“The Biggest Loser” weighs in on fitness

“The Biggest Loser” is a weight loss competition reality show that has become one of NBC’s highest rated programs, spawned numerous fitness- and diet-related products, made stars out of its trainers and became a cultural phenomenon while helping people live healthier and lose weight.

The Show

The premise of the show is to bring together people from around the country whose health and lives are being impacted by their obesity. Those that are selected are brought to the Biggest Loser Ranch, where they are divided into teams. Each team is provided a trainer, who sets the workout schedules and regimens and provides nutritional advice and fitness tips.

Before the workouts really begin, the contestants meet with the show’s team of medical professionals to review how serious their weight condition is and the consequences if they do not change. They are told their biological age, which is their age based on health, compared to their actual age. Normally, the biological age is several years more than the actual age, sometimes as high as 25 years.

Contestants not only work out and learn to eat healthy, they compete against each other in physical challenges. The winning team or individuals receives a prize, which can include immunity from elimination that week, a visit to a spa, a penalty against the other team, cash or calls home. Past challenges have included long-distance hikes, walking up the stairs of a skyscraper, sliding down a Slip-N-Slide and then walking back up the hill until only one remains and being suspended over a shallow pool with the winner being the last to drop.

Some weeks, contestants also face a “temptation” involving food. Sometimes if they give in to the temptation they win a call home or dinner with a loved one, while other times they win the prize for resisting the temptation. However, for those giving in to the temptation, there is the added possibility of being eliminated due to the extra weight that temptation may add.
Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels.
Each week, the remaining contestants weigh in, but prior to that they all go through a grueling “last chance workout.” At the weigh in, the two contestants who have lost the least percentage of their total body weight that week are up for elimination. The other contestants then vote on who should go home, with the one receiving the most votes being eliminated. It is here where the show sometimes strays from its goal of helping people lose weight. Often, contestants strategize on who should be sent home, choosing someone who is either a threat to them or is hurting the team. This sometimes results in someone who really wants and needs the help of the staff at the Biggest Loser Ranch going home rather than having access to the experts that can help them change their lives. This is especially true of contestants sent home very early in the show’s season. The grand prize for the Biggest Loser is $250,000. However, most contestants seem to feel the lessons they learn at the ranch are the prizes.

Those that are eliminated are encouraged to continue their progress and to compete for a $100,000 cash prize at the end of the season for being the one who lost the largest percentage of weight at home.

In January of 2007, “The Biggest Loser” changed its format somewhat and introduced a season in which couples competed as teams against other couples. “The Biggest Loser: Couples” has been repeated two more times and provides the show an opportunity to basically run two seasons’ worth of episodes in one TV season while also helping more people.

The fall season of 2008 introduced “The Biggest Loser: Families,” while the fall of 2009 gave previously eliminated contestants from other seasons “The Biggest Loser: Second Chances.”

The Experts

“The Biggest Loser” employs a wide range of medical health experts as well as the trainers who work with the contestants.

During its eight seasons the show has used three trainers – Bob Harper, Jillian Michaels and Kim Lyons.

Harper is the only one who has been with the show since its 2004 debut. Before the show he was a highly demanded fitness specialist in the Los Angeles area. He continues to work with celebrities, including Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Selma Blair. Harper uses an “inside-out” relationship with his clients and contestants by building relationships with them and motivates them to realize their potential and their self-worth. He then helps them develop positive habits to enrich their lives, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. In this manner, called the “Functioning Training Method,” clients are given the educational tools necessary to lose weight, tone muscle and increase strength, but it is up to them to use those tools. He is certified with the American Fitness Training of Athletics and with Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

Michaels was an original trainer on “The Biggest Loser,” but left prior to a “Special Edition” show in 2006. Her return in 2007 was a surprise to the contestants and the other trainers. In that season, contestants competed in a foot race with the two people crossing the finishing line choosing who they wanted on their team from a pool of contestants. After the two teams were selected, it was believed six were left out. However, these six were trained secretly by Michaels until they made their appearance at the weigh in at the end of week two. Michaels has been part of the show since. Before her TV success, she struggled with her own weight, but through dedication and hard work achieved her fitness goals. She is no less demanding on her clients and contestants, pushing and cajoling them to work their hardest. She helps people reach their goals, both physical and psychological, by stressing the integration of fitness, proper nutrition and behavioral changes.

Lyons replaced Michaels in 2006 and also participated in the 2007 season. She left at the end of that season due to scheduling conflicts. She has more than 10 years of experience as a fitness trainer and was selected out of hundreds of applicants to replace Michaels. Combining nutrition with effective exercise programs, Lyons utilizes a tough but realistic approach which allows clients to understand their potential, build confidence and reach goals.

