The NBC hit show, The Biggest Loser, now in its 14th season, is well known for its rigorous (to put it mildly) workout sessions where contestants are regularly driven to the brink of collapse in the pursuit of rapid weight loss. Of course, all the huffing and puffing during the exercising also adds drama and entertainment without which the show would probably not have lasted this long.
Although the participants come from all age groups, this year's focus is on obesity among children and adolescents, which is a good idea considering that 17 percent (12.5 million) of Americans aged 2 to 19 are now diagnosed as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 1980, obesity rates among the young have tripled, and the latest data show only slight improvements despite stepped-up efforts by government agencies and advocacy groups to curb the trend.
While it is disheartening to see how much damage the obesity crisis is doing to all generations, programs like The Biggest Loser can help convey the message that it is never too early or too late to make positive changes, provided one is willing to put in the hard work. For that they should be applauded.
Still, there are some disconcerting elements at play here.
With progressive success in their weight loss efforts, many of the contestants develop a high, if not inflated, confidence level. Naturally, a certain amount of faith in one's abilities is necessary just to stay motivated. However, when I hear a candidate who has still a long way to go to a healthy weight range talk about her plans for running a complete marathon in the near future, I wonder how expectations of what's possible can sometimes spin so much out of control. Yes, it would be a headline-grabbing sensation if a once-morbidly obese person could pull off one of the most challenging athletic performances known to man after just a few month of training—but is that a healthy, or even desirable, prospect? Why this tendency to swing from one extreme to another?
It is no secret that radical weight loss bouts over short periods of time don't last in most cases. So-called "yo-yo dieting" is a well-known phenomenon in the weight loss industry. Many former contestants from The Biggest Loser have gained at least some of their old weight back. What seems feasible within a controlled environment often doesn't hold up when people resume their own daily routines.
And there is also no need for that. The intensity and rigor of a concentrated weight loss program cannot and should not continue indefinitely. Studies have shown that most people reap the greatest benefits from light-to-moderate but consistent exercise such as resistance training, fast walking or jogging for limited distances (up to 20 miles per week). More than that does not produce significantly greater advantages for physical health or longevity, according to Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans who conducted extensive research on the subject. "If anything," he says, "it appears that less running is associated with the best protection from mortality risk. More is not better, and actually, more could be worse."
His colleague and study report co-author, Dr. James H. O'Keefe, a specialist in preventive cardiovascular medicine, agrees. "In general, it appears that exercise, like any therapy, results in a bell-shaped curve in terms of response and benefits. To date, the data suggest that walking and light jogging are almost uniformly beneficial for health and do increase life span. But with more vigorous or prolonged exercise, the benefits can become questionable," he said in an interview with the New York Times.
So, instead of going from years of overeating and doing no exercise whatsoever to competitive running, I suggest that the young lady in question finds some middle ground where she can manage her weight and engage in an overall health-promoting lifestyle that can make life so much better for her for the rest of her life. The same goes for the rest of us.