“Angry and embarrassed.”
They’re not the first words you’d expect a fitness professional to use when asked to describe The Biggest Loser. After all, the show is pretty much a 12-week advertisement for the personal training industry.
But that’s the assessment of Andrew Meade, who was a trainer for the second season of The Biggest Loser. Meade was paid by the show to train one of the eliminated contestants at home from the time the contestant was voted off the show until the finale. During that period there were competitions to get back into the house and weekly weigh-ins.
At the time Meade had concerns about the unrealistic weight loss expectations and the unsustainability of the whole process.
‘The rate of weight loss isn’t real-world at all,’ says Meade who is now a director and trainer and Melbourne’s Urban Workout. ‘The gentleman I was training had quit work and was eating a diet of around 1100–1200 calories a day — and some days he would burn 3000 calories in training.’
‘His sole focus for that period of time was losing weight. He didn’t have any balance in his life. Unfortunately, he’s now regained that weight and he’s back to where is he started.’
According to Meade, as soon as the cameras were switched off and the all-consuming framework of support provided by the show disappeared, contestants were left to their own devices. And it didn’t take long for old habits to return.
“As much as contestants have the desire to change, the show, unfortunately, doesn’t provide an opportunity to develop sustainable strategies. Competitors aim to lose 4–5 kg a week, when that should be the weight loss target for a month, depending on your individual circumstances.”
Meade says that some aspects of The Biggest Loser give the fitness industry a bad name, particularly when it comes to punishing contestants. The episodes where contestants are trained to the point of vomiting and near-exhaustion are of particular concern.
“It’s very easy to push somebody who has been sedentary for a long time to make them unwell. Any trainer could do that. It doesn’t prove anything,” says Meade.
“Unless you’re an elite athlete you shouldn’t be vomiting during a training session. It shows that the trainer doesn’t have an understanding of what level of intensity they should be working you at.”
Meade continues: “It’s just a drama show where these people are pawns used for our entertainment and the show’s ratings.”
Meade also skewers the ritual shaming and humiliation that has become a hallmark of the series. The practice of having people strip down for weigh-ins particularly irks Meade.
“Making somebody take their shirt off to get weighed is about shaming and humiliating them in front of their team mates, trainers and the country,’ says Meade. “If you want to be that precise, then you can easily weigh the t-shirt before and then deduct it from the overall total.”
Similarly, the narratives of fat failure to thin success that drive the show’s dramatic arc sits uncomfortably with Meade’s personal approach to training.
“You don’t need to belittle a person and make them feel insignificant and that the choices they have made in their life have been so terrible that they are letting their whole family down.”
Meade is also scathing about the way the show presents the trainers as psychological experts. It’s something that Michelle Bridges has traded on in the process of creating her own mini-fitness empire.
As Bridges told Sunday Life last August: “I can tap into women’s body issues because I understand them; the way women check each other out, the way they will self-sabotage. It’s a lot of psychology.”
“Personal trainers are not psychologists’ Meade counters. ‘We can’t begin to say that we know how to work through specific problems with people. It’s out of our skill set. We are not qualified to be going into that territory — other than creating a positive environment for people to achieve and feel good about themselves.”
Meade is also concerned about the impact of alliances and elimination on contestants, particularly adolescents who are at a vulnerable stage in their lives.
“The feeling of rejection that that must create within kids who have probably already been outcasts at school and experiencing bullying; I’m not a psychologist but that can’t be healthy,” says Meade
Still Meade concedes that the show does have some redeeming qualities.
“Raising awareness about health and fitness is fantastic and if The Biggest Loser is getting people to start exercising, then that is a wonderfully positive situation. The more we can educate people to get them moving and active the better.”
Nevertheless, he thinks that the show may do more harm than good, by perpetuating the most extreme version of fitness, thereby deterring people from ever starting.
Meade is under no illusions that it’s us, as viewers, who are responsible for the show’s excesses. If audiences switched off in large enough numbers, the show would be off air quicker than you can say ‘Pussy Street or Man-Up Road’. But he’s realistic enough to know that our insatiable appetite for drama will ensure the show focuses on entertainment rather than wellness and exercise.
Meade’s own prescription for a successful fitness program comes down to getting the balance right between fitness goals and the rest of your life — and to have fun.
“To create a balance you need to have other aspects of your life that are equally important to you. Your work, your family, your friendships.
“A trainer’s job is to create an environment of positivity where people feel they can better themselves. They can get all the rewards from an exercise program without feeling like they have been spoken down to.
“Why does exercise have to be so stony-faced and dramatic? If you can add enjoyment into exercise it makes it more sustainable.”
It’s advice that will probably never win its timeslot in the cut-throat world of commercial TV ratings, but it may just be the best approach to a healthier you.