Why Biggest Loser is bad for you

<i>The Biggest Loser</i> hosts Shannan Ponton, Michelle Bridges and Steve Willis.

The Biggest Loser hosts Shannan Ponton, Michelle Bridges and Steve Willis.

"Angry and embarrassed."

They’re not the first words you’d expect a fitness professional to use when asked to describe The Biggest Loser. After all, the show is pretty much a 12-week advertisement for the personal training industry. 

Andrew Meade, former personal trainer on <i>The Biggest Loser</i>.

Andrew Meade, former personal trainer on The Biggest Loser.

But that’s the assessment of Andrew Meade, who was a trainer for the second season of The Biggest Loser. Meade was paid by the show to train one of the eliminated contestants at home from the time the contestant was voted off the show until the finale. During that period there were competitions to get back into the house and weekly weigh-ins.


At the time Meade had concerns about the unrealistic weight loss expectations and the unsustainability of the whole process.

‘The rate of weight loss isn’t real-world at all,’ says Meade who is now a director and trainer and Melbourne’s Urban Workout.  ‘The gentleman I was training had quit work and was eating a diet of around 1100–1200 calories a day — and some days he would burn 3000 calories in training.’

‘His sole focus for that period of time was losing weight. He didn’t have any balance in his life.  Unfortunately, he’s now regained that weight and he’s back to where is he started.’

According to Meade, as soon as the cameras were switched off and the all-consuming framework of support provided by the show disappeared, contestants were left to their own devices. And it didn’t take long for old habits to return.

"As much as contestants have the desire to change, the show, unfortunately, doesn’t provide an opportunity to develop sustainable strategies. Competitors aim to lose 4–5 kg a week, when that should be the weight loss target for a month, depending on your individual circumstances."

Meade says that some aspects of The Biggest Loser give the fitness industry a bad name, particularly when it comes to punishing contestants. The episodes where contestants are trained to the point of vomiting and near-exhaustion are of particular concern.

"It’s very easy to push somebody who has been sedentary for a long time to make them unwell. Any trainer could do that. It doesn’t prove anything," says Meade.

"Unless you’re an elite athlete you shouldn’t be vomiting during a training session. It shows that the trainer doesn’t have an understanding of what level of intensity they should be working you at."

Meade continues: "It’s just a drama show where these people are pawns used for our entertainment and the show’s ratings."

Meade also skewers the ritual shaming and humiliation that has become a hallmark of the series. The practice of having people strip down for weigh-ins particularly irks Meade. 

"Making somebody take their shirt off to get weighed is about shaming and humiliating them in front of their team mates, trainers and the country,’ says Meade. "If you want to be that precise, then you can easily weigh the t-shirt before and then deduct it from the overall total."

Similarly, the narratives of fat failure to thin success that drive the show’s dramatic arc sits uncomfortably with Meade’s personal approach to training.

"You don’t need to belittle a person and make them feel insignificant and that the choices they have made in their life have been so terrible that they are letting their whole family down."

Meade is also scathing about the way the show presents the trainers as psychological experts. It’s something that Michelle Bridges has traded on in the process of creating her own mini-fitness empire.

As Bridges told Sunday Life last August: "I can tap into women's body issues because I understand them; the way women check each other out, the way they will self-sabotage. It's a lot of psychology."

"Personal trainers are not psychologists’ Meade counters. ‘We can’t begin to say that we know how to work through specific problems with people. It’s out of our skill set. We are not qualified to be going into that territory — other than creating a positive environment for people to achieve and feel good about themselves."

Meade is also concerned about the impact of alliances and elimination on contestants, particularly adolescents who are at a vulnerable stage in their lives.

"The feeling of rejection that that must create within kids who have probably already been outcasts at school and experiencing bullying; I’m not a psychologist but that can’t be healthy," says Meade

Still Meade concedes that the show does have some redeeming qualities.

"Raising awareness about health and fitness is fantastic and if The Biggest Loser is getting people to start exercising, then that is a wonderfully positive situation. The more we can educate people to get them moving and active the better."

Nevertheless, he thinks that the show may do more harm than good, by perpetuating the most extreme version of fitness, thereby deterring people from ever starting.

Meade is under no illusions that it’s us, as viewers, who are responsible for the show’s excesses. If audiences switched off in large enough numbers, the show would be off air quicker than you can say ‘Pussy Street or Man-Up Road’. But he’s realistic enough to know that our insatiable appetite for drama will ensure the show focuses on entertainment rather than wellness and exercise.

Meade’s own prescription for a successful fitness program comes down to getting the balance right between fitness goals and the rest of your life — and to have fun.

"To create a balance you need to have other aspects of your life that are equally important to you. Your work, your family, your friendships.

