Monday, September 14, 2009

10 Lessons I Learned From Watching The Biggest Loser

I have been a faithful watcher of The Biggest Loser since the second season, and I can’t wait until tomorrow night’s premiere.  I am always motivated at the end of an episode to try harder with my own weight loss efforts.  Part of the reason I go to my weekly Weight Watchers meeting on Tuesday night is that I can go home and watch The Biggest Loser after and increase my motivation for the next week.  If I’m really bummed about my weigh-in results and the meeting doesn’t manage to pick me up, I know The Biggest Loser will.   I’ve even been known to sing the theme song in my head for a pick-me-up.

I know that critics have called it fat porn.  They say it’s demeaning to fat people; it sets up unrealistic expectations of losing 10 pounds or more per week; most people do not have the luxury of devoting all their time and energy to diet and exercise; kicking people off the fat farm for not losing enough that week sends the wrong message.  I’m sure you can think of more criticism, but I realize that the producers of the show must come up with good stories and produce two hours of dramatic television per week.  Some of it is the equivalent of genre expectations in reality television.  I consider the contestants’ journeys to be a condensed version of the journey I must make to become and remain a healthy writer, and the show offers many lessons. 

It is possible.  Most of the contestants have tried for years to lose weight and have never succeeded.  Some have even tried lap band or other types of surgery.  They’re willing to go on national television with the potential of humiliating themselves in front of the country because that dream of getting slim and healthy will not die.  And, the transformations towards the end of the season are phenomenal.  It always inspires me to think it is possible for me to change my life through diet and exercise.

There will always be temptations.  The contestants are often tempted to overeat.  This can come from over-the-top games where they are taken into a room full of their favorite food and told they may win money by eating the food to the more subtle temptation of given free time off the ranch when they often find themselves binging.  The contestants – and I - have to learn ways to avoid temptations and not overeat. 

Exercise can help.  The contestants’ guides to a healthy life are not nutritionists – they are trainers.  There is a very strong emphasis on getting fit through intensive exercise, and the assumption is that you cannot lose and keep off that much weight without exercise.

Try Weight Lifting.  Not only do the trainers stress cardio workouts – they make the contestants lift weights regularly.  I was very resistant to the idea of lifting weights.  I always found it so boring, but The Biggest Loser helped convince me to give it another try.

You Need To Eat Enough to Fuel Your Workouts.  Contestants are weighed every week, and the folks who have lost the most weight are safe from being voted off the ranch.  It makes an intense part of these journeys – the weekly weigh in – even more intense.  Every year, there is a contestant or two who is very disappointed with their weekly results, and he’ll sit down with his trainer.  The trainer will say I know you got the exercise right.  How much did you eat in terms of calories per day?   Invariably, the contestant will say about 500 calories, and the trainer will freak.  You can’t fuel the kind of workouts you are doing with just 500 calories per day.  Your body will go into starvation mode and hold on to the weight.  You need to eat enough to support the workouts.  I’ve always found it a useful lesson in the equation of calories in and calories out.

This is As Much About the Mind As It Is the Body.  Even with all the emphasis on the exercise and last chance workouts with the trainers, it is very clear that this is as much mental as it is physical.  You’ve got to get your mind into this and have the right attitude.  You have to change the way you think about food and exercise.  You have to be able to deal with your emotions - particularly if your usual practice was to anesthetize them with food.  The inner journeys of the contestants can be even more profound and moving than their physical journeys.

No Matter How Perfect You Are – Some Weeks You Won’t Lose.  Another staple of this show is the contestant who does everything right – gives 110% to his workouts while following the nutrition guidelines perfectly.  He or she will have a great attitude, and he could even be the most likeable of the bunch.  After an amazing, nearly perfect week, he or she will not lose that much.  This could even last a couple to several weeks.  There are just some times when your body won’t let go of the weight.  It’s just something you have to accept and not allow to discourage you.  Eventually, all that hard work will catch up.

There Can Be a Rhythm To Weight Loss.  Over the long term, you can see patterns to your weight loss.  Often a really big loss week is followed by a modest or small loss week and vice versa.  Women can really figure out a certain pattern based on their cycle.  Some weeks you get lucky, and some weeks your hard work is not rewarded.  You just have to keep going and keep trying and believe that in the end it will all even out.

Expect Tears.  This is a very emotional journey with lots of highs and lows.  Most contestants cry often and learn many lessons about themselves.  By the second half of the season, I cry with each show.  I absolutely bawled during last season’s episode when all the contestants ran – or walked in one case – marathons for the first time.  There is something so beautiful in watching folks realize how much strength they’ve always had and how they can do things that they always thought was impossible.  They change their lives and offer inspiration to others to do the same.

When and Why Did You Start Overeating?  A set of questions that the trainers want the contestants to answer before they leave the ranch is:  When did you start overeating and gaining weight?  What was happening in your life at that time?  How did you feel?  It all builds to why did you start overeating?  The trainers firmly believe that this is the most important lesson of all for the contestants.  To get to the size of these contestants – most of who are morbidly obese – they have to have some serious emotional eating issues.  The contestants have to figure out why they started overeating so that they can stop and finally conquer this issue.   They need to face these emotions and work out some kind of resolution, or they’ll just gain the weight back.

Are you a fan of The Biggest Loser?  Have you learned any lessons from it?  Will you be watching tomorrow night?


Annie Solomon on September 14, 2009 at 8:59 AM said...

I've never watched the show, but I do watch Days of our Lives, and have read about Allison Sweeny's struggle with her weight. Isn't she the host of the show? Interesting to see how the show inspires you, rather than turns you off. I say, whatever works, use it!

Michelle Butler on September 14, 2009 at 10:15 AM said...

Allison Sweeny is the host of the show. She has alluded to weight struggles in the past, but I haven't seen her looking particularly big ever.

There's definitely some indignity for the contestants on the show, but overall their journeys really resonate. I have a weakness for reality tv and have also watched Survivor and The greatest race, so I might have been more open to the format than others.

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on September 14, 2009 at 5:38 PM said...

Great post, Michelle. I've only caught bits and pieces of The Biggest Loser in the past, but I'm going to start watching it tomorrow and hope I can get hubby to watch with me. I encourage everyone to watch it because we're going to be discussing it each Wednesday -- lessons we learned, things that touched us, etc.

Anonymous said...

I don't watch it regularly, but I have watched it enough to be amazed at the transformations the contestants go through. I'm sure I'd be sent home the first week. LOL It would be my bad attitude or my unwillingness to *shudder* exercise. :-D

Michelle Butler on September 14, 2009 at 7:04 PM said...

I can't wait to talk about the new season with you, Trish, and everyone else. It really has helped me change my thinking in some ways.

Mary - I don't think Jillian and Bob would let you get away with not exercising for long! :) They'd whip your attitude and body into shape.

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