"The Biggest Loser" makes for suspenseful television, with viewers tuning in to see morbidly obese contestants work their hardest to drop to a healthy weight. Their motivation may be, in part, financial: The winner receives $1 million in prize money.
But the stakes are high and personal, as the contestants often have many of the chronic conditions associated with obesity, like diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnea. Many of them are told by the show's doctor -- or their own -- that they are on a path to early death. With small children, grown children, grandchildren and spouses to live for, contestants are desperate to shed the weight and, with it, gain their health.
But that doesn't mean it's always pretty. The show's trainers, the two most famous of whom are fitness celebrities Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, don't go easy on the contestants, many of whom never exercise in their normal lives. During the course of the show, contestants work out for hours per day in grueling drills that can range from obstacle courses to treadmill circuit training to long jogs on "The Biggest Loser" campus. Contestants, put in this extreme situation, often cry, beg to stop, scream and even vomit from the stress.
It's not exactly what regular exercise looks like, but it makes for great television. Now, some public health officials worry that the extreme portrayal of exercise on the show could dissuade sedentary viewers from picking up the mantle of daily exercise.
"The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative," said Tanya Berry, the lead author of a study on perceptions of exercise due to the reality program, in a statement. The physical-activity promotion expert at the University of Alberta added: "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."
For the experiment, which will be published in the American Journal of Health Behavior in January, Berry and colleagues asked 138 college students to watch either an exercise clip from the "The Biggest Loser" or a performance clip from another reality contest show, "American Idol." Then, they asked study participants to write down their thoughts related to what they just watched and to complete a questionnaire about their attitudes on exercise.
They found that participants who watched "The Biggest Loser" clip had more negative attitudes about exercise, regardless of their own fitness levels or weights.
Of course, the way that exercise occurs on the show is not an accurate representation of real life.
"If you view exercise as terrible experience where you have to be continually forcing yourself to your extreme limits,
then you may avoid exercise altogether," Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, sports psychologist and author of Sports Psychology Coaching for Your Performing Edge tells HuffPost Healthy Living in an email. "This is the opposite of what exercise is all about. It should be something that is enjoyable, where you extend your comfort zone just a little bit, so that it’s still a pleasurable experience.
"Then you’ll stay motivated to exercise daily, which is what leads to true, lasting weight loss, where the rewards are internal, rather than external monetary incentives," she added.
The study, of course, was not without its flaws. Exercise and performance have more major differences than just depiction of trauma. Exercising can make the show's contestant look vulnerable, reveal his or her flaws and requires a style of dress that isn't particularly telegenic. Conversely, performance requires command of a stage, professional wardrobe and makeup and a round of applause at the end.
Since the comparison in the study wasn't between a negative portrayal of exercise and a positive one, it's hard to say if the dramatic nature of "The Biggest Loser" is a turn off to viewers or if exercise is simply better to experience than to watch on television. Take for example, a recent article in the New York Times in which the official photographers described complaints they'd received from marathon finishers who were surprised by their appearance as they crossed the finish line:
“People always say, ‘Jeez, Brightroom, you always get me at my worst,’” Brightroom director of business development, Sean Walkinshaw told the Times, “and I always want to say: ‘That’s the way you’re running. You’ve probably never seen yourself run before.’ ”
In other words, as Dahlkoetter said: "It’s better to 'just do it' than watch to it on TV."