DP222I have to admit that I’m not a reality show fan and I’ve watched only several episodes of The Biggest Loser, including that which helped determine the contestants for last season.  I have seen the promos though, and rather than entice me, they scare me away.  The show plays into our fascination with the struggles of others, redemption sagas of people overcoming hardship and our voyeuristic tendencies.  Many probably like to watch because it makes them feel relatively trim.  Others may find comfort in realizing they are not alone.  For some it may be a motivator to initiate lifestyle changes.  It is this last group that most concerns me.  What its stars and producers fail to realize is that The Biggest Loser promotes more than an unrealistic “reality”, it idealizes unsafe exercise practices.

Morbidly obese contenders competed in a one-mile race in order to even qualify as participants last season.  Though they may have passed a medical screening process, the impact of jogging on the joints of such heavy people cannot possibly be good.  Contestants are later screamed at to push them to strive for their limits while doing such things as hiking up hills, dragging weighted sleds behind them as they walked, and weightlifting.  Sometimes they are required to perform exercises I wouldn’t even advocate for novice exercisers who are lean.  One example is hoisting weight above shoulder level before establishing a foundation of strength in the scapular (shoulder blade) muscles that are so crucial to good mechanics of the shoulder joint.

Overuse and repetitive stress injuries result from placing more demand on the body than it can tolerate.  These include such things as sprains (of ligaments), strains (of muscles and tendons) and stress fractures.  Overuse injuries often occur when people begin or resume an exercise program, ramp a program up too quickly or exercise for too long (and fatigue sets in).  Breakdown may also result if an exerciser focuses on perfecting a specific a skill, requiring a great deal of repetition. The outcome of using poor form with exercise or doing exercises that are, in and of themselves, unsafe is also likely to be overuse injury. Most of these practices appear to be routine on The Biggest Loser. 

Despite the small print claiming medical supervision, the show feeds the fantasy that anyone can do what the contestants do.  They cannot and should not.  Older and heavier folks especially should learn of any heart risks prior to embarking on a fitness regimen.  In addition, the less fit we are, the more gradually we should ramp up an exercise program.  A readiness must be established for each level of an exercise progression in order for it to be safe.  Assess your response to an exercise before increasing the challenge.  Work toward some muscle fatigue, but avoid working to exhaustion.  It is true that muscles have to be challenged in order to become stronger, but none of us should work through pain.  Muscles also should not be worked on consecutive days to allow for the rebuilding that results in increased strength.  Note that the precision of form with exercise is key to targeting the desired muscles and avoiding compensation with other muscles.  For instance, if you use momentum or hike your shoulders with an upper body exercise, you are probably lifting a weight that is too heavy or doing an exercise you are not ready to do.  Listen to your body – it will guide you better than The Biggest Loser.

I’m not a fan of very rapid weight loss, and most of us couldn’t devote the day to exercise even if we wanted to.  We have a life “outside the house”.  Those who do go on to succeed at home (once booted from the show) speak of this.  They learned to adapt the lessons from the show to modify their eating habits and include exercise in their routines of daily life.  These are the good lessons.  Take that away from The Biggest Loser and you have a chance.

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About the author

Abby serves as the Injury Expert for CBS New York where, since 2010, her Injury Breakdown Blog examines injuries in professional sports. She also blogs on health & fitness as well as sports injuries for Huffington Post, and Recovery Physical Therapy.com, where her blog earned a top ten mention for physical therapy blogs in 2012 @ WorldWideLearn.com. In a ranking of the Top 30 Healthcare Blogs for 2012, Top Masters in Healthcare also rated Abby’s blog in the top three in Physical Therapy! Abby is the founder of Fit-Screen and she welcomes your comments and questions!