“The Biggest Loser” is one of my guilty pleasures, along with the “Real Housewives” franchise and (I’m ashamed to admit it) “Mob Wives.” I watch it to relax and don’t do too much thinking while it’s on. But last night was a major exception, when the incongruity between what the contestants were doing and what they were saying finally sunk in to my thick head.
“Bob’s going to kill us.”
“Dolvett is going to make us suffer.”
“I’m NOT looking forward to the gym today.”
And as they were working out, they were grimacing and moaning and griping about how much they hated everything they were doing, which made me wonder exactly what type of message this show is sending to the American public. Ostensibly, these people are at the ranch and on the show to change their lives, which includes incorporating exercise. But why would ANYONE want to continue doing something so awful, especially for the rest of their lives, once the confetti is swept up and the season is over?
Getting back into the gym, or going to the gym for the first time ever, can be a painful and frightening experience. The show does a great job of showing the transition from years of inactivity to intense training, zero to sixty, no holds barred. It’s hard, grueling, merciless–and it’s riveting. But the contestants have been at the ranch for ten weeks now, and even though most are still quite overweight, they are all capable of working out at a relatively high level. Although they may not be fit, they are healthier and more athletic than many Americans.
So why the histrionics? The workouts are tough. I’m sure the contestants feel pushed beyond their capacities and would rather be lounging in front of the TV with a dish of chocolate covered almonds (like I was). But the show is supposed to inspire people to lose weight through diet and exercise. When exercise is portrayed as something unpleasant, like medicine that you have to take in order to burn calories, I worry that it scares away a lot of the very people it hopes to reach.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I would never sign on for a year’s membership of suffering, at my local gym or anywhere else.
What makes this even more depressing is that exercise doesn’t have to be unpleasant. It can be fun. It’s important to understand this. It’s much easier to form and maintain habits when you look forward to them. When there’s an immediate reward associated with a behavior, like exercise, people will embrace it. Equating the behavior with pain and torture? Not so much.
Sometimes my workouts are difficult, mentally or physically or both. Sometimes I’m sore after them. Sometimes I just want them to be over, like a few weeks ago, when suicides with a weighted sled messed me up more than anything in recent memory. But whether I’m loving what I’m doing at the time or hating it, there’s still an element of fun every time I go to the gym, a yoga practice, or a session with my trainer. What will happen today? Will I shatter a goal? What opportunities will present themselves? And no matter what, I ALWAYS feel better when I’m done than when I started. Why else would I continue to exercise, day after day, week after week, year after year, if I didn’t like it?
It’s not easy for people who’ve never exercised to think of it as enjoyable. It’s taken me half a lifetime to get to the point I am now, where I see activity not as a means to an end but as something I do because I like it. But at least I got here, and I did it because I was inspired, not because I was scared. Nike did a great job of motivating me in the 1990s. The commercial at the top of this post still gives me the chills. When I watch it I want to go run stadiums, to push myself, to test my limits. “Baywatch” made me want to run on the beach, “Top Gun” made me want to play beach volleyball, and watching the dancers in “Fame” made me forget how clumsy I was when I threw in the towel on ballet at the age of seven. You don’t need to show fat people falling off gym equipment accompanied by “thunks” and shaking cameras to have a compelling visual story.
Exercise isn’t essential if you want to lose weight. But it can help–it keeps the metabolism up, preserves muscle mass, blunts hunger, and makes you feel good. There’s no need to hate on it for the sole purpose of creating drama. It’s difficult enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle in our world without thinking that exercise is something that must be endured, not enjoyed. I will continue to watch “The Biggest Loser” and will keep tearing up when someone has an emotional breakthrough, finishes a half marathon, or finds a part of themselves previously lost in a layer of fat. But I hope that if “The Biggest Loser” promotes itself as a commercial television program that’s also providing some type of public service, it does so in a responsible, truthful way that motivates people to change for life, not just for the short term.