Dr. Rob Huizenga is an associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at UCLA and is considered one of the leading weight-loss experts in the U.S. He is a former team physician for the L.A. Raiders professional football team, and a book he wrote on his experiences there was the basis for the film “Any Given Sunday.” His current practice specializes in obesity-related issues. Dr. Huizenga is the physician who interviews each contestant at the beginning of the season to go over their health risks. He has been interviewed on several network and cable news shows as a health expert and he has been a writer, correspondent and advisor for several other TV programs.

The show also employs several chefs and nutritionists, who are responsible for transforming the contestants’ bodies, health and lives, as well as other medical personnel, psychologists and athletic trainers.
Even the hostesses of the show have experience dealing with weight loss, which helps them connect with the contestants and understand what they are going through in their lives.
Current host Alison Sweeney has talked publicly of her past battles with being overweight and wrote about them in her book, “All the Days of My Life (So Far).” Sweeney has hosted the show since 2007.
Caroline Rhea hosted the show from 2004-2006. She also has talked publicly about being overweight and rumors swirled around the Internet in 2006 that NBC let her go as host of the show due to her being overweight and it being a topic of several Internet message boards concerning the show. NBC executives at the time said they wanted to bring somebody newer and with a larger youth fan base to the show.

The Products

As a result of the TV show, a number of products have been developed with the “Biggest Loser” brand or associated with individuals involved with the show. The brand is estimated to make $100 million from products and endorsements.

First, there’s “The Biggest Loser Club” through its Web site at www.nbc.com/the-biggest-loser. The club offers a three-month membership for $29.95, that includes three free Biggest Loser weight loss books, or a one-month plan for $19.98. The three books are The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook, The Biggest Loser Fitness Program and The Biggest Loser originally adapted from the show. The Biggest Loser Club provides users with the tools to make better food and exercise choices using thousands of recipe ideas, meal plans and exercise demonstrations; a message board where users can communicate with each other to swap ideas or ask for advice and help; receive personalized goals based on height and weight; the ability to track progress; receive the information at home or via mobile device. There is also advice on how to get started exercising, what to eat when going out to dinner or lunch, healthy snacks and meals to prepare at home.

A “Biggest Loser” home delivered meal plan has been launched. Customers can order the meals either online or by phone. They select which meals they would like to order and they are delivered right to the door. A seven-day meal plan with snacks costs $169.95, while a seven-day plan without snacks runs $149.95. There is also a five-day plan with or without snacks which costs $129.95 and $119.95, respectively. The meals are pre-cooked so they just have to be heated up before eating. These gourmet-style meals have been developed by medical experts.

There are a number of DVDs targeted toward different types of workouts and featuring staff from the show, including “The Biggest Loser: 30-day Jump Start,” “The Biggest Loser Workout: Power Sculpt,” The Biggest Loser Workout: Cardio Max,” “The Biggest Loser Boot Camp,” “The Biggest Loser Yoga” and “The Biggest Loser Last Chance Workout.”

Pieces of exercise equipment associated or endorsed by “The Biggest Loser” include “The Biggest Loser” Bodybugg, an armband that helps monitor the amount of exercise performed, calories consumed and lets people know if they are exercising enough to burn the amount of calories they desire. The $244 price includes an initial 12-month Web subscription which also provides access to a phone coach for setup of the Bodybugg. Renewal subscription costs range from $9.95 on a monthly basis, $49.95 for six months and $79.95 for a year. Kits include a stability ball, sculpt and burn, a fitness mat, resistance bands and total body bands. A protein drink is also offered through the show’s Web site store.

“The Biggest Loser” recently entered the video game workout market with an interactive fitness game for the Nintendo Wii. Compatible with that platforms’ Balance Board, the game offers a four, eight or 12-week program where gamers can compete against contestants from prior seasons of the show. Users can also customize a program based on their fitness goals and using any of the game’s 88 available exercises that work the upper and lower body. There are also cardio and yoga exercises. Trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels are featured giving tips and expertise. A diet plan based on specific weight loss goals can also be created through the game. It will also help track caloric intake.

A Nintendo DS and DSi form of the Wii game is also available which also offers portable access and can be used on the go to count calories, create shopping lists and save recipes in addition to the challenge programs, exercises and health tips.