"A trainer’s job is to create an environment of positivity where people feel they can better themselves. They can get all the rewards from an exercise program without feeling like they have been spoken down to.

"Why does exercise have to be so stony-faced and dramatic? If you can add enjoyment into exercise it makes it more sustainable."

It’s advice that will probably never win its timeslot in the cut-throat world of commercial TV ratings, but it may just be the best approach to a healthier you.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of Thirty-Something and Over It and Thirty-Something and The Clock is Ticking. www.kaseyedwards.com


114 comments so far

  • Yes! This whole article is so true! I'm glad this has been published and people will see it. I hope Channel Ten and Michelle Bridges doesn't find it , take it too personally and either try to get payback on him or sue him.

    Biggest Loser is a humiliating and unhealthy show

    I had a PT once who liked to train me till i spewed, after she did it 3 times then I decided I wanted my money back.

    kate m
    Date and time
    May 28, 2013, 8:50AM
    • I had a similar experience, which I found humiliating and traumatic. I have found it difficult to return to a gym since.

      I commend Andrew's opinion especially that the 'trainer’s job is to create an environment of positivity where people feel they can better themselves. They can get all the rewards from an exercise program without feeling like they have been spoken down to.’

      Date and time
      May 28, 2013, 11:29AM
    • I have an impersonal trainer - they leave me alone ....

      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 12:15PM
    • I like to think compare losing weight to someone trying to get their finances in order. A ‘bankrupt’ person would need to make a lot a changes, may need a better education or training and the structure to get up every day (5 days a week say) and go to work. They also need to not spend on things they don’t need. (ie not eat crap they don’t need)

      No way would we think a show about a bankrupt spending 10 weeks being stopped from gambling or wasting money, going off the dole and working long days would lead to that person becoming financially stable after the show ended. We would think of this show as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme and bound to fail.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 12:37PM
    • The adversarial and antagonistic format of this show makes it very obvious that they do not have the contestants' best interests at heart. It's just really, really bad, tasteless, entertainment.

      Australian television has a disgusting way of following the "Big Brother" format - housing the contestants together for extended periods, dragging the show on and on. Contestants cry on a regular basis. Suffice to say I don't watch or approve of the Biggest Loser, Big Brother, Masterchef, et al.

      Let's have some shows that encourage excellence and sportsmanship in the contestants, and do not drag on for months.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 1:52PM
    • Totally agree. Thanks for speaking out against this manufactured humiliation. Why can people see its just another reality tv show.

      Lady Archbold
      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 2:07PM
    • I have to agree with this personal trainer. This sort of extremely aggressive weight loss without a proper balance is not a good idea.

      Changing your entire lifestyle is a big thing as well. Making the time for fitness/exercise is a big thing. I've never ever set foot in a gym, and I've never been anywhere near a personal trainer. I did it through getting into a riding a bike. I found it was fun and easy to do. And the more I liked it, the more I wanted to get better at it. Then you start reading a lot and asking questions, how do I train to get that extra speed, what do I do to recover quicker, etc. And sure enough the weight starts going.

      But you do it in a controlled way, because you need to fuel yourself up as well, or you'll feel really flat or worse, dehydration will set in and you'll get muscle cramping.

      I was 90kg at one stage, now I'm 60kg. Built up a lot of muscle too, but mainly in the legs, as is typical for a cyclist. Anyone can do it. I set aside about 2 hours a day to go out riding. 10-15 minutes of stretching/warmup.

      Things like Garmin Connect and Strava are useful too. They give you ways to track how you are going and know when to rest up because that is just as important.

      If you want motivation, take a look at this youtube video:
      That's what I watch for motivation when I'm having a bad day. It works. And the most important thing is to have fun.

      Exactly right
      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 2:19PM
    • I've had a yelling PT too. After a few years at a desk I put on ten kilos and wanted to get rid of it, but having a twenty something use pseudoscience to determine my fitness and best way to lose weight, then yell at me for an hour and a half, I wanted to choke him. So I did. I joined up to a BJJ group that he was starting to attend as a student and my competitiveness to not let him get the better of me meant that I got fairly good (without being a muppet about it).
      Now, 6 months later, I've dropped 15kgs, my muscle mass is increased and I've got a whole new social circle.
      Why have one person yelling at you while they stand still when you can have a whole club support you when they're exercising too.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 3:39PM
    • I don't watch the show, I did years ago when it first appeared but I'm well over it now. However I do wonder what will be the consequences if someone actually drops dead during the competition. Improve the ratings I would imagine.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2013, 3:45PM
  • I don't like Michelle Bridges never have, I find her to be nothing but a bully and a very self absorbed one at that. I don't watch the show now as I find it to be just plain nasty and I don;t believe it is adding anything positive to anyones life.

    Rosie Posie
    Date and time
    May 28, 2013, 9:28AM

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