Monday, January 21, 2013

Go Figure - New Study Reports Watching The Biggest Loser Discourages Interest in Exercise

(Original Source:  The Soup TV)
By my count during the first week of this season's The Biggest Loser, three contestants lost consciousness, two threw up, one suffered a stress fracture in their knee and a thirteen year old boy fractured his foot.

Watching that - who wouldn't want to hit the gym?

And that's a question that Tanya Berry and colleagues wanted to answer. Their thinking was straightforward. Since they felt that the Biggest Loser portrays exercise as "work and not fun", and that it's often incredibly extreme in its depiction, it may follow that viewers watching The Biggest Loser rather than be motivated to exercise, will in fact be motivated not to. Their study was published this month in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

So what'd they do?

They took a common viewer demographic (undergrads believe it or not - of who nearly 30% reported watching the show at least once a month) and from it recruited 138 students from an undergraduate psychology class to watch one of two video clips - a Biggest Loser clip or an American Idol clip.

The Biggest Loser clip was 7.5 minutes long and involved a typical Biggest Loser training session replete with crying, screaming, complaining and the clear message that it was very difficult.

The American Idol clip was 5 minutes long and according to the authors it was chosen because it too depicted a reality show competition. The American Idol clip had no mention of exercise and showed highlights of the top 12 contestants along with some judge's comments.

Researchers then used a Go/No go Association Task to measure "implicit" attitudes towards exercise (unconscious attitudes) which basically involved using a computer to rapidly cycle through exercise and non exercise related words with the participant as quickly as possible choosing from a good or bad word association. They also evaluated "explicit" attitudes (conscious attitudes) by rating this statement about exercise,
"For me to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day in the forthcoming month is..."
They then looked at the following 3 items along a 7 point scale: 1. Pleasant to unpleasant. 2. Enjoyable to unenjoyable and 3. Pleasurable to painful.

Controls were put in place for the pretest activity level and mood of the participants and with those variables controlled the team found that watching the Biggest Loser led to a statistically significant decrease in explicit attitudes towards exercise - meaning watching the show led viewers to report that the notion of their exercising regularly for the next month as less enjoyable. Implicit attitudes were not shown to change.

And guess what? When looking at correlations between implicit and explicit attitudes towards exercise and actual exercise it's the explicit attitudes that matter which is why the authors of this study suggest the possibility that watching The Biggest Loser,
"may result in lower motivation to participate because of the anticipation of an unpleasant experience"
The study wasn't perfect. As the authors themselves noted, in their methodology they should have identified the show's regular viewers as their responses and attitudes may differ from non habitual viewers. It was also a small study and only involved a short segment of show, but ultimately I don't think it's a stretch to think that the depiction of successful weight management as being dependent on an exercise regime that is much more readily described and depicted as a painful punishment than a pleasure would make the thought of exercising that much less enticing.

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  1. Anonymous9:48 am

    The message is also that if you don't push yourself until you feel like you are dying you won't reach your goals and you are a weakling. So much for the importance of enjoyment and sustainability in healthy exercise or eating habits!

  2. Biggest Loser feeds the public's lurid appetite for seeing fat people humiliated and made to pay for their gluttonous sins.

  3. Anonymous9:49 am

    I should add that probably Jillian does get better "results" from her group because they are scared of her but they are forming negative associations with exercise and are probably the least likely group to keep it up after the show!

  4. Anonymous10:00 am

    Jilliass would be picking herself up out of the floor if she screamed in my face that way. Just sayin'.

  5. Anonymous10:10 am

    It's a horrible show and anyone watching it and supporting it should be made to exercise with Jillian. People are not gladiators, and consistent doable exercise like walking a few miles a day is a way better answer to obesity. The show is dangerous. I hate elimination shows. I hate reality TV. I hate all the hatred and plotting and scheming. I really dislike Jillian immensely. I think she has personal unresolved issues and gets her power by controlling people under the guise of "helping" them. She is all for herself and a bit inhumane. She could write a book "50 shades of sweat." It wouldn't be pretty.

  6. My beef with the show is that they do not show healthy eating and when they do it is an ad. The first 2 episodes they almost did not mention food at all. When they did go to the kids' houses and threw away the junk they blurred out all the products and information so you could not even guess what was staying and what was going. If watching people get beat down is what draws viewers it is what it is but at least they could then use that platform to teach good eating habits but they do not.

    1. Anonymous2:20 pm

      Well said! I've always thought the same thing; how are they helping the viewer to eat healthy if they never show a typical daily diet of the contestants???

