Monday, March 9, 2009

Biggest Who?

Okay, so we all know that there has been quite a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the Biggest Loser lately. And while I've managed to stay out of it thus far, I finally feel compelled to share my own (not at all expert) feelings and impressions. It took a very thoughtful post by Emlit to get me thinking about the far-reaching influence of the show. She really brought up some interesting and valid points (I highly recommend y'all check her post out here). This morning, I started typing up a comment in response to her post . . . and I kept typing . . . and typing . . . and typing. Eventually I figured my response would probably work better in post format. So here goes . . .

First of all, I'm going to try to explore some of the negative aspects of the show. Why don't we start with the fact that the very premise of this "reality television show" is about as far removed from reality as you're going to get (this is just for the sake of argument; I do, in fact, realize that reality television seldom features much reality--I am a product of the film and television industry, after all. I know ALL of its secrets!). Contestants of the show leave behind their homes, families, jobs, responsibilities and temptations alike in order to focus solely and uninterruptedly on losing weight and getting healthy. They work out in state-of-the-art facilities with teams of nutrition, fitness and medical professionals supervising their every move. Oh, and have I mentioned the $250,000 incentive, awarded to the contestant who remains on the ranch until the finale and loses the most weight? 'Cuz there's that too. Not so much a realistic situation for most of us, now is it? For better or for worse, the contestants' experiences with weight loss are obviously very different from the average person's.

That being said, I have read many accounts of viewers who have been endlessly frustrated by their own "lack of progress" in comparison to the unrealistic weight loss achievements seen on the Biggest Loser. In all fairness, the show is pretty open about the fact that the results are atypical and not to be expected by those doing it on their own at home. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the show probably set out to address that disparity this season by changing things up a bit and sending one member of each pair home for a period of 30 days after the first week on campus.
As expected, these at-home contestants lost only a fraction of the weight that their on-campus counterparts shed during the same period of time. What I found to be interesting was that this little experiment only served to prove the frustration that the average viewer can fall victim to . . . just take a look at the disappointment on the faces of the at-home contestants upon returning to campus and weighing in--it is clear that they too have been affected by unrealistic expectations. Like it or not, the show portrays obese individuals losing weight at far more rapid paces than occur in normal, everyday life. But sometimes I wonder . . . would these same folks who end up giving up on weight loss have even tried had they not been motivated by the show in the first place? It's certainly something to ponder . . .

Next, I have to mention that I completely disagree with the way the show unnecessarily turns weight loss into a competition. Weight loss should never be about competition. Never. It should be about getting (and staying) healthy and improving one's quality of life. I know, I know. "It's entertainment, blah blah blah." "Nobody wants to watch a bunch of people lose just a couple pounds a week." "We want excitement and drama!!" Ugh. The truth of the matter is that, in the past, contestants have indeed given in to extreme behaviors all in the name of competition. While I know it's naive to think that the finalists would put their own health before a big ol' prize purse and the title of the "Biggest Loser", I really do think that it's a travesty that this stuff goes on. I guess that's the risk of staging the show as a competition (you can thank ratings fever for that one).

Thirdly, people often talk about how the Biggest Loser just up and abandons its contestants after the show has concluded. All I can say about this one is "shame on you, NBC!" Once again, I am probably wanting too much out of what is essentially just a money-making entertainment machine, but I just don't see why it would be that difficult to create some sort of a transition program for the contestants to help them re-acclimate to a healthier version of their at-home lives . . . you know, have them check in with a doctor/psychiatrist/trainer for the first couple of months after the show has ended? I know the contestants are of no use to NBC at that point in the game, but couldn't the network do it in the name of charity or something?

All that being said, I still think the benefits of the show outweigh the negatives. After all, awareness is key. Believe it or not, you guys, there are millions of Americans out there who don't know the first thing about nutrition and fitness. If you have ever seen one of the BL season premieres, you know that most of these contestants go into the show absolutely clueless about what they are doing to their bodies . . . and actually, not just what they are doing to their own bodies, but many times the bodies of their children and families as well. I am continually shocked at the lack of common knowledge expressed both by contestants on the show and individuals I interact with on a daily basis. As runners, I think we tend to take a lot of the nutrition and fitness knowledge we have collected for granted. But the fact is, most Americans are grossly under-informed about the importance of good nutrition and daily exercise.

