"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."
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Improved Sexual Function
Here's a motivating reason to get moving: regular physical activity can increase blood flow in a way that has a direct affect on sexual function, explains <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger</a> David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center At Griffin Hospital. In fact, a recent study published by Emory University researchers in the <em>Journal of Sexual Medicine</em> identified a link between physical activity and erectile function among men between the ages of 18 and 40. "The men in our study who exercised more seemed to experience a protective benefit against erectile dysfunction," study co-author Wayland Hsiao, assistant professor of urology at Emory School of Medicine, <a href="http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/stories/2012/01/research_exercise_enhance_sexual_function_men.html" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "We hope that early screening for ED may be a gateway issue to help motivate young men to live healthily on a consistent basis so that they can possibly avoid health issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We see this as just the beginning."
Changes In Gene Expression
In the burgeoning field of epigenetics, scientists are discovering how <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1952313,00.html" target="_hplink">environmental factors</a>, including diet, stress and toxins, can change the way our genes are expressed, essentially turning certain genes on or off, and affecting which are passed down from generation to generation. One factor that can play a role? Exercise. Two recent studies have illustrated just how regular physical activity can affect gene expression. The first study, conducted by Swedish researchers illustrated how inactive young adults demonstrated an immediate shift in their muscle cells' genetic material after just a few minutes on a stationary bicycle, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/06/exercise-changes-your-dna_n_1324452.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost reported</a> when the findings were released. The second study, conducted by researchers from the Harvard School Of Public Health, found that walking an hour a day can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/walking-obesity-genetic_n_1345224.html" target="_hplink">slash genetic tendencies toward obesity</a>. We'll walk to that!
Sweating it out could help you get your glow on post-workout, too. As Dr. Katz explains, your skin is the largest organ in your body. And as we slough off tons of skin cells each day, we need to give our body the right construction materials -- healthy foods, regular exercise, plenty of oxygen -- to rebuild. " If you've got good construction material," he says, "you can build healthy skin cells and you have good skin." Skin also tells the story of what's going on inside your body. "The skin is the window dressing. It's really reflective of overall health," Katz says. And that means if your body's natural detoxification system is healthy, including the kidneys, liver and spleen, it'll translate into a healthy looking glow. Those body-sculpting benefits of working out don't hurt either. "Skin draped over muscle looks great, skin draped over an excess of subcutaneous fat, not so much," Katz says.
Here's a health shocker: moving your feet may have health benefits all the way up to your eyes. According to a recent paper published in the journal <em>Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science</em>, <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024133028.htm" target="_hplink">regular exercise may be linked</a> to a lowered risk of developing glaucoma. Researchers, evaluating 5,650 men and women between the ages of 48 and 90, found that people who engaged in moderate physical exercise 15 years prior had a <a href="http://www.ahaf.org/glaucoma/newsupdates/physical-fitness-could-have-a.html" target="_hplink">25 percent reduced risk</a> of low ocular perfusion pressure, a risk factor for glaucoma. "It appears that OPP is largely determined by cardiovascular fitness," author Paul J. Foster, M.D. Ph.D., of the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024133028.htm" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "We cannot comment on the cause, but there is certainly an association between a sedentary lifestyle and factors which increase glaucoma risk."
Breaking a sweat during the day may just mean better beauty sleep at night. According to a large study published last year in the journal <em>Mental Health and Physical activity</em>, people who exercised at a moderate or vigorous level for at least 150 minutes a week (that's just over 20 minutes a day) <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755296611000317" target="_hplink">reported 65 percent better sleep quality</a> than their more sedentary peers. "Increasingly, the scientific evidence is encouraging as regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep," study author Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise science at Oregon State University <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111122143354.htm" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a> when the findings were released. And that, in turn, could have a whole host of additional benefits, as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/28/exercise-sleep-quality-moderate-weekly_n_1116315.html" target="_hplink">poor quality sleep</a> has been linked to increases in inflammation, high blood pressure, and increased blood glucose levels in people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes.
