An Open Letter to The Biggest Loser

logo-the-biggest-loser1I love The Biggest Loser.  I have watched every season and I have the greatest respect for Jillian and Bob, the show's trainers, and the expertise they use when working with the contestants on the show.  But there's a problem.  Reality TV is crossing over into reality and people are getting hurt.  What do I mean exactly?  Well, recently a client whom I share with another trainer got injured doing Biggest Loser-style moves.  This woman, who was post-partum, was instructed to jump repeatedly onto a tall platform.  Then she was asked to swing a medicine ball back and forth at full velocity, whamming it into a wall on one side of her and then spinning it around into the wall on the opposite side.  She trusted her trainer and followed his prompts to the letter.  Then she lay down on the floor for an hour before she could scrape herself up and go home.  She had seriously injured her back.  Bob and Jillian use a lot of explosive movements and plyometric work to get their contestants to lose an amazing amount of weight in a ridiculously short period of time.  However, they do it with control.  What viewers don't see is the baby steps the contestants first took as they learned to get the control and build the strength needed to do the large movements we see on TV. For the most part, these types of exercises are unnecessary for folks like you and I.  If you play basketball or volleyball or jump hurdles, these plyometric moves would be good to incorporate to improve your game.  But generally, the average Jane and Joe don't need 'em.  If you want to incorporate explosive moves into your training, there are safer ways to do it, such as vertical leap devices that will encourage high jumps without the threat of tripping on a box because you didn't jump quite high enough.   Here's the real bone I have to pick with Bob and Jillian:   Stop climbing on equipment and adding your body weight to the machines and stop jumping on people's backs!   Unfortunately, trainers are following the examples they see on TV and are using these routines in health clubs and people are getting hurt.  This is real.  This is serious.  As an owner in the fitness industry, if I ever saw a trainer do that to a client I would fire them on the spot.  I have a feeling neither Biggest Loser trainer did this before they were cast on the show.  I hope this stems from the prodding of a producer because seeing a woman carrying a 250-pound teammate across the floor makes for "good TV."  It is good TV; it's dramatic and inspiring.  But every time I see it, I cringe and hope the contestant's knees and back don't suffer a serious injury.  Now take the above scene and recreate it at gyms throughout the U.S. with trainers who only have weekend course certifications.  Trust me, this is happening.  Even worse, imagine an untrained viewer trying to do these moves on their own with zero guidance! So this is my request to the producers of the show: please stop having the contestants perform dangerous training practices on camera.  Your program is an opportunity to show Americans safe workout routines geared to creating the healthy lives that the audience is yearning for.  Give the viewers good information, inspiration, and keep them safe.  Because right now, you are having a negative impact which is entirely in your control to change.  Thanks for listening.  I would love your comments.  Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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24 Responses to An Open Letter to The Biggest Loser

  1. Chic Runner March 23, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    I totally agree with you. They are doing unnecessary things and making people believe this is how they are loosing the weight. I am glad you are trying to raise awareness. Normal people aren’t on the ranch and they don’t have the same training/people around to help them out!

  2. Yum Yucky March 23, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Excellent letter. Well said, but I’m afraid it may fall on deaf ears. The media does not care about people. They only care about the great green dollar. Sex and violence sell…and so does the tragedy of reality TV.

  3. Jill Pugh March 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm #

    Well thought out piece. Clearly you are what a lot of these weekend trainers are not: a professional. Naturally as a lawyer, I also see all the various possibilities for liability, but it should never come to that – Biggest Loser should act responsibly just because it is the right thing to do. I appreciate your passion on this topic and I hope that the message reaches the right ears.

  4. Oystein Lund March 23, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    One of the things that really sets people up for unrealistic expectations is that the show also compresses real time. 1 “week” on the show is on average 10 days in real time, so not only are they doing dangerous exercises, but their dieting practices encourage people to cut calorie intake dangerously low.

    It’s irresponsible; the ‘weekly’ dramatic weight losses also makes for great TV but just as with the unsafe exercising it sets people up for getting hurt if they try to actually do what they see on their TV.

  5. Robyn McIntyre March 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    I’m not a watcher of this show but am not surprised that the people whose job is to “monetize” it may be encouraging behavior that isn’t safe and could result in serious or permanent damage. They probably get away with it because the contestants have signed a waiver for liability. Despite the pleas and warnings of sensible and caring people like you, it’s likely that such practices will only stop when litigation ensues because someone not part of the show was injured doing something seen on the show. Regardless of how inspiring it may be for the audience, those involved at the executive level of the show are more likely only to see it as a vehicle for improving their own lives via profit.

