Last week I watched the season premier of The Biggest Loser. This is the first season I plan on watching all of the way through. Previously, I’ve only seen an episode here or there.
It was sad to see what the trainers’ game plan for day one was. Here you have severely obese clients and you’re literally destroying them with exercise. The message — which the “contestants” and the world receive loud and clear — is that exercise is the number one factor in fat loss.
The second theme that runs through the show is that fat people are lazy and must be yelled at and demeaned to work sufficiently to reach their goals. Jillian Michaels — a trainer on the show and famous celebrity trainer — is especially abrasive, channeling her inner Nietzsche to really tear people down. No worries, she builds them back up later with an almost textbook bipolar-like switch to full-throttle compassion.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who coined the phrase, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It’s the live-by, die-by mantra of Jillian Michaels, high school football coaches, and Pinterest motivation posters.
The problem is that it’s a lie.
Exercise is a great thing. It’s beneficial, it improves body composition, and it can have a positive impact on key health markers. Those are all facts. But those facts don’t make exercise the most important component of reaching realistic health and fitness goals. And it doesn’t make the type of exercise featured on the show healthy. “What doesn’t kill you…” increases inflammation, drastically increases your chance of injury, and is totally unnecessary.
The reason exercise is promoted as the key to all of this is because exercise is the most profitable component of a fat loss plan. Everyone wants you to believe it’s all about exercise because that’s where the money is. If you believe it’s all about exercise, the industry can build you gyms full of equipment, they can innovate that equipment to constantly make it better, they can sell you DVDs to show you how to use that equipment, and they can sell you trainers to yell at your lazy ass.
And the fairy tale they use to promote this idea is gobbled up because it makes perfect sense. That fairy tale goes something like this: You became overweight because you lack self control, can’t put the fork down, and you don’t possess the determination to bust your ass in the gym every day. And the trainers in this fairy tale are beautiful white unicorns galloping over a rainbow bridge to come save you.
You can even sell this fairy tale with what appears to be cold, hard facts. Step one: put obese people in a house and Nietzsche them into submission for a week. Step two: put said obese people on a scale that bounces their numbers around in dramatic fashion before flashing an impossible new number on the screen (one of the contestants this season lost 30 pounds in week one [sheds tear]). Step three: tie in their personal history of woe to build emotional impact that every human being with a heartbeat can relate to.
Did this man lose 30 pounds of fat in a week? No, he lost a bunch of retained water. But we’re all crying and cheering and sitting on the edge of our seats. And if you don’t hit some magical number they’ve set for you (that’s all based on a lie), you get sent home. You lazy son of a bitch.
There was no talk of food the entire first week. No mention of nutrition. Just treadmills, hills, and lots of yelling. Oh, and a puke bucket. Because, as Jillian says, if you don’t throw up you’re not working hard enough. [Pause for sponsor identification] Did we mention that all of the equipment on the show was supplied by Planet Fitness?
It’s easy to keep adding more pages to the fairy tale. And I’m sure when they DO talk about food, it’s very likely to be more fairy tales. I can make it from start to finish with most clients without ever mentioning the word “calories.” I bet Biggest Loser can’t make it through episode two (assuming they talk about food at all in episode two).
What’s up with all of these lies?
The first rule in marketing is to tell stories. People love stories and they buy into them. Stories are legit, there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you tell a story that isn’t true — a fairy tale — in order to get people to buy into a lie so you can make lots of money off of them, that’s not cool. In fact, it’s why nobody trusts anyone in the health and fitness industry.
The truth is that it’s all unnecessary. You can shed fat and make an amazing transformation simply by changing what you put in your mouth and without ever stepping foot in a gym; without ever being yelled at; without ever throwing up.
The exercise lie is one of dozens promoted on The Biggest Loser. And it turns out that the biggest loser is the contestant (who is torn down and humiliated on national television) and the the viewer (who thinks they’re watching something meaningful and may attempt to apply the “lessons” from the show to their own journey). How sad.