Who really is the biggest loser? Chewing the fat on the effectiveness of weight-loss TV

I wrote this little rant last week but didn’t get time to post before I chuffed off to the beach. Seeing as it was International No-Diet Day yesterday, I thought I’d belatedly celebrate by sharing my take on a part of weight-loss culture that continues to suck me in.

I stayed up way past my bedtime earlier this week to watch the finale of the Biggest Loser (BL). It was not only the end of the series but in our household, the end of Caro harrumphing out of the room every time the whiney, Shannon Noll theme song came on, and for me, the end doing something I knew wasn’t good for me (watching the show), but doing it anyway.

Am I the biggest loser for watching?

I have BL-watcher shame. I don’t think it’s the parade of newly manorexic heroes who are the biggest losers. It’s me, the sucker who keeps watching this dross when I know that it puts bad ideas in my head. Bad and evil ideas like:

·      Weight loss is no more complex than calories in, energy out

·      You’re not normal unless you have a BMI under 20.

·      You’re not normal unless you know what a BMI is.

·      Everyday people can lose 50 kg in 12 weeks.

·      Losing weight is a noble act.

And my favourite, courtesy of trainer Michelle,

·      The only thing stopping you losing weight is excuses.

But, I continued to watch, despite knowing that it’s not good for me. Ah, sweet ambivalence, I know you well.

Just this once.  It makes me feel good.

There’s no denying the drama, or should I say, the “journey” of the BL makes me feel good. I can’t help but feel joy for the characters when they see themselves as competent, lovable human beings.

But I know that in all probability that feeling, and the taut, buff bodies will disappear. After the excitement of squeezing into that “never thought possible” size 12 evening dress has passed, the BL contestants face the hard slog of maintaining this new lifestyle. And if they haven’t sorted out all their emotional shit, then they face years of beating themselves up for “letting themselves down” and regaining weight.

Three contestants from a previous Australian BL series were recently featured on a current affairs shows bemoaning the fact that they received no support from the show after it was finished. Huh? So you signed up for a tv show where, at the very least, you learned the basics of healthy eating and became acquainted with the foreign concept of exercise, and you want them to hold your hand when you go home? Did you learn anything?

Ah, but they did learn exactly what the show sets out to teach. You cannot live a healthy life on your own. We may say all the cliched yet catchy slogans of empowerment, but we all know, you need us. We will give you all these extrinsic motivators – money, fame, a hot bod, endorsements, trainers whippin’ your ass into gear everyday – and you will give us jaw-dropping transformations and magical ratings. 

Even some of the biggest losers from the US series, who had that mad “I love to train five hours a day” look in their eyes at the finale, have gone all confessional on Oprah and admitted that they could not maintain the lifestyle they learned on the BL.

Sustainable change comes from within

In the end, whether it’s weight, alcohol, shopping or any of the other flavours of excessive consumption, the motivation to change has to come from within. To be sustainable, it has to be intrinsic. You have to look at a bowl of radicchio and actually want to eat it; either because you love it, or because you know it’s what gives you a healthy life.

Of course, we can’t expect everyone to instantly love all the healthful activities and say “meh” to the barrel of cookies. But there are other ways of doing this than externally-delivered pain. You can begin by finding out what healthy activities people enjoy naturally. Sure, you can use extrinsic rewards initially (such as trainers, treats, hot body) to produce the positive feelings but those feelings need to be used to integrate the activities into an individual’s value system.  Weight needs to be approached as a health issue rather than a vanity issue, and addressed it in a long-term and sustainable manner.

And it is possible. The research is in.

Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium, Maarten Vansteenkiste and colleagues, looked at how different fitness goals impacted on a person’s motivation, performance and persistence. Three groups were given different health and fitness goals, and they measured over-time the impact on how much effort was expended, autonomous exercise motivation, performance, and long-term persistence. They found that the group that focused on a future intrinsic goal of health and fitness had a positive effect on all four factors. On the other hand, focusing on a future extrinsic goal – such as physical appearance and attractiveness – undermined the effectiveness of their progress, even more than the group who had no goals set.

Other research from the field of self-determination theory has found that when extrinsic rewards (such as money) are introduced for an activity that is intrinsically interesting, the perceived locus of causality shifts from internal to external. As a result, people attribute their results to outside sources and display less intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner and Ryan, 1999).

No more losers. But, plenty of life.

“Yeah but,” I hear you say, “that’s what they do on the BL. They get them lovin’ themselves and training and eating right and enjoying it.” Sure, I do have hope for some of the contestants on the BL. Those who, despite having the “prize money” or “what you’ll wear” dangled in front of them from beginning to end, begin saying that they are no longer motivated by the money. But few get that far, and they are the exception rather than the rule. (And it is hard to say whether they are truly intrinsically motivated while they remain in competition for the prize money or are attending their “last chance training”.)

I was quite heartened when one of the contestants in this series, against the advice of her peers, sent one of the money-grubbing competitors packing. It was such a internally-motivated decision and it gave me hope that while the focus may be on losing (weight), a few contestants would come away having gained the self-confidence to continue making positive choices in their lives.

While I may have started writing this piece in an effort to take the piss out of myself for watching this show, I realise that I’m only a loser if I take the messages of BL onboard. 

As was made clear in the 2007 PBS documentary “Fat: What they’re not telling you”, we really don’t have any definitive answers on weight loss. There are just too many variables to pin it down to energy in and energy out.

But, we do know a lot about health, physical fitness and motivation, and I have to say there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in good health and fit. And there are so many enjoyable, healthy activities – from a slow lunch with friends savouring the local, organic produce to climbing a mountain “just to see if I can” – that we don’t need the trainer yelling at us to “push through the pain” and “go hard”. I’d like to see popular culture, be it TV, magazines, or the web, exploring effortless health. 

It’s time to get off the treadmill and start living.


POST SCRIPT: It’s funny how things work out. I wrote this post last week when I was feeling very “Argh” frustrated by my attitude to exercise. It had not been effortless, even though I do enjoy it. In between writing this and posting it, I’ve spent three days at the beach where it was extremely easy to be active. Long walks! Swimming! It was wonderful to feel alive, reconnect with my body, and get that feel-good spark back.