Friday, December 17, 2010

Biggest Loser Blitz

At some point in the past, a friend and I watched The Biggest Loser for an entire season. I’d heard from others that the show is inspiring, that they thought I would find it fun to watch, etc.  So I finally broke down and watched it.  Unfortunately, I think I chose a season that was not the nicest one.  I ended up disliking more than one of the people on the program.  In fact, the only people I came away liking were the trainers and two of the competitors.  Everyone else . . . well, it doesn’t matter.  I suffered through the season and vowed never again.

(I want to interject here that it is absolutely intentional that I am not mentioned which season I watched because I really don’t like how I felt about the people on the show and I would rather not be asked whom I liked, disliked, etc.  It’s my little secret.  Well, mine and Rob’s and my friend’s anyway.

I should also interject that this post is going to be insanely long.  Go get a cup of tea or something and settle in for the ride.  I'm sharing reviews but also some of my thoughts and experiences.)

But like I said, I liked the trainers so I borrowed Jillian Michaels’ book, Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body! from the public library and I can’t say that I loved it.  It’s good information and if you don’t know about portion control and how your body works, this is a resource you may need.  I didn’t really find anything new as far as inspiring information or new habits I must adopt.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I just wasn't blown away.

Yes, I had hoped for more.  Still, the advice is balanced and is not generic.  She is aware that what is true for some is not true for all and it is the reader's responsibility to know their own body, listen to it, and see a physician, etc.

(Interestingly enough, the friend with whom I watched the show didn’t lose any weight during the time we were holding one another accountable.  Then again, neither did I.  We are no longer friends, I guess.  I had repeatedly said that we should not celebrate my losing a pound or two until I had reached a certain weight loss goal.  However, every time I lost a pound, even though he had seen me regain that same five pounds for months at this point, he’d be woohoo-ing and acting like it was a major gain.  There was other evidence of his lack of sincere support in that I would specifically say “I need this” or “I do not need that” and I would get the opposite.  So I told him the accountability was not working for me and we should probably just stop working together as weight loss partners.  And I never heard from him again.  Ummmm . . . really?  I said, “I don’t want to continue this part of our friendship” I didn’t say, “Fuck off you fat asshole.”  I guess he misunderstood.)

I subscribe to various newsletters via my email and one of them is always lauding The Biggest Loser.  I had also tried some samples of the workouts on my cable service’s On Demand feature.  I was disappointed with Bob Harper’s yoga workout, The Biggest Loser:  Weight Loss Yoga, because it was not how I like my yoga.  I found his instructions unclear at times and I would rather just do my own morning practice than his.  I also sampled Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred and was very impressed with how challenging she can make a 20 minute workout.  I was dripping sweat!  Wow!

I figured I’d go ahead and read one of the Biggest Loser books and found that my library had The Biggest Loser: 6 Weeks to a Healthier You.  Color me surprised but I really think this is a good book.  I didn’t like any of the recipes.  I didn’t try them all but what I did try nobody liked so that part of the book was a disappointment.  I skipped the beginning part because it featured past competitors sharing their inspiring stories.  I figured that if I didn’t follow them through a season of the show, I probably wouldn’t know enough about them from a couple of pages to find their story inspiring.  (Rather like those magazines that have the one page before and after story of someone who lost weight with a sidebar about how she did it.  I just don’t find these things motivating.)

The exercise plan is where this book takes off.  It is a good plan, very slowly moving from easy to more challenging.  You begin with 20 minutes of cardio and build up to more, adding a couple of minutes every day or so.  After a week, you add strength training, and it includes a day off.  Can’t do a full 20 minutes of cardio?  The plan allows you to break the 20 minutes into shorter walks building up to a full 20 minutes at one time.  Albeit, I do 45 mins on the bike almost every day so I didn’t need to build up at all.

Sprinkled in with the daily recommendations is a training tip or motivational quote or story.  The diet is also easy to follow, even if you don’t like the recipes in the book.

It’s good.  It’s colorful.  It’s sexy.  I liked it more than I thought I would.

(Since I seem to be sharing my personal stories in the midst of this blitz review, I may as well interject another.  When I ended the one accountability relationship I did reach out to several other people suggesting that we get together and go out for walks.  I encouraged Rob to get into the habit of exercising daily.  He’s complained about losing strength but he’s since stopped mentioning it because after several false starts he realizes that he either needs to shit or get off the pot.  I guess he’s decided to just say nothing rather than have me look at him and say, “Okay.  So tomorrow morning we’ll start, right?”

