Over a Happy Hour beer with a friend, I recently confessed to something I have told no one: I’m addicted to the Biggest Loser. So is my husband. So are my kids. There, I said it.
Each Monday night for the past three seasons, we have gathered round the flat screen, propped up our TV trays (Yes, another No No, I know) and settled in for a two-hour love fest (or sometimes sweat-til-you puke fest) with trainers Bob Harper, Dolvett Quince, and (back this season) the evil drill sergeant Jillian Michaels. As 12 contestants vie for the Biggest Loser (of weight) title and a hefty cash prize, I cry (inevitably, every episode). My kids laugh (mostly at Me, because I am such a sap). And we all walk away having learned something. Seriously.
It wasn’t always so. When the NBC reality show premiered in Oct., 2004, just the name made me cringe. Parading people up on a scale clad only in sports bras and Spandex shorts seemed distasteful and cruel. Jim Hill, PhD, an obesity management expert with University of Colorado published an op ed a year later calling the show “a loser for the American public.” His criticism: that it painted an unrealistic picture of what is possible in the real world when it comes to weight loss.
“I think we can all agree that our patients would be more successful in losing weight if they had personal trainers, were followed around by television cameras and spent 3-4 hours at the gym every day,” he wrote, noting that instead of losing 80 lbs in three months, most people in the real world lose 10 to 15 percent of their body weight if lucky and struggle not to gain it back.
More recently, researchers have continued to skewer the show. One study, published in the journal Obesity, showed that watching the show led viewers to increase their hateful biases toward those with obesity (for me, it has been just the opposite). Another found that it led people to believe that weight is “within a person’s control” (Hmmm. Is that really so bad?). Another, published in the Journal of Health Behavior, suggests people were less inclined to go exercise after watching it. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is,” the lead author told reporters.
I see it differently.
No, I do not care for Jillian’s mean-spirited approach to training (it is no wonder the first several contestants to quit or be voted off were in her group).
But I see value in the show for several reasons:
It paints obesity not as a problem of jean size, but rather as a cause of disease, driving home the harsh reality that poor diet (even in kids) is a key cause of diabetes and heart disease and that eating right and exercising can be a cure.
By adding kid contestants (don’t worry, no weigh-ins or heinous workouts) it has shed a tender light on the bullying and other challenges these kids face.
It has shown the incredible sense of triumph that exercise can reap (I weep every time they show people who could not run a mile on Day One run a marathon) at the end.
It offers healthy lifestyle tips that somehow get through to my family far more than my nagging, (and have made me realize our diet is not as great as I thought it was.)
Not to mention the thousands of Biggest Loser clubs that have sprung up at schools, workplaces, and health clubs in recent years.
Hill has also, as he puts it, “re-evaluated.”
“I think the show is good and bad,” he told me recently. “It has raised awareness and gotten people to start doing things for themselves, but in a way it has also changed our perception of obesity. People who are obese, but not Biggest Loser obese think, ‘I’m not that big’. It has given them a false sense of security.”
Maybe so. But strangely I – a lean marathon runner from ultra-fit Boulder – can whole-heartedly identify with some of the contestants (the busy working mom who has a hard time carving time to work on her own needs; the type A attorney so stressed she self-medicates with food). I just have different vices to work on, and watching them do it successfully feels empowering.
Now, about that Happy Hour beer….