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Want to lose weight? Don’t watch The Biggest Loser

If you're looking for motivation to lose weight, do not – we repeat, do not – watch The Biggest Loser.

The reality show, which has overweight participants competing to slim down, has been a hit with television audiences. But according to a new study it's unlikely to nudge viewers off the couch and toward the gym. In fact, researchers at the University of Alberta's faculty of physical education and recreation found the program's gruelling depictions of exercise actually discourage people from getting active.

Their study, to be published in the American Journal of Health Behaviour, asked close to 140 student participants to watch clips of either The Biggest Loser or the non-fitness-related reality program American Idol. Those who watched the weight-loss show had worse attitudes about exercise than those in the Idol control group, regardless of the participants' fitness levels or weight.

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In a press release, lead author Tanya Berry explained The Biggest Loser tends to show exercise in the worst possible light.

"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," Berry said.

Although the show is believed to inspire weight-loss and touts products and resources to help viewers get into shape, its extreme portrayals of exercise are counterproductive, Berry said.

And as for the show's contestants? Extreme exercise doesn't appear to do them much good in the long-term either.

In a blog post on his web site Weighty Matters, Ottawa obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff explained that the show's super-rapid weight-loss strategy, which involves huge amounts of exercise mixed with stress, peer pressure and dietary restriction, can wreak havoc on participants' metabolism.

"While some contestants of the Biggest Loser will translate their new lifestyles into careers as product spokespeople or fitness trainers and hence have new external motivators to maintain their extreme behaviours, those who don't are doomed by the show itself to regain their weight, as the lifestyles promoted by the reality television show The Biggest Loser are only 'realistic' to those whose livelihoods and/or fame depend on them," Freedhoff wrote.

Sure, it would be ideal to turn off the television altogether and go for a jog outside. But as The Globe's stealth workouts demonstrate, you can still sneak in some exercise while watching your favourite reality shows. Just make sure they have nothing to do with extreme fitness.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More


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