The 15th season of the popular television show “The Biggest Loser” is underway. As in past seasons, another group of contestants is competing for a cash prize by losing the most weight under the supervision of exercise, nutrition, and medical experts. In addition to the entertainment value of this show, “The Biggest Loser” also provides inspiration for many viewers who should lose weight themselves.
The transformations the Biggest Loser contestants experience are impressive. The average weight loss of the winners of the first 14 seasons is almost 170 pounds, or nearly 50 percent of their original weight! Of course, they work hard to achieve this level of weight loss by following a low calorie diet combined with hours of vigorous exercise each day.
Weight loss competitions like “The Biggest Loser” have been criticized as counterproductive for long-term weight loss or even dangerous for the participants. Injuries and other adverse events do occur on the show, despite the close supervision by trained professionals.
With that said, the show does demonstrate that hard work and dedication do lead to results, since the contestants who are eliminated from the competition are often the ones who had poorer adherence. And the aim is to teach contestants – and viewers – about the importance of good nutrition and daily exercise for good health, regardless of weight loss.
Could you achieve the same results through diet and exercise on your own? Unfortunately, it is unlikely. In a rare published study of “The Biggest Loser” researchers described the contributions of the diet and exercise interventions to weight loss during one season, which began with contestants at a “boot camp” retreat and ended with them at home.
During this season, the average total weight loss was almost 130 pounds. Initially, the contestants were losing almost 7 pounds per week, the result of a 1,300 calorie per day diet combined with over three hours of vigorous exercise per day. After the contestants returned home and were away from the cameras and trainers, their diet increased to 1,900 calories per day and exercise decreased to around an hour per day, resulting in a more modest weight loss of about 3 to 4 pounds per week.
Many people follow diets that restrict energy intake similar to “The Biggest Loser,” but it is unlikely that most people could achieve and maintain such an intense exercise program on their own. Even one hour per day of vigorous exercise is well beyond the norm, especially since less than half of Americans do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each day. Furthermore, most obese and sedentary individuals should not attempt such vigorous exercise without medical clearance.
The researchers also used a computer model to estimate what would happen if the contestants went back to their original diet of 3,700 calories per day and sedentary lifestyle. Predictably, they would gain the weight back over time. They also modeled what the contestants would need to do to keep the weight off. They estimated that weight maintenance could be achieved through a 3,000 calorie per day diet with 20 minutes of vigorous exercise per day. The point is that keeping the weight off requires effort, but is less extreme than losing weight.
So, could you duplicate the weight loss results of “The Biggest Loser” on your own? Probably not, but finding your motivation, being dedicated to the process, and following the principles of reducing calorie intake and exercising everyday will help you lose weight. And the good news is that utilizing these healthy habits can help you keep the weight off in the future.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.