  7. Anonymous11:49 am

    Guess what? Until there is legislation controlling victimization from unqualified, one weekend course "personal trainers" this will keep going on and and on... Would you believe there is only one community in Canada that actually has a by-law that requires a formal education in order to help people get out of this cycle? 1 community, that's it, also, anybody can call themselves a "personal trainer" because there are no national guidelines. So go ahead, send your kids to a "personal trainer" and good luck.

    1. I'm a trainer, certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I chose the certification program by asking the owners of a few independent gyms. All of them required their staff trainers to be NASM, which offers specialty certifications including working with youth. Like anything else, let the buyer beware. Find out a trainer's certification and the standards and reputation of their gym. Jillian and Bob both have pretty lame certifications, especially their kettlebell certification is issued by an organization that specializes in building gym revenue. Whenever I see a BL contestant using a kettlebell, it's always with very poor form.

    2. I also a trainer, I'm certified through the ISSA. And I see all sorts of issues with this show. Poor form, no periodization of any sort. Telling them to eat as little as possible and not have the caloric content to support the activity levels on the show. A staff that acts more like bullies then a support group. Fitness is suppose to be fun and enjoyable. What I see on this show makes me cry for America's attitude towards fitness and training

    3. Anonymous2:42 pm

      I am not a trainer, but any trainer who allows their trainees to puke, cry, and pass out are not competent trainers, in my book! (I'm also appalled by the poor form used in exercises by many of the contestants!)

  8. Anonymous12:02 pm

    It's funny I agree with everything that has been said by you Yoni and by all those who have commented and yet this comes the day after I have found out that this show has motivated my sister to get off the couch.

    She has been sedentary and unhappy about it for the better part of two years. I have done what I can to try to motivate her to no avail. She has recently made sweeping changes and yesterday I found out that it was because of this show (I can't even bring myself to type the name). With the beginning of the new season she has suddenly begun to exercise and make huge changes to her diet. While I have never been a fan of the show, she always has been.

    My biggest fear is that she is headed for disaster because she has made too many changes to her diet (and not ones that I think she can maintain over time) and is overtraining (going from nothing to 30 minutes 6 days a week of cardio +strength). But I don't have the heart to say anything discouraging other than - just make sure you don't over do it, small increases over time will prevent injury - followed by a solid "you rock"! What else can I do ....

    1. No doubt some will choose to get off the couch or make better dietary choices. Let's just hope everyone who does has enough sense not to shoot for the nonsensical extremes of the show.

      I wouldn't discourage her, but indeed, flying leaps at change have a bad tendency to land people on their faces.

    2. It would also be interesting to hear what her expectations are in terms of weekly and monthly weight loss and whether the show has set her up with unrealistic expectations (not to mention the final effect of not reaching them.
      I was told by one contestant and his mother, that in the Australia version, a week in the house on TV is actually 8-10 days, thus making the results even further from the average person's reach!

    3. David, was told the same thing myself by 3 American contestants.

    4. Anonymous3:55 pm

      Expectations like going from sedentary to "running" a 5K in 4 weeks as was shown last night?

  9. Anonymous1:44 pm

    As the doc says, pretty small sampling group and small segment of the show - one could argue that if you showed a group of people a 7 min clip of Simon Cowell being frank with bad singers and asked them if they wanted to sing, you would probably get the same results . . . But "small study shows that footage of difficult workouts discourages undergrads from exercising" isn't as sensational a headline (this applies to just about every media report of a health study though - see "[insert food]is bad for you/[insert food] is good for you conflicting headlines).

    So having seen the episode, the 13yr old broke his foot playing basketball - sorry, chain of causation doesn't clearly point to the show for that one - (my healthy, active 8 yr old cracked a growth plate in his foot playing on a climbing structure).

    The show is entertainment, and there will always be people who look for the quick fix and assume they can do what the show does . . . I'd be interested in Yoni's thoughts on other similar shows (Celebrity Fit Club, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss, etc). If he's equally opposed to those shows, then 'great, respect the opinion', but if it is just a hate-on for BL, then it loses something . . .

    The greater issue is education or rather lack of it, regarding healthy choices, eating in moderation, etc.

  10. Anonymous2:55 pm

    Showing people easily losing weight by counting calories is way too boring of a show.

  11. As an Exercise Physiologist (Ph.D.) I have "pounded the table" for several years stating that The Biggest Loser should be required watching for all health and fitness professionals. TBL represents the "goods," the "bads," and the "uglys" of health and fitness training (and the health and fitness industry)--and it's watched by MILLIONS of people every week!! Industry professionals need to be able to react to and explain what viewers are seeing on TBL every week.

