How The Biggest Loser Would Work If I Was In Charge

I thought The Biggest Loser was finally, mercifully dead.  Oh how naive I was.

My blissful ignorance was shattered last week when a family member casually mentioned that the show had been revived this year, and the new season had just ended.  Just wonderful.  

For the past fifteen years, the entire fitness industry has been trying to explain the problem with this show: namely, that it seems expressly designed to discourage weight loss, and appears to have been designed by the junk food industry in consultation with the pharma lobby and Satan himself.

That of course raises an interesting question: what would the show look like if it was seriously trying to help people?  Here’s my answer to that.   

1- Change The Name

Look, I get it.  The name is a clever double entendre.  The problem is that one of the meanings of that double entendre is a jab at the contestants on the show.  I know it’s not meant to be insulting, but many of them have self-worth issues to begin with, as do the obese people who you’d hope would be watching this show.

Also, I’d change the name to focus less on the contestants because my version of the show would challenge the trainers as well as their clients.  More on that later.  

2- No Temptation Challenges

Temptation challenges– in which the show tries its absolute best to sabotage the very people it claims to be trying to help by dangling junk food in front of them and offering them some kind of reward for eating it– are easily the worst part of The Biggest Loser.  Or at least, they were.

The most recent season got rid of them, which makes this the one thing on this list that’s already been done.  All it took was fifteen years of the entire world screaming at this show to stop sabotaging the very people it was trying to “help.”  

3- Don’t Let Planet Fitness Sponsor It

Planet Fitness sponsored the latest season.  If you understand Planet Fitness’s business strategy, then you know this doesn’t speak well of the show’s intentions.

For the uninitiated: Planet Fitness does everything in its power to discourage members from actually working out.  That includes shaming them for making even a little bit of noise in the gym, kicking a woman out for looking too fit, and call the police on a man who was squatting too heavy.   

They don’t want you to work out.  But they don’t want you to cancel your gym membership either, which is why they pass out free pizza, bagels and candy a few days a month to help people who don’t exercise rationalize continuing to pay ten dollars a month for something they don’t use.  

4- Make The Teams As Similar As Possible

None of this men vs women stuff.  If you want it to be a fair competition, every team should have an identical gender ratio.  Furthermore, every team should be nearly identical in average age, BMI, body fat percentage, social class, race, and whatever other factors can be controlled.  

5- Differentiate The Teams

Every season of The Biggest Loser has featured two teams led by trainers with broadly similar coaching philosophies.  You’re meant to never question that their approach to weight loss is the best approach, but why not test that?

On my show, there would be four team, and the coach of each team would have a different approach to weight loss.  You’d have the Crossfit plus paleo diet coach, the low-fat plus mostly cardio coach, the low-carb plus bodybuilding coach, and the intermittent fasting plus playing sports coach.  Or something like that.

Coaches would also have different approaches to the psychology of weight loss.  Some would be harder on their clients then others.  Some would make things easy to begin with and slowly ramp up the difficulty, while others would put their team on a very aggressive diet and exercise regimen to begin with, then dial down the difficulty to make everything else seem easy by comparison.  

In short– the show would test which approaches to weight loss work best, not just which contestants work hardest.  

6- No Eliminations

Eliminations put all the focus on the contestants.  The subtext of elimination is that any failure is the contestant’s fault.  At the same time, eliminations make the coaches look good because you end up judging them by their most successful trainee, rather than the sum total of all trainees.  

This format leverages survivorship bias to make the coaches look better than they are.  It’s the same thing hedge funds do to bamboozle their investors.  

Also, eliminating contestants undermines the concept of people competing as a team, since it props up losing teams by eliminating their worst members.  Speaking of which…

7- Prizes For Contestants, Teams And Coaches 

It’s important to align the incentives properly, so there would be three sets of prizes: prizes for individual contestants, for the top teams, and for the top coaches.  

The team prizes would encourage contestants to support each other.  The individual prizes would motivate them to work as hard as they possibly can.  The coaches probably don’t need extra motivation, but hey, prizes add excitement.  

You also don’t want people to lose motivation when they realize they’re too far behind to take first place, so there should be prizes for more than just first place.  Say, top two coaches, top two teams, and top ten individuals.  

8- Contestants Live Normally– They Don’t Go To Fat Camp

Instead of living together on a ranch or in a hotel for 30 weeks, contestants would live their normal lives at home while they’re on the show.  They wouldn’t be allowed to take sabbaticals from work or do anything else that’s very clearly temporary and unsustainable to make things easier.  Permanent lifestyle change would of course be allowed and encouraged. 

This would force coaches to design programs that are actually practical for the average person, including the show’s audience.  It would also mean that the scope of coaching would expand to include lifestyle factors like scheduling, habit formation, building a healthy sleep schedule within the context of one’s normal life, and examining how the contestant’s physical and social environments impacted their health.  

The drawback here is of course that all contestants would have to live within the same area.  It could be a pretty big area, like a county or three, but that would make contestant recruitment a bit harder.  Each season would be filmed in a different part of the country.  

9- Judge Contestant On Multiple Metrics

The Biggest Loser generally judges contestants on weight and BMI, and nothing else.  But other factors are clearly important to overall health: resting heart rate, body fat percentage, muscular strength, systemic inflammation and insulin response are all highly predictive of health outcomes and all-causes mortality.  

Now, I don’t want to overstate the case here: if you’re obese, then getting healthy requires losing weight, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can “focus on health, not weight loss” as if the two are completely different.  But the more weight contestants lose, the more of a distinction you have to draw between health and weight.  

This is also partially for the audience’s benefit, so they can see how a) all of those other metrics matter too, and b) they all improve with weight loss, at least if you’re overweight to begin with.   

10- No Communication Between Contestants And Coaches For The Last Month Or Two

The ultimate measure of how good a weight loss coach is comes down to how much long-term weight loss their clients experience, even after the coach is gone.  With that in mind, the last one quarter to one third of the show should consist of contestants trying to continue their weight loss on their own, without having any help from their coaches.  

Clients would still be allowed to talk to each other though, for support and advice.  Will they keep losing weight?  Will they gain it back, or just maintain?  The end of the show would come right at the end of this period.    

To sum up: a good weight loss show should not go out of its way to make weight loss seem difficult and unrealistic.  It should portray realistic weight loss programs pursued under real-life conditions, and judge both contestants and coaches based on long-term results.