Anyway, long story not getting shorter, nobody took me up on the offer.  Oh well.  I’m still here.  And yesterday when I met with Kanika over IHOP pancakes, I threw down the gauntlet.  We’ll do the 30 Day Shred workout together.  Woohoo!  Yay team!)

And because I liked the book more than I had thought I would, I decided to give the show another shot.  This season, although I don’t like everyone I don’t utterly dislike anyone.  In fact, I feel far more compassionate towards some of the contenders than I would have anticipated.  One person who was voted off early in the program was especially heartbreaking for me and one of the stronger contenders for this season continues to touch my heart week after week.

Am I inspired, however?  Not really.  I feel more like a cheerleader.  Am I more motivated to exercise?  Not really.  I am more motivated, however, to learn more about the people on the show, or so it would seem because I decided to read Ali Vincent’s book Believe It Be It:  How Being the Biggest Loser Won Me Back My Life.  Vincent is the first woman to win on this show and her weight loss was remarkable.  She is also featured in a lot of the Biggest Loser merchandise.  She’s the spokesperson for the meal replacement shakes that are sold under the umbrella of the program and she is used as the model for the exercises recommended in 30 Day Jump Start.

Her experience on the show is insightful more than inspirational.  Anyone who has watched the show for even one season knows that the workouts are intense.  The truth is, they are extreme and not even remotely safe for someone to try to do at home.  Vincent says that the workouts with the trainers last 3 hours.  Then, there is more exercise, not including the challenges.  Apparently, while on the ranch these people exercise 6-8 hours daily.  Sometimes they exercise 10 hours in a single day.  Is it any wonder they lose so many pounds week after week?  It is ridiculous and blatantly unhealthy.  But this book isn’t meant to be a “how to” book.  It’s meant to inspire.  If Vincent can do it, you can do it too, apparently.

I wasn’t inspired.  Oops.  What’s more, I was flat out disappointed.  About halfway through the book, Vincent begins sharing her own intention to give back to the community.  Her journey of weight loss is merely the beginning and she tells her readers how she is continuing her commitment to health by creating an organization that will help young people, especially young women, to learn healthy ways of living, including nutrition and exercise information.  Inspired to do this after learning that many schools have been forced to remove physical fitness courses due to budget cuts, Vincent apparently was not inspired enough to do something many other authors do.

Why, if this cause is so near and dear to her heart, is she not contributing her profits from the sale of this book to her own organization?  Having recently read a book by a best-selling author who contributed all of his profits to an organization that is not his own, I fully expected Vincent would do the same.  Of course, she’s not a best-selling author but she’s making some money with her speaking engagements and this is her organization.  I just don’t get it.  It probably doesn’t help that I recently read a book by an author whose name is not on the best-seller list and all of her profits were donated to a good cause.  Even a poorly written novel donates money to a good cause.

So color me highly disappointed by Vincent’s choice not to donate all of her profits from this book to her own organization.  I’m assuming that her story will inspire others, even if it didn’t inspire me.

(Kanika and I are back on the 30 Day Shred bandwagon.  However, when we tried it before we were in such agony the next few days that we couldn’t even get through it more than 2-3 times a month.  Not quite what either of us expected or wanted, especially since it forced me to stop doing anything else more than once and I would rather exercise every day than work so hard one day that I have to take 3-4 days off because my knee is hurting me so badly that I can barely do anything at all.  Sort of defeats the purpose, overtraining one day and not exercising at all for the next few days.  But the 30 Day Shred workout is nicely divided into 3 circuits so I told Kanika that I would begin doing the first circuit and, when I could do it comfortably, the second circuit until I was finally able to do the full 20 minutes of the dvd.  I challenged her to join me.  She took me up on my challenge which means now I have to follow through.  Oops.)

In spite of my blatant disappointment in Ali Vincent’s book, I am a glutton for punishment and chose to borrow another Biggest Loser themed book.

