Health — 26 October 2012

The popular television reality show The Biggest Loser is supposed to inspire people to exercise and lose weight, but a new study out of Canada says it’s having the opposite effect.

Researchers at the University of Alberta discovered that folks who watched a short video clip from the show ended up having negative attitudes toward exercise.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion.  “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.”

In the study, 138 undergraduate students at the University of Alberta were split into two groups. One group watched a seven minute video clip from The Biggest Loser, showing obese participants struggling during exercise. The control group watched a clip from American Idol.

Immediately after viewing the clips, both groups were asked to write down their first five thoughts. They also completed a computer test to measure their attitudes about exercise.

University of Alberta researcher Tanya Berry found that reality TV shows that depict exercise as an ordeal can fuel negative attitudes about fitness. (Photo: John Ulan)

“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. Those result, she added, were consistent no matter what the student’s physical activity or weight.

Berry said her research debunks the popular belief that shows like The Biggest Loser can be motivational and get people off the couch. She says the show’s negative portrayals of exercise are counterproductive to public health campaigns.

“There’s a lot of effort and good work out there just to get people more active, but it’s such a small voice in this big wash of different depictions of exercise. It’s a big mess,” said Berry,

Berry’s research team is now working on a study that will focus on episodes of The Biggest Loser that feature participants who have lost weight, are physically fit and enjoy exercise. Those results should be published next year.

The current study, to be published in the January 2013 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Richard Lenti

Richard Lenti has worked as a news writer for the last 20 years at various television stations in Los Angeles. He is a Golden Mike winner and a graduate of California State University, Fresno. With roots in print journalism, Richard is excited to be “published” once again; having people read his work as opposed to having it read to them. As a freelance writer his work has appeared in the Easy Reader, L.A. Jazz Scene, Irrigation and Green Industry, and the KCAL 9 Online website.

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