What We Can Learn from The Biggest Loser

I was asked earlier this week to register my opinion on this piece that showed up in the New York Times. It’s a follow up on several of the contestants six years after their season on The Biggest Loser and details their struggles to maintain the weight they lost during the show.

Here’s the biggest takeaway: as a result of the show, everyone of the contestants suffers from a diminished metabolism. They burn anywhere from 200 to 400 fewer daily calories per day than normal people at their same body weights. Meaning that years later they still struggle to keep off excess weight.

Most of them are slowly climbing up the scale and some have returned to or exceeded their previous weights. Their bodies are trying to get back to where they started and these people, through what amounts to sheer acts of will, fight to not let that happen. The problem is, will power is a finite resource.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised by this.

In 2014 Sandra Aamodt did a TED talk exploring this very same idea. 

Her finding was that the hypothalamus acts as a regulator, a thermostat if you will. The body sets a point that it establishes as normal. In terms of body weight, we get 10 or 15 pounds of play around that set point. Outside that margin and the body starts working to return us back to “normal.” Turning down the metabolism is one of its many ways of doing that.

The sad conclusion that Ms. Aamodt came to was the best way to fight the obesity epidemic is to not get fat in the first place. While that's a great place to start for future generations, what does it leave for the rest of us?

Last week I talked about how we often take an all or nothing approach to fitness. If we can’t be the best, what’s the point of all that effort? Given that predilection, Ms. Aamodt’s conclusion is quite scary. If I’m morbidly obese what’s the point of putting myself through the hell of intense diets and extreme exercise to burn off those unwanted pounds only to see them slowly pile back on over the ensuing years? What good is fighting to improve my body if my body is just going to fight me back?

I see two responses to this:

1) Reshape the discussion. There are many studies showing that fat in and of itself may not be the great debilitator of health we make it out to be. Active people with excess adipose tissue (what scientists call fat) are often healthier than their sedentary yet skinny counterparts. Regular activity is a greater indicator of long term health than excess body fat.

We are simple people. We like short hand and knee jerk responses. Why do we focus on fat people? They’re easy to point out. Fat is clearly visible. As a gym owner, I’ve known many a gym regular and even more than a few fitness professionals who looked the picture of perfect health but were actually falling apart physically on the inside.

Life is complicated. As my colleague from across the pond, Rannoch Donald says, “It’s never just one thing.” Sure, weight loss is part of the discussion, but it’s not the only thing. Health is comprised of a myriad of factors. getting all myopic about one aspect of it does us more harm than good.

2) Long term problems require long term solutions. I think, and this is purely my opinion, our brothers and sisters from the show who now suffer diminished metabolisms do so because their weight loss was brought on by extreme measures. Losing the equivalent of another human being, going from over 400 pounds to under 200 pounds, in the span of eight or ten months, requires intense effort, highly restricted diets and exercise nine, ten, and twelve hours a day.

This is not sustainable practice. These bodies were starved and tortured and they are responding the only way they know how; by trying to get back to what was previously established as “normal.”

Sustainable weight loss is slow and gradual. (Read: one pound a week.) Our example contestant from above who wanted to go from 400 pounds to a more healthy 200 pounds would need about four years. Far longer than any of our attention spans and not much for good TV.

But certainly better for our contestant.

If you are reading this and have weight to lose, good for you. Life is made from challenges. If we didn’t have anything to struggle against, life would be boring indeed. That your struggle comes from excess is a gift of both fate and circumstance. Remember, there are many of us who struggle with want. Given the choice, I think most of us would rather deal with having too much than not having enough.

If you are in Birmingham and we can be of assistance, call on us. Use the Contact Us form or sign up for our 21 Day Jumpstart. We can go over your challenges together and come up with a plan that’s both realistic and sustainable.

To our perfect imperfection,

Dave

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4 Comments

  1. The “Biggest Loser” is an entertainment fiasco. The public is supposed to believe the coaches/trainers on this show have the contestants best interests at heart. As I/you as fitness professionals know this type of treatment to clients is so far away from reality as to border on insanity. This treatment with the apparent short term success they achieve dupes the public and has them waiting in long lines to be interviewed as the next “lucky” contestant….Dave your words as you can tell struck a cord with me, keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, Gary.

      You’re absolutely right. The insanity of what passes for mainstream information regarding real change and transformation is maddening. It’s our job as fitness professionals to stand in the face of the Fitness Industrial Complex and protect our clients. We might not be able to stop it completely but we can minimize its damage. Kudos to you. Keep fighting the good fight.

  2. Thanks for the excellent insights!

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