exchange for harmful behavior.
While The Biggest Loser may not represent a weight-loss program as it should be pursued for the vast majority of people, it does shine a light on the importance of physical activity in a lifestyle-change program and gives an opportunity to fitness professionals to reach greater numbers of people.
Berry, T.R., et al. (2013). Effects of Biggest Loser exercise depictions on exercise-related attitudes. Am J Health Behav; 37, 1, 96-103.
Domoff, S.E., et al. (2012). The effects of reality television on weight bias: an examination of The Biggest Loser. Obesity, 20, 5, 993-998.
Flegal, K.M., Carrol, M.D., Kit, B.K., Ogden, C.L. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999-2010. JAMA, 307, 5, 491-497.
MarketData Enterprises, Inc (2012). Press Release: Number of American dieters soars to 108 million. Available at www.marketdataenterprises.com. Retrieved January 31, 2013.
Yoo, J.H. (2012). No clear winner: effects of The Biggest Loser on the stigmatization of obese persons. Health Commun. Jun 28. [epub ahead of print].