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The Biggest Loser…a Motivator or a Downer for Those Needing to Lose Weight?

According to a recent study, some people are actually turned off by watching the “extreme”exercise on a show like The Biggest Loser.

A recent study showed interesting results after participants watched The Biggest Loser.  Although we might believe that The Biggest Loser would motivate those who need to lose a lot of weight, the study revealed that the opposite might be true.  Watching “extreme exercise” seemed to create a negative feeling about working out for those who need to lose weight… possibly because of the extreme fitness required of those profiled in the show.

In the study, 138 undergraduate students from the University of Alberta (Canada)  were split into two groups. One group watched a seven-minute clip – chosen for its extreme depiction of exercise – from early in The Biggest Loser’s ninth season, when competitors were struggling with obesity. A control group watched a segment from the reality show American Idol.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is – that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

Immediately after viewing the clips, participants from both groups were asked to write down their first five thoughts. Students also completed a computer test that measured their automatic attitudes about exercise before they had time to think about the question, plus a hand-written questionnaire.  “We did find that the people who watched The Biggest Loser had worse attitudes about physical activity than those who watched the American Idol clip,” said Berry, adding that the results were consistent no matter participants’ physical activity levels or weight.

Berry said the results could debunk the belief held by some researchers and many in the popular media that shows like The Biggest Loser can be motivational and get people off the couch. In fact some even say the negative portrayals of exercise could be counterproductive to public health campaigns. The study will be published in the January 2013 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, and was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

It is curious to think about the study and how we view exercise, especially the intense variety shown on The Biggest Loser.  Although it is inspiring to see the hard work involved in facing the challenge of weight loss, it could also evoke feelings of frustration and even depression for those facing a similar challenge.

Berry’s research team is now working on a further study that focuses on followup episodes of The Biggest Loser that feature participants who have lost weight, are physically fit and enjoy exercise. Those results should be published next year.   I am personally inspired and motivated when I see someone work extremely hard to pursue a goal like weight loss.  But after reading about this recent study I can also see how it might overwhelm some viewers and leave them feeling frustrated about exercise as well.  How do shows like The Biggest Loser make you feel when you watch them?

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