A Sharper Brain
Looking at your body holistically, what's healthy for the whole body -- good nutrition, plenty of rest, supportive relationships -- is also good for the brain, explains Katz. And the same goes for regular exercise. "If something is good for your brain, it's probably good for you," he told The Huffington Post. "And if it's not good for you, it's probably not good for your brain." In the short term, exercise means increased blood flow to the brain, which can help you stay sharper. So instead of taking that coffee break, which provides an artificial stimulant to help you focus in the short-term, consider a walk instead. "Exercise does the same thing and it confers a lasting benefit into the bargain," he says. (Added bonus: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/13/sitting_n_1202800.html#s608680&title=It_Ups_Diabetes" target="_hplink">sitting for too long</a> has been associated with a host of health problems, including increased diabetes and cancer risk.) In fact, one Swedish study published last year in the <em>Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine</em> found that taking exercise breaks at work for two-and-a-half hours a week was associated with improvements in productivity. Physical fitness also has brain benefits in the long term, as well. Studies have linked regular activity to <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110907163919.htm" target="_hplink">decreased risk of dementia</a> and <a href="http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20070313/get-fit-improve-memory" target="_hplink">improved memory</a>.
Roughly 36 million people in the United States suffer from migraines, <a href="http://www.migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine.html" target="_hplink">according to the Migraine Research Foundation</a> -- and the oftentimes debilitating headaches take their toll in more than 113 million lost work days each year. Characterized by <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120" target="_hplink">intense pain in one side of the head</a> and often joined by symptoms of nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound, migraines tend to run in families and are <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120/DSECTION=causes" target="_hplink">triggered by a variety of factors</a>, from foods to stress to environmental changes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Treatments can include drugs taken at the onset of an attack and preventive medications -- and a recent, small study suggests that exercise may be just as effective at the latter. The findings, published in the journal, <em>Cephalalgia</em>, suggest that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/exercise-migraines-prevention_n_1003794.html" target="_hplink">regular physical activity may be able to prevent migraines</a> as well as drugs or relaxation therapy, The Huffington Post reported when the study was released last year.
The brunt of flu season may be behind us, but regular, moderate exercise may help us to stave off a springtime cold by <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10894093/ns/health-cold_and_flu/t/working-out-may-help-prevent-colds-flu/#.T2vztWJAaOF" target="_hplink">upping the body's defenses against viruses and bacteria</a>. A sedentary person is likely to catch two to three upper respiratory tract infections each year, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/07/exercise-immunity_n_1190296.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost reported earlier this year</a>, but a moderately active person can cut that number by close to a third. But the effect reverses in the case of intense exercise -- marathoners, for instance, may have a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/07/exercise-immunity_n_1190296.html" target="_hplink">two-to-six-fold increase in contracting an upper respiratory tract infection</a> in the weeks following a race.
A Sunnier Disposition
As much as we all sometimes dread the prospect of working out, the truth is that you'll actually <em>feel</em> better after you're done. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that produce a sense of euphoria in the brain. (Who can forget the <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250494/quotes" target="_hplink">famous <em>Legally Blonde</em> quote</a>: "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't." Just us?) Recent research has further confirmed the link between working out and happiness -- last month, Penn State researchers published findings suggesting that <a href="http://journals.humankinetics.com/jsep-current-issue/jsep-volume-33-issue-6-december/the-dynamic-nature-of-physical-activity-intentions-a-within-person-perspective-on-intention-behavior-coupling" target="_hplink">people who are more physically active</a> reported greater general feelings of excitements and enthusiasm, The Huffington Post reported when the study was published. "Our results suggest that not only are there chronic benefits of physical activity, but there are discrete benefits as well," study researcher Amanda Hyde, a kinesiology graduate student at Penn State, <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/ps-pay020812.php" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "Doing more exercise than you typically do can give you a burst of pleasant-activated feelings. So today, if you want a boost, go do some moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise."
Could daily workouts be the real fountain of youth? Maybe so. A Taiwanese study published last year in The Lancet suggests that even just 15 minutes of physical activity a day can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/15-minutes-daily-exercise-live-longer_n_928137.html" target="_hplink">extend life expectancy by three years</a>, compared to people who didn't exercise.