  6. Sheri March 23, 2009 at 6:13 pm #

    It’s an interesting piece with some very good points. I think you are right, the impressions created by watching the show are doing some damage to the good judgment of trainers and the regular, everyday people who enjoy working out. But this client who got hurt – was she, by any chance, your hardest working client? Just curious. ;)

  7. Rosy Villa March 23, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Bravo- I totally agree with you. One of the main reasons, I stopped watching the show was the unrealistic way Bob and Jillian train. I’m not a trainer and don’t pretend to be one. But, I have been around trainers to know something is wrong here. Training is serious work. One wrong move and that’s it. I hope someone reads your letter and takes it to heart. :)

  8. Lisa Johnson March 23, 2009 at 6:37 pm #

    Thanks so much, there are many excellent points here. I hadn’t even thought of the legal ones . . . I have heard that the link was forwarded to a former contestant on the Biggest Loser who’s on twitter, @MatthewMcNutt so it might actually get back to the producers which would be wonderful.

    Again, thanks from the bottom of my heart.


  9. Pat Barone March 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more w/irresponsibility angle discussed here. Thanks for good article. I beg my clients not to watch the show – so unrealistic. And they are manipulating and using the contestants for advertising dollars, setting their metabolisms up for utter long-term failure, and dumping them back into real life afterwards. I’m so sorry to see anyone get involved with this ridiculous concept of “reality.” I’m especially disappointed that docs are yelling their heads off about this. BTW, I speak from experience. Lost over 70 lbs and have kept it off 9 years, as a result, I’m only interested in permanent weight loss, not the “momentary” results. I did that for too many years, thanks.

  10. Jennifer Sage March 23, 2009 at 6:54 pm #


    Saw your post on Twitter. (I’m @vivavelo)

    I actually wrote an “open letter” to Jillian on my blog last fall after horrendous episode where they did very unsafe, contraindicated moves on the Spinning bike. As a Master Instructor for Spinning I teach the certifications, so I know what she did was not condoned by the Spinning program (nor any indoor cycling program) – it was pure made-for-TV hype, and dangerous hype at that. Not sure if it ever got to her. Most of my comments were in a agreement, but I got several comments that said I was “jealous” and one guy who sent me a hate mail comment – Jillian has her fans out there and you risk stepping on toes when you suggest someone’s idol isn’t so goddess-like. Basically, I share your distaste for what they are doing in that trainers or clients around the country/world see that and want to try it with their clients or have their trainers/instructors do it to them. In the Spinning world, it hurts the industry as a whole.

    Here was my letter of last November:

    Interestingly, the Australian Fitness Network posted very similar comments on their blog about their own TBL early this March and linked to my blog post. I should send them a link to yours as well!

    Trainers around the world are asking for accountability and safety!

    By the way, excellent blog! See you on Twitter!

    Jennifer Sage

  11. April, the ispecialist March 23, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    I agree with you, Lisa. I watch the show on occasion and inevitably end up thinking, “I could never manage that”. I’m just an average person trying to get in shape (not a fitness expert). I just see myself attempting to jump over a bench, hooking my toes under as I jump, and face-planting full force with my backside in the air.Yeah…I don’t try most of the stuff I see on Biggest Loser. It would be nice if I could do more of the exercises.

  12. Trish March 24, 2009 at 4:21 am #

    I totally agree and hope the producers take notice!

  13. Mrs Evil Genius March 24, 2009 at 4:35 am #

    I also found this on Twitter (and will RT – I’m @thriftymom), and had to say: “Well put!”

    I have never seen this show (I haven’t watched television in 8 years due, in part, to stupid trash like ‘reality’ TV) but what you are describing sound typical.

    I agree with everyone that the producers care not one whit for people, only for money, only for ratings. It’s obscene and oh-so-common nowadays.

    The sad bit is that the public fall for this crap, just like they fall for the latest low-fat diet lie. People are too credulous.

  14. Mallory March 24, 2009 at 7:16 am #

    As someone who has watched every season of TBL, I agree with your comments. However, I understand that the show is a “fake” environment, but having played a lot of sports and been on my own fitness journey I guess not everyone has the same knowledge as I do when they sit down to watch the show. I think there is a lot of fitness information available on the web these days via blogs and youtube and stuff but that doesn’t mean people will apply the information properly or as the author intended. My point I guess is that if you are advocating them to show more realistic/safe exercises on TV, that might be enough. I guess the disclaimer should be more of the “don’t try this on your own” variety, but then not everyone can afford a trainer, and as you point out, not all trainers are qualified anyway. There is no easy solution, but the best advice I’ve ever gotten in a fitness setting is that, “if it hurts SPEAK UP, and/or STOP doing that motion IMMEDIATELY, because either you are doing it wrong, or there is some individual body/injury thing we need to figure out.” Often people think things are supposed to hurt, and granted they do a little bit, but not to the point of injury.

