“The Biggest Loser” reality TV show is popular with viewers, but it may actually be discouraging many overweight people from exercising because of the negative depictions of the extreme workouts contestants endure to shed pounds, a new study suggests.
Sports scientists from the University of Alberta found that people recruited to watch video clips of the show felt the program fueled negative attitudes toward exercise that made them less motivated to hit the gym or start a fitness routine.
"The depictions of exercise on shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’ are really negative," said lead researcher Tanya Berry. "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 study, 138 undergraduate students were split into two groups. One group watched a video of contestants engaging in extreme workouts from early in show’s ninth season, when competitors were struggling with obesity. A second group watched a segment from “American Idol.”
After viewing the clips, participants from both groups were asked to write down their impressions and complete a computer test and questionnaire designed to gauge their attitudes about exercise.
"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, noting participants' physical activity levels or weight levels had no bearing on the results.
Berry suggested the study challenges the belief that shows like “The Biggest Loser” can be motivational and get people to exercise.
"There's a lot of effort and good work out there just to get people more active,” Berry said, “but it's such a small voice in this big wash of different depictions of exercise. It's a big mess."
The study, to be published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.