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.