Can extreme weight-loss shows motivate people, or scare them away from the gym? New research suggests it may be the latter.
In a forthcoming study in the American Journal of Health Behavior, University of Alberta researchers looked at how watching clips from “The Biggest Loser” impacted college students’ attitudes toward exercise.
138 students were split into two groups and either shown a seven-minute clip from ‘The Biggest Loser’ or a seven-minute clip from ‘American Idol.’ Immediately after watching the video, the students were asked to write down their first five thoughts, then completed both a handwritten questionnaire and a computer test that gauged their gut feelings about exercise.
No matter what a student’s weight or level of physical activity was, if he or she had watched the clip from “The Biggest Loser,” they had a worse attitude towards exercise than the students that watched the “American Idol” clip, the researchers found.
"The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative," lead author Tanya Berry said in a statement Thursday. "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."
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Another study examined another possible negative effect of the show: further stigmatizing obese people. In a study published this past June in the journal Health Communication, University of Missouri-St. Louis researcher Jina Yoo found that people who watch “The Biggest Loser” tend to be concerned with their weight, that watching the show leads people to attribute obesity largely to personal responsibility.
“Ultimately, attributing obesity to personal responsibility leads to the formation of anti-fat attitudes,” Yoo wrote.
Yoo’s paper echoes findings published in the journal Obesity from a group of Bowling Green State University psychologists, who found that people assigned to watch an episode of “The Biggest Loser” tended to dislike overweight people more than before they watched the show. The increase was not found in the control group, which watched a nature program.
Berry and her colleagues are working on another study involving the show, looking specifically at “follow-up” episodes featuring contestants after they’ve lost weight.
The latest study, according to Berry, pushes back against popular attitudes that shows like “The Biggest Loser” can be used to motivate people to adopt healthier lifestyles. They may even be counterproductive.
"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,” Berry says. “It's a big mess."