For obvious reasons, I decided to avoid another memoir and just chose another of the official biggest loser books.  This one, The Biggest Loser 30-Day Jump Start which, like the six week program reviewed above, is full of inspirational stories, mixed in with recipes and exercise suggestions.  I like this book as much as the other.  All the same good things, like the exercises being offered at different levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced), a few recipes (I found more that I wanted to try in this book than in the other), and still more inspirational stories.

Okay.  So I skipped the stories because I didn't find the few I skimmed so inspiring.  (Or, rather, they inspired me not to bother skimming them altogether, which I am confidently going to say is not what the editors intended.)  But each chapter in this book focuses on a different health concern related to obesity, beginning with diabetes and moving through heart disease, high cholesterol, etc.

But if you've watched the show then odds are you've noticed that the Biggest Loser franchise is prone to product placement and this book is no less guilty of pushing their agenda than the rest.  Do you really need a Biggest Loser food scale?  I mean, seriously.  Do you?  I mean, maybe you want to buy a couple of the dvds but do you also need to buy their exercise equipment kit?  My guess is that, if I bothered to look, one could buy Biggest Loser clothing and towels and . . .

And it is insulting enough to the intelligence of your audience to have the contestants sit down and talk about how wonderful this chewing gum is while spouting off statistics.  I suggest that instead of only finding obese contestants the producers start looking for obese actors to be on the show.  Then at least the product placement moments wouldn't be so obvious.  They would at least sound more natural, even if they were still rather obvious.

Rob and I did watch this most recent season of the show and we honestly enjoyed it.  We didn't dislike any of the contestants and I noticed that there seemed to be less hostility between the players, that they were sincerely more supportive of one another, even through the finale where one player was applauding another one whom he thought had beat him for the home weight loss prize.  As Rob said, the nice thing about the show is that the person who wins does so because of what they do.  Admittedly, there is some game playing, some strategizing.  Some strong players get voted off towards the middle of the season because they are an obvious threat allowing some weaker players to stay on the ranch longer.  (Oh, and in case you missed the product placement, you too can go to the ranch for a holiday.  It's not the same ranch and you won't have Jillian yelling at you to do ten more minutes or have Bob gently urging you to give it ten more times, but you can go to a ranch and presumably lose some weight.  I haven't looked at the cost but I'd imagine it isn't cheap.  And how much longer before they start training people in different parts of the country so they can open new ranches where you, yes you, can lose weight like the people on the show do . . . after you buy some Biggest Loser protein powder, Laughing Cow cheese, and Extra sugar free gum, that is.  *sigh*)

Inspirational?  I admit that there were times I felt a deep compassion for the contestants.  For fun I pulled out my step and tried to do 500 steps since this was a challenge that actually caused one person to collapse.  I did it without collapsing and the next day didn't feel a great deal of tightness.

I think the show sets up ridiculous expectations and shows weight loss at its most vulgar.  I know that they aren't encouraging people to exercise until they throw up but it's hard not to watch and think, "If this is what it takes to lose weight then no wonder I'm not able to lose this weight."  The books give lip service to how the numbers we the viewers see are not realistic, warning that the contestants have access to 24/7 medical care, etc.

But you know, when the emotions are stirred, intellect flies out the window.  And the producers know this too.  So they inspire you (or, if you want to be brutally honest with yourself, they manipulate you) into feeling for or with the contestant and then, when you see them doing something you know is dangerous in any other context, the emotional connection over-rules the rational wisdom.  This is why intelligent people fall in love with someone who is clearly not a candidate for a healthy relationship and stay in the relationship long after every red flag has been raised and waved.

So is it any wonder this show is a success?  Seduce with emotions and then put people through a diet and exercise program that is not actually healthy and then put warning labels on your products about medical supervision and "don't try this at home, kids" but . . . just in case you do want to try this at home let's sell you as much as we can and get every penny out of you because the diet industry, as we all know, is worth billions.

The problem here is . . . do you buy Biggest Loser protein powder or Jillian Michaels' protein powder?  Or do you go to the ranch or join Jillian on a cruise?  Never fear, oh intrepid Biggest Loser watcher, she will be leaving the show after next season and you can just sit back and let Biggest Loser endorse their asses off while you, hopefully, are doing something to lose yours.

As for me and mine . . . I'm not buying any of the books and I doubt we'll watch another season.  Rob and I liked this past season but we both agree that what we liked is the camaraderie between the contestants, something I did not see in the previous season and which I suspect is the exception and not the rule.

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