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Biggest Loser: A Corrective Guide Based on Exercise Science Part 1


If you were unfortunate enough to have watched the season opener for The Biggest Loser this year, you saw some very frightening and confusing things.  You saw people vomiting.  You saw people falling off treadmills.  You saw kids on the show with accompanying tinkly happy music being told that they should stand up to people who bully them.  You saw not one but three “fitness coaches” screaming at, hollering at, spitting at, disparaging and yes, bullying the adult contestants.  You saw a contestant being home for losing a “measly 15 pounds” in one week.   You saw paramedics coming to pick one of the contestants up.  All in one episode.

When it comes to the modern Roman Coliseum, this season opener takes the cake!  One was thrown to the lions.  One was carried off on a stretcher.  And several fell during battle.  And while this makes absolutely delicious material for snark, I want to take a moment out and do a little damage control here.  Because this year, the producers claim to be taking on the “challenge of childhood obesity”.  This year, they want you and your kids to watch the show together to learn about a healthy lifestyle.  And that, my dear friends, is a big, BIG problem.  Because a lot of what they depict on that show, is the exact opposite of what we are taught as fitness professionals.  A lot of the stuff on that show is just plain wrong.  And some of it is seriously dangerous.  So let’s talk a little bit about what you and your family may have “learned” on that show and why it’s not a good idea to apply those ideas to your own fitness practice.

1.  It’s a good idea for folks who are completely sedentary to start with exercise sessions that are several hours long, provided there are fitness trainers there to scream at them.

Exercise science seems pretty clear on the fact that accelerating rapidly from no physical activity to a lot of physical activity is a bad idea.  Starting out with sessions of several hours puts a person at greater risk for injury, burnout and sudden death.  So where should sedentary adults begin?  Here’s what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has to say:

Therefore, for a person who has been sedentary for some time for whatever reason, the initial dose of activity should be at a relatively low intensity, of limited duration, with the sessions (also called bouts) spread throughout the week. An example of this approach would be a walking program with sessions of 5 minutes of slow walking, 5 to 6 days per week, with the bouts performed at various times throughout the day (e.g., 3 times per day). As the person adapts to this amount of activity, the bout duration could be slowly increased to 10 minutes, and as exercise capacity begins to increase, the walking speed could be increased…

The US Department of Health and Human Services also cites various studies that indicate “when individuals increase their usual amount of physical activity the risk of injury is related to the size of the increase. ”  So starting out with several hours of exercise at a time, can increase chances for musculoskeletal injury.  Furthermore moving exercisers from a completely sedentary life to long bouts of vigorous exercise can be very hard on the heart.  Moderate, gradually increasing exercise programs are generally quite safe.  Yet each year about 75,000 Americans suffer heart attacks during or immediately after exercise.  Studies show that these victims are most often sedentary men over age 35 who were either at risk for heart disease or had heart disease and then exercised too hard and too fast for their fitness levels. (American College of Sports Medicine 2006).  So if you are sedentary and haven’t exercised in a while, be safe.  Start of slowly and don’t ramp your fitness levels more than 10% per week.

2.  In order to get a really good workout, you should ignore pain, dizziness and other symptoms that are normally associated with distress in your body.

On the show, contestants are told to “push through” physical symptoms like pain, dizziness, and weakness.  However, sports science indicates that these symptoms are important messages that can warn of a serious problem before it occurs.  According to the Mayo Clinic, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing are possible signs of an asthma attack, and light-headedness, irritability, dizziness and confusion are possible symptoms of heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition.  Other causes for irritability, dizziness and confusion could be dehydration, a dangerous dip in blood sugar or even the onset of a coronary event.  For those of us exercising alone or at home, exercise danger signs are an important early warning system that should not be ignored.  Here are some of the generally accepted exercise warning signs:

1.  Feelings of dizziness or light-headedness

2.  Feeling tightness in chest, trunk, back or jaw

3.  Extreme breathlessness

4.  Unusual fatigue

5.  Nausea

6.  Loss of muscle control

7.  Allergic reactions–hives or rash

8.  Blurred vision or changes in consciousness

If you are exercising and experience any of these symptoms, it means you should stop exercising.  If these symptoms persist, it is important to seek medical attention.

3.  Vomiting is a normal part of any vigorous exercise routine.

Actually exercise induced nausea is a fairly common complaint, but there’s no reason to see it as a badge of honor.  In the past when questioned about this issue, Biggest Loser trainers suggested that the extremely high percentage of episodes of vomiting on the show are because the exercisers have a lot of toxins in their bodies.  I can find no research to back this assertion.  It appears the most common cause of exercise induced nausea (and vomiting) is again related to doing too much exercise at too high an intensity level too soon in an exercise program.  There are other potential causes for exercise-induced nausea.  A 4% drop in body weight from dehydration is enough to cause nausea and vomiting (a possible cause of the Biggest Loser Barf Fests).  While eating large fatty meals close to exercise sessions can trigger this nausea, the severely restricted diets of Biggest Loser contestants make this an unlikely cause.  In any case, exercisers should not see nausea and vomiting during workouts as a sign they are working hard enough, but rather as an opportunity to “fix” something in their training program that isn’t quite right.  Try an even more gradual increase in exercise intensity and levels from week to week.  Be sure to maintain a proper level of hydration.  Try not to eat large meals before workouts.  And consider changing your exercise mode (runners tend to have this problem more often than walkers or cyclists).

Frankly there’s too much misinformation and bad ideas in the Biggest Loser to detail them all in one post.  So, I’ll take up this topic again in another blog post.  In the mean time, please remember to let common sense into your exercise regime.  And also keep in mind that exercise does not have to make you miserable. You can reap physical, emotional and spiritual benefits while engaging in exercise that’s fun, pleasurable and reasonable.


The Fat Chick

P.S.  If you are upset that The Biggest Loser has chosen to take on “childhood obesity” this season, consider signing our petition here.

If you’re looking for sensible and rational assistance for your exercise efforts, consider joining The Fat Chick’s Personal Training Programs.  If you sign up before January 14, you can try any of my training programs for just $25.  We’re also offering special training groups on the Fit Fatties Forum starting at just $10 per month!

There is a lot of very detailed and specific information about how to build a safe and pleasurable exercise regime found in my book The Fat Chick Works Out! (Fitness that is Fun and Feasible for Folks of all Ages, Shapes, Sizes and Abilities).  You can pick up an autographed copy for just $16.95 (plus S+H) on my website.

Also remember that a little exercise adds up to a lot over time.  And exercise is more fun when you do it together.  So you might want to consider adding your exercise totals to our Fit Fatties Across America program.  We’re pooling all of our exercise minutes and miles as we make our way across the country.  We went 167 miles in the first few days of the program, and we’re hoping to reach St. Louis this week!  Make sure to enter your exercise data by noon on Friday to count towards this week’s totals!