“The Biggest Loser” loses big

Liz-Corkum-516Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard about the recent “Biggest Loser” scandal. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, kudos to you for being too busy with more important things! Let me preface this blog by saying that though I have watched seasons in the past, I did NOT see this season, so all of my information is from news articles, video clips, twitter, Facebook and conversations with clients. I should also be clear that I don’t personally know any of the trainers or contestants who have ever appeared on the show.

What I like about “The Biggest Loser” – the show has motivated thousands of people to get off of the couch and to get active. That’s a great thing. I am a fan of anything that positively motivates people to do something to better their health, life, priorities and mental state. There’s no denying that ‘The Biggest Loser” has become a vehicle for weight loss. I remember watching “The Biggest Loser” before I was a personal trainer, before I had run my first marathon, and before I had run my first race. I also remember feeling inspired to never cut a workout short or to give any less than my best. I’m sure part of that inspiration came from inside me, but the show always gave me a kick in the butt.

That’s where the warm and fuzzies stop.

First, let’s talk about the role of a Personal Trainer. A personal trainer’s job is to educate, motivate, create a training/nutrition plan, and to SAFELY guide their client to their goals. The trainer is a teacher. They are the expert, often educating their trainee on basic nutrition, exercise and health. This is a huge responsibility. I can personally say that as a Personal Trainer myself, I take my responsibility extremely seriously. I realize that another human being is entrusting me with their health, goals, and life. I educate my clients on nutrition, workouts, rest and recovery. I make sure they understand basic nutrition, how to correctly use machines and go through drills and workouts, and I explain the purpose of the workouts and the training plan. Fitness and nutrition succeed when they become part of your lifestyle. There is no magic pill or crash diet that will give my client what they want in a healthy, sustainable way. As a Personal Trainer, not only do I worry about injury and injury prevention, but also the mental state of my client. Yes, being a good Personal Trainer takes a lot of care and work, but it is worth it. There are lots of excellent trainers out there, changing the lives of people everyday. Personal Trainers also motivate their clients. Personally, I am a believer in positive reinforcement. I will NEVER call somebody fat, lazy or slow. If I need to be firm, I tell them to dig deep, focus on that workout, and remember how far they’ve come and how far they want to go. Positive energy is contagious. The trainers who yell and belittle their clients are assholes. Period. Personal trainers create workout and nutrition plans, often looking at the big picture and not what can be achieved in the first few weeks or months. The clients dietary needs, likes, dislikes, and workout demands are factors that go into the plans I create. As you can see, being a Personal Trainer has to be a labor of love. A Personal Trainer also needs sound scientific, nutrition and medical knowledge – even if just on a basic level.

On the “The Biggest Loser” Ranch, the contestants live an extreme lifestyle. If you think people can safely drop the percent of bodyweight achieved in the amount of time the contestants are on the show, you’re wrong. Consuming an extremely reduced caloric intake – around 1,200 for women, 1,800 for men, and sweating out calories for SEVEN HOURS per day is simply not sustainable or safe. Yes, that insane combination will make for drastic weight loss and captivating television. Sure it can be done, but should it be done? No. Besides, no sane person left to their own devices would put themselves through that lifestyle on their own.

As far as Rachel’s scary weight loss, she played the game. Yes, if she were my client I would be very concerned about her wellbeing – both physically and mentally. No, I don’t know all of the details regarding who she is, how she trained, and what she’s eating or not eating. I can guess and speculate, but that’s not fair to her. Frankly, I feel bad for her. She transformed from an obese, self conscious young woman into a thin woman under fire. She felt judged for being fat and now she’s judged for being thin. Let us remember that “The Biggest Loser” is a game show with a cash prize. It is also a show where people put their lives in the trusting hands of health professionals. As far as the game goes, she did what she had to do to win. Arguably, if I were in her shoes I might do the same thing. Again, there’s a big cash prize. Perhaps the problem is at the core of the show’s concept: its a game show first and foremost, and the health and wellbeing of the contestants is not the priority.

Let’s also dig up the motivation of the personal trainers on the show. All of the trainers have book deal, workout videos, cook books, guest appearances, and huge endorsement deals with unproven and potentially dangerous weight loss supplements. They have all created fitness empires. Folks look up to them as experts, and will buy anything with their faces and names on them. They are brands. Part of me says “good for them.” They have used their platforms to educate and motivate others. They have also used their platforms to make a lot of money. All the trainers also have decent contracts with NBC and “The Biggest Loser” brand. So I think it’s fair to say that while as trainers their #1 priority should be their trainees, the trainers on the show have a lot to gain and a lot to lose.

I’m sure everyone over at NBC and “The Biggest Loser” will say that the contestant’s wellbeing was their first priority. Let’s get real: ratings and the future of the show is the first priority. And perhaps that’s the problem. I am shocked that as of the date I am writing this blog, none of the trainers have come forward or spoken out about Rachel’s health, training or nutrition, or to voice their concern. Instead, the entire team has kept quiet. I cannot honestly believe that if this woman’s health is the priority they would keep quiet. As a trainer, it would be irresponsible, especially when you have such a platform and fitness empire, to keep quiet at a time like this. It’s not the pleasant part of being a trainer, but it is our job to voice concerns, praise progress, and keep our trainees healthy. Especially with the platform they have built, if these trainers spoke out, everyone would listen.

Now I understand that many people love “The Biggest Loser” and admire the contestants and the trainers. If you are still trying to defend the show, here are a few more ugly facts: This season, Jillian Michaels cheated by giving her contestants caffeine pills without doctor’s permission or clearance. Michaels and Harper claim to advocate “diet and exercise” on the show, yet both are endorsing weight loss pills. You can read more about that here. How can you have it both ways?!? Numerous accounts of the contestants using diuretics and other forms of dehydrating themselves during their time at the Ranch have surfaced many times over the years. Stress fractures, heat stroke, mental breakdowns, hospitalization, peeing blood – just a few of the dangerous conditions that have happened on the show. The trainers are often shouting in the faces of the contestants, bringing them physically and mentally to their breaking points.

I suppose we all need to remember that “The Biggest Loser” is a game. It was a show created for ratings. Sadly, contestants like Rachel are the folks who are perhaps no better off than the day they showed up on the Ranch. That poor young lady has been torn apart every day since the finale. I sincerely wish her well. And perhaps if we choose to watch “The Biggest Loser” we need to remember that the trainers on the show are using it as a cash cow, laughing all the way to the bank. I’m not saying that the trainers don’t care about the contestants. I hope to god they do. However, I think their credibility and motivation as trainers can be questioned. Yes, they are brands and the face of an extremely successful television show. All it cost them was their reputation as Personal Trainers.

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