    The Biggest Loser offers hope to millions of people! The problem is that long term success, as has already been on this post, does not come via the excessive excess that is seen on each week's show!! The Biggest Loser is very "entertaining," BUT very dangerous. The good news is that TBL contestants have 24/7 access to medical professionals who monitor their every move. The bad news is that average exerciser does not--that's where professionals need to bring "reality" and safety to reality TV. Television affords Bob, Jillian, and Dolvett to be ENTERTAINERS as much as (or more so) they are trainers; nothing they do is unique or special. NO trainer (in real life) would/should push their clients as hard as TBL contestants.

    Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with three Biggest Loser winners, as well as a few non-winners. If nothing else "positive" comes out of the show, the "winners" I met are actively spreading the word of health, fitness and hope in their new "roles" as motivational speakers--paying it forward. So, in summary, I would recommend watching the show and learning from the show--then put it in long-term context for those who draw motivation from the show (and specific contestants).

  12. I once went to a gym for exercise classes. One day the instructor came over to my spot and yelled at me for about 15 minutes straight. It was mean; a humiliating and horrible experience. She sort-of apologized after the session but I never went back.

    I didn't stop my quest to keep fit and have done a lot of things to try to do that. I found I loved rowing especially as one can't let down the team by not showing up...

    Ironically, I reduced my weight considerably when the HR lady at work started a weekly weigh-in, similar to The Biggest Loser. And the rowing has helped me keep it down. Ongoing struggle but such is life; there is no easy road :-)

  13. I LOVE THIS.
    Will be reblogging this very soon! All of my clients as well as anyone who follows my Facebook/blog posts knows how much I detest this show. The message is atrocious and I cannot tell you how many times I have had to "reprogram" people so that they no longer assume that exercise only counts when you puke and/or get super sore.
    Thank you for spreading the word!
    Yours in Health,
    Sarah Rippel

  14. I think shows like Biggest Loser breed an unhealthy competition amongst it's competitors. They resort to extreme workouts and unhealthy diet to win at any cost.

    I think people who wants to lose weight should stay away from such shows.

  15. Although this study was small and not "perfect", I suspect that any of us reading this could tell you the same thing that the study reported. Watching people getting belittled, yelled at, humiliated and shamed is painful for those of us watching - imagine what it's doing to the already-fragile self-esteem of Jillian's victims?

    On the other hand, it appears that there are some who not only don't run screaming away from such abuse, but actually seek it out as a motivational tool. Consider the emergence of “goal-oriented self-blackmailing” tracking technology like "Virtual Fridge Lock."

    This magnetic device attaches to the refrigerator door, encouraging you to stick to your wellness goals by alerting your social network when you raid the refrigerator at night, then posting an embarrassing photograph to Facebook, and automatically donating to a disliked charity when you fail. Weird but (sadly) true: More on this at:

  16. Anonymous2:30 pm

    Wow, what a shocking revelation! And we need a study to figure out the obvious.
    I can see that attractive to the anorexic and bulemic audience, but no sane person would be motivated by that. (I know,I know, I will be crushed by comments about my insensitivity).
    I find this show (I think I have watched it twice) a disgrace to any true fitness, wellness or medical professional.
    Obviously Jillian's (or whatever her name is) true interest lies in being a media "star", fame, fortune and $. In my opinion she does not earn the privilege of calling herself any kind of professional, with possible exception of sadist.
    And people that would subject themselves to such humiliation in front of millions for the almighty dollar are very sad indeed.
    This show is a disgrace and so is she!

  17. I started watching the show a few years ago after a friend often commented about it. I've always been fairly fit and I enjoy exercising, so it wasn't a huge stretch for me. I don't watch any other reality shows, but I enjoy watching The Biggest Loser. When I didn't have cable, I'd go to the gym from 8-10 every Tuesday night and watch it while doing about 30 miles on the stationary bike. The people and challenges kept me entertained, and the workouts kept me focused on what I was at the gym working towards. (We'll leave the effectiveness of exercising while watching tv for another discussion.)

    Now, I watch it at home and stretch/do yoga during the show, and do pushups/situps/squats/dips/etc during the commercials.

    Does the show discourage people from exercising? It is what it is...people working hard and losing A LOT of weight in a short people of time. Has it changed my life drastically? Absolutely not. It's just another reality elimination show.