Jillian Michaels has launched her own media company, called Empowered Media LLC, which produces books, DVDs, video games, exercise equipment and an online presence with the state goal of creating total life solutions for people in all aspects of their lives. She has authored two New York Times bestselling books, “Master Your Metabolism” and “Making the Cut.” DVDs produced by the company include “30 Day Shred,” “No More Trouble Zones” and “Banish Fat Boost Metabolism.” She also has two fitness video games for the Nintendo Wii, “Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum” 2009 and 2010 editions. She offers her own line of supplements and protein drinks and her Web site, www.jillianmichaels.com, offers subscribers weight loss help and plans. Later in 2010, Michaels will also be the star of a new fitness TV show on NBC, “Losing it with Jillian Michaels.” In it, she will move in with a family each week and teach them how to exercise, eat right and be healthy in every aspect of their lives.
Bob Harper also has a book, “Are You Ready,” and a Web site, www.mytrainerbob.com, which allows users to track their progress and communicate with others who register at the site.
Ratings success

Since its debut in the fall of 2004, “The Biggest Loser” has shown itself to be a proven ratings winner, even though it wasn’t as highly touted as some of the network’s other new programming that year, nor did it receive much promotion. In fact, the show was hurriedly put into place for the fall schedule in 2004 after NBC canceled “Last Comic Standing 3” at the last minute.

Despite those obstacles, its 90-minute debut drew 9.9 million viewers. NBC executives were impressed enough they pulled one of their more highly touted shows during November sweeps and aired “The Biggest Loser” in its place. Two weeks later, “The Biggest Loser” won a head-to-head battle with another popular reality series, “The Amazing Race,” and delivered 10.5 million viewers.

While the premise of the show is weight loss combined with the competition of battling for $250,000, the real success of the show lies in the heartfelt stories of the contestants.

In a 2004 interview with Variety magazine, executive producer J.D. Roth said the show works because “We went for the heart. Telling these people’s stories is why the show is working.”

The 2010 premier of “The Biggest Loser: Couples” drew 11.7 million viewers, including a 4.7 share among viewers 18-49, while competing against Fox’s coverage of college football’s Orange Bowl. That was the largest audience ever for a premier of “The Biggest Loser.”


The show has not been without its share of problems.

Most notably, season 3 Biggest Loser, Eric Chopin, was featured in the Discovery Channel’s program, “Confessions of a Reality Show Loser.” Though Chopin lost 200 pounds to become the champion in his season, he later regained nearly all the weight back. The program follows how the weight gain impacted Chopin and his family and his struggle to lose the weight for good.

In 2009, Entertainment Tonight reported contestant Gregory “Dane” Patterson was shown finishing a marathon at home after being eliminated from “The Biggest Loser” during its update of his status. However, Patterson admitted he had been given a ride for three of the 26 miles. The show issued an apology. Patterson did reach success while on “The Biggest Loser.” He lost 100 pounds in eight weeks at the ranch and lost 13 pounds the week he was eliminated. In fact, as was mentioned above, strategy played a part in Patterson being eliminated, rather than his lack of trying to lose weight.

Prior to a reunion special planned for 2009, The New York Times reported season 1 winner, Ryan Benson, had regained almost all of his weight and admitted to losing weight by fasting and dehydrating himself to the point he was urinating blood. Benson was not on the reunion special and says he was shunned because of his admission. TV Guide Magazine’s online site reported the same year accusations the show was endangering the lives of contestants by pushing them too hard and causing some of them to suffer dehydration. Contestants defended the show, saying dehydration is simply water loss and not really weight loss. Contestant Rudy Pauls, who was the runner up in 2008, was among those who defended “The Biggest Loser,” but did caution against people trying such an intense routine on their own. He pointed out trying to lose 14 pounds a week is unrealistic normally and added the contestants on the show are under the constant watch of medical professionals.

A contestant from the 2008 season accused trainer Jillian Michaels of providing the contestants on her team with performance-enhancing substances to help them slim down faster. NBC ordered a full investigation and Michaels was cleared. Officials of the show say the contestant, Filipe Fa, had a problem with Michaels after being forced to switch to her team, which he did not want. Fa later claimed he did not make the allegation, but members of the production crew said they heard the comments after Fa was eliminated. In 2007, trainer Kim Lyons was visibly surprised and upset at the unexpected return of Michaels, whom Lyons had replaced in 2006. Lyons left the show after that season.

During the 2009 season, two contestants had to be rushed to the hospital, one by airlift, after suffering heat stroke while taking part in a one-mile race. Meanwhile, the show is finding heavier and heavier contestants to join the show. One couples team in 2010 weighed a total of nearly 1,000 pounds at the beginning of the season.

Does it work?

Despite the controversies, “The Biggest Loser” seems to work, though, like other health programs, it depends on the dedication of those using it. Certainly the contestants lose tremendous amounts of weight, even many of those who are eliminated. With the show drawing millions of viewers a week it is able to expose those viewers to better ways of healthy living and inspire them to attain their own health goals, though in a less intense manner. The program’s line of products complement the ideals of the show, and the trainers reach out to fans to offer support also. While results from the show, 15 pounds lost per week, would not be typical, weight loss would be possible following the example of “The Biggest Loser.”