  15. Lyn March 24, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

    Perhaps a “do not try this at home” discosure would suffice…

    Ultimately, if some “trainer” in a gym somewhere out there copies moves from a Reality TV show, he is the one who is liable, just as much as a “magician” who sees a TV show where a person is cut in two would be liable if they actually cut a person in two, trying to mimic the show without understanding it.

  16. Laura March 27, 2009 at 6:45 am #

    I love the show too, but cringe often…especially when the women are hauling men around on their backs…if in the best of situations, this can cause strain and injury.

    I’ve often wondered if real world personal trainers are offended by these stunts.

    Though in defense of the show…thousands of people have been motivated to at least take a look at their weight and their lives. I find the inspiring, but so far haven’t attempted to haul my husband around the living room! :)

  17. Laura G April 14, 2009 at 10:55 am #

    Lisa –
    You are being kind here…this is the worst show on TV and I would love to see it off the air before someone dies. I have been in the fitness industry for 28ys wearing many hats…trained a variety of individuals all shapes sizes and fitness levels. From the moment this show aired I was appalled and embarrassed and felt this show would devalue the industry I take such pride in. The producers care about one thing RATINGS and the public should never forget that. I say PEOPLE STOP WATCHING THIS SHOW!!!! That will finally get it off for good…

  18. Matt (NoMeatAthlete) April 20, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    Wow, I completely agree! The show has been one of the few I’ve watched in the past few years, and though it’s recently gone downhill, I think it does a lot of good. But my wife and I are always astounded at the dangerous example they set, with only a quick disclaimer at the end of the show. Not just in terms of jumping on people’s backs and machines, but it not explaining that you can’t just start running up and down a mountain all day if you aren’t in any kind of shape. I think there are many bigger risks than sprained ankles from this kind of stuff.
    Nice post!

  19. Michelle Moore May 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    I am so glad to see someone in the personal training industry speak out. People say they find this show inspiring. I find it simply appalling. This show is all about drama and manipulating the viewing public as well as manipulating the contestants. The producers feel no sense of responsibility to the viewers. They don’t care about the misleading impressions they are creating about weight loss and exercise. Eventually it will backfire on them. In the meantime, I refuse to watch. I applaud you for speaking out.

  20. Rachel February 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    I have only watched one episode in it’s entirety. Bits and pieces before that because I could never stomach watching what they are doing to those people. Unlike you, I do not have the greatest respect for either one of them as trainers. If they were decent at one point in their careers, would they really do the things that they are doing to these people now? These people have enough weight on them as it is, Jillian Michaels standing on top of them is ridiculous. And the terrible positions they put them in for stretching? They are obese. Obese clientele are trained and treated differently. They have a tremendous amount of extra weight on their joints. Plyometrics is not a safe choice. Neither is running. And, if you were 250+ pounds, would a little bicycle seat feel good on your behind for 27.2 miles? #1 thing to think about with the obese client….they are already ashamed, don’t humiliate them. Be careful of exercise choice. Get them moving, the weight will come off.

    If anyone is interested in training obese clientele, learn from Michael Boyle. His topic at Perform Better summit last summer was on training the Obese client. He is short, sweet and to the point. And he knows his stuff and doesn’t sugar coat things.

  21. MB April 29, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Excellent post. TBL does many things that just don’t work in real life. I wish there was a similar show that would depict real people in real life losing weight in real time. I have a love/hate relationship with TBL, my biggest issue is how dangerous it can be to try to mimick the moves and the workout they are doing without proper training and conditioning. The first few shows are the scariest when the contestants are just getting off the couch for the first time.

  22. FLG April 30, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Definitely agree with the second part of your letter, about Bob and Jillian climbing on contestants and equipment. I agree the part about setting unrealistic examples, too. However the case you noted, it seems the blame is squarely on the trainer. They should be the ones to judge whether or not their client is up to that level, should they not? Is that not what the client pays for? The trainers knowledge of not just what is effective but what is safe, too?

  23. Blinds and Shades January 11, 2011 at 2:46 am #

    From the moment this show aired I was appalled and embarrassed and felt this show would devalue the industry I take such pride in. The producers care about one thing RATINGS and the public should never forget that.

  24. Lisa Johnson January 11, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Thanks for the comment, :-) Lisa

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