Why Weight Loss Competitions Are a Bad Idea

This morning on my way home from yoga I walked past the personal training studio I used to train at.  They have a new promotion going on right now called, “The Biggest Loser” of all things.

According to the BIG SIGN on the front window with your typical dramatic before-and-after pair of photos, they are starting a 12-week weight loss competition.  It’s depressing that this type of competition probably does bring in business for them. After all, from its popularity, I’d venture to say that people are attracted to the whole “Biggest Loser” concept.

Apart from the fat-shaming and abuse that characterizes the Biggest Loser (let’s hope that’s not part of what people who enter this competition will be paying for!), the whole idea of a weight loss competition just makes my skin crawl. Why? Here are a few reasons, not to be taken as an exhaustive list:

1. Hello!  Different people lose weight at different rates, so over a 12-week period, the amount of weight various people lose won’t necessarily track effort.

2. Hello again!  Weight loss is not the only measure that we should be attending to, people.  For one thing, it’s possible to improve fitness without losing weight, even with gaining weight.  If your body composition changes, then you may experience no weight loss at all yet be stronger and even leaner. And you don’t even have to change your body composition to benefit from activity.

3. It’s just sad to pit people against one another like this over weight loss. I remember that horror of weigh-ins at that training studio. Despite my many attempts to explain that I didn’t want to focus on weight loss, my trainer (who I liked a lot in other respects) insisted on them.  It was demoralizing most of the time and I wasn’t even competing against anyone.

4. There is no way in the world that the woman in the photo made those changes in just 12 weeks, so it’s just plain misleading to use her before-and-after to advertise the 12-week competition.

5. If weight loss is the focus of this competition, you can be sure that diet is going to play at least as important a role as the workouts.  They’ll be recommending all sorts of restrictions.  Let’s call them “diets.”  And the jury’s back on that whole issue: diets don’t work.

6. The focus on weight-loss just sucks the joy out of it all.  I’ve spent lots of my life focused on weight loss, gearing my activities and food choices towards that goal.  The result: varying success in losing weight (sometimes brilliant, other times not so much, but regardless, the weight eventually crept back).  It’s all so instrumental when these things can be pleasurable in themselves.

7. The focus on weight loss can, if not done responsibly, have a damaging affect on your metabolism. Yet metabolic health is more important than the number on the scale.

I am really glad I don’t go to that studio anymore and that my perspective on what counts has evolved (drastically) since those days.  But though the idea of entering a competition to see how much weight you can lose might seem motivating and exciting at first, I feel kind of demoralized about the very existence of this sort of thing.

I know, I know. It’s the reality of our time that people want to lose weight, will pay big bucks to do it. But still and all, weight loss competitions are just a bad idea.

9 thoughts on “Why Weight Loss Competitions Are a Bad Idea

  1. Great post, Tracy! You could write 10,000 words on why weight loss competitions are a bad idea and still not cover all of them. Here is another factoid for you: the most recent estimate of consumer spending in the US on the weight-loss industry was $40 Billion a year. Think of all the fantastic things we could be doing with that money instead, both collectively and individually. And the money spent in general doesn’t improve health or well-being. Quite the opposite, as you point out so cogently. We have to keep sending this message out there, hoping that more of us will hear it!

  2. So agree with you on all accounts. I have never seen “The Biggest Loser” but have a ton of fitness friends who love it….must be a personality thing. I wouldn’t go near a competition like this, but it seems a lot of people would. The same ones who will buy a magazine and think they can “get flat abs in 10 days!” or “be bikini-ready by summer!”…There is a big focus on weight, and the before/afters I think until you get to a certain level of fitness. I thought that stuff was important at one time until fitness, not weight loss became the goal and I was stunned to see my weight creeping up as I gained muscle, but I was still the same size. It’s a tough concept to comprehend after being told our whole lives that is the measure we need to be concerned with. Since so many people lose weight and gain it all right back, they never really stay at that fit/maintaining level long enough to find out that important lesson.

  3. I do enjoy watching Biggest Loser, but maybe it’s for the marketability of the show (and maybe because of Bob..).
    I have never had to deal with weight loss, but I think those are all valid points above. #2 is my favorite that I want to tell people all day long! I have gained weight during my getting fit process and am still the same size, yet so much healthier! I wrote a bit about the DietBet and why I think it is such a poor idea.. http://www.winetoweightlifting.com/2013/04/09/why-i-dislike-the-dietbet/

    1. I totally agree with you about the diet bet. Same issues as the competition. Great post! Thanks and you’re a great example!

  4. Wow. Just walked by that place. What an awful poster. From unhappy fat girl to jubilant fitness model in just 12 weeks. She’s practically body sized.

  5. Let me offer a slightly different perspective, and maybe it’s because of how the whole thing was approached here. A couple years ago, I participated in a Biggest Loser style competition through my workplace. We paid $20 for 14 weeks with personal trainers, so it was an amazing deal on the money end. We used the free-to-employees fitness facility that would put most gyms to shame (benefit of working at a high-priced private university). We had regular meetings with the campus nutritionist. But, the best part for me was the group of people I was “competing” with. It never really felt like a competition to me. Everyone encouraged each other, and the group workout environment kept me from quitting when it got hard.

    I’ve taken group classes at the gym, and they are okay, but they don’t have the consistent attendance or interaction that made this special. I needed the accountability. I needed the positive reinforcement. I still do, which is why I have been such a slacker about maintaining that level of activity on my own.

    I didn’t lose as much weight as I wanted to, and came nowhere near winning anything, but I felt stronger and fitter. Having recently been diagnosed as both iron-deficient anemic and pre-diabetic, and now taking some medication to deal with both, I wonder if I would have better weight loss and strengthening results if I tried this again?

    1. What’s most different about your experience is that it wasn’t strictly experienced as a competition. I think that makes a difference. I’m guessing that shaming wasn’t part of it (even if weigh-ins, which I am really not keen on for myself, were). I still think that engaging in activities we enjoy is the best bet for lasting changes. And as we often say here on the blog, weight loss isn’t always a good measure of success. Best of luck with staying active now that the competition in your workplace is over. It sounds as if you have great facilities!

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