If nothing else, I feel like the show teaches the contestants (at least those contestants who are in it to change their lives, rather than those who simply want to win the $250,000) the things they so desperately need to know. While on campus, they work with a whole team of professionals who instill in them many of the things we consider to be second nature. Along the way, viewers too are exposed to tips, facts and often a bit of motivation to make changes themselves. While I feel like most of the people I know who watch the show are athlete-types who don't really need the info nor the motivation, I'm positive there are people out there who have learned things and/or been motivated as a result of having watched the show.

And, honestly, you really can't underestimate the influence these contestants have on the viewing audience. People can relate to the contestants because they are average people just like us. As such, someone who has never been motivated to get healthy might just find that motivation by watching someone they relate to doing it successfully. In addition, the whole Biggest Loser enterprise (as commercially motivated as it may be) gives the masses a way to connect and to be a part of something bigger. The Biggest Loser Club could be just the support someone needs to shed excess pounds once and for all (especially if that person doesn't happen to possess the support of friends and family).

And finally, I know there have been contestants who have gone home from the ranch and gained back a lot of the weight they lost; but there are just as many contestants who have gone on to use the knowledge they learned on the ranch to do great things: participate in endurance sporting events, give motivational speeches, inspire family members and loved ones to get healthy, start health awareness non-profits and volunteer for exercise programs for kids, etc. I don't think anyone can trivialize the difference the show made in some of these contestants' lives. If nothing else, most of them admit that being on the show redefined for them just what is possible and what they are capable of when they put their minds to it. And besides, if the show helped even one contestant to get to the point of being happy and healthy, wasn't it worth it? I simply don't think that the possibility of failure is a good enough reason to NOT try and make a difference in the lives of overweight and obese Americans, you know what I mean? And as far as I can tell, the Biggest Loser's the best we've got at this point in time. Does that mean we should settle for what we have? Of course not. But I don't see why we can't use what we do have to build upon and continue working toward solving the obesity epidemic in this country.

I'd love to hear what y'all think about the show. Leave a comment with any thoughts!

Whew, that was a long one! Good thing I didn't leave that all as a comment, Emlit! It might just have crashed your new, pretty blog!! :)

Update on the training front tomorrow, I promise!!


EmLit said...

Well first of all, thanks for the shout-out! Now I feel famous :)

I also really appreciate your thoughts on the show because every time I sit down to watch it I spend a fair amount of time thinking about its strengths and its weaknesses. I think that, as you point out, it is a great source of education for a lot of people who are not that well-informed about health and fitness. I also agree that it has undoubtedly helped a lot of people. I still find myself wishing, though, that there were some way to do it in a more realistic way. Maybe take the long-term competition element out and have Bob and Jillian travel to different areas of the country and educate people while engaging them in health- and fitness-related activities or something. I don't know! Obvs I have a ton more to say but I'll cut myself off before having to start another post!

Rachel said...

Wow what a blog! I would have to agree with most of what you said. I think that the show definetly sets some unrealistic expectations for weight loss but at the same time it seems to be motivating some people. Although those very people could be very disappointed when they don't see the same results.

Spike said...

your post was both thoughtful and fair; sadly I disagree that the overall benefit of the show outweighs the concerns. but you gave me pause to reconsider, so thanks.

The Laminator said...

Great points, Irish. I also think that public fascination with the Biggest Loser is good for the ones who can be positively motivated by the showe...but usually find that that's not the case. In my practice, I've also seen the show used as a basis for use to legitimize fad diets and eating runs the gamit.

I really believe that you really have to filter any information you get from a reality show. They are always full of half-truths and white lies...and I always advise my obesity patients to watch out for those.