It's hard for me to believe that the first season of the reality show Biggest Loser aired in 2004. The popularity of that show has inspired all manner of weight loss competitions held under the banner of workplace health. Over the years, as a corporate fitness partner for businesses across the US, we've hosted our share of weight loss challenges. Sometimes the program was straight up 100% about weight loss. Other times, the challenge would have a lot of pieces and participants could choose a weight loss component or another element as their focus.
All of it was well-intentioned, but as I've come to learn, we may have done more harm than good. That said, we don't offer those kinds of programs anymore, and here's why:
Weight loss challenges are based on bad science.
Such programs are typically short term (6-8 weeks) and focus almost exclusively on calories. The idea is that if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. (Or, as we fitness folks prefer: burn more calories than you take in.) On paper, the math makes perfect sense. But the reality of calories in versus calories out as it relates to body weight is far more complicated. Fitness professionals often assume that people are fat because they either aren't moving their bodies enough or they're eating too many calories. Fix one or both of those and the weight will come right off.
In fact, the weight may come off for the duration of the challenge. Sustained weight loss is also a possible outcome (there are success stories out there), but it's not a likely one.
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Weight loss challenges motivate the wrong health behaviors.
Early in my career one of my most memorable encounters with a fitness center member occurred when she came in for her appointment to talk about an exercise plan tailored to her goals. Weight loss was her primary goal so we started talking about what might be a reasonable initial target. Quickly into the appointment, she dissolved into tears and through the rest of our conversation, we didn't talk about exercise, we talked about her body image and how deeply connected that was to her self worth.
That kind of desperation lends to poor health behavior choices when we're talking about weight; it's not a stretch to go from a weight loss challenge at work to dysfunctional eating habits. The restrictive nature of the challenges often leaves participants grumbling about when they can eat their next cheeseburger. I'd cringe when I heard something like that. I'm not anti-cheeseburger, cheesecake, or cheese for that matter. I am against the idea of labeling foods into good/bad categories as a strategy for eating better, and I am against the idea of restriction as a tactic for improving health.
Weight loss challenges perpetuate a negative body image narrative.
The story I shared above about the member crying in my office because of her weight wasn't an isolated incident. It happened regularly. And while I was honored that people would feel comfortable getting real with me, I also felt horribly ill-equipped to counsel, recommend, or even respond. (There was no training for this in my bachelor's or master's programs). So I practiced empathetic listening because it was the only tool I had in my toolbox. After several consults like this, I adopted a mantra: "Your weight on the scale is not related to your value as a human being" in the hopes that my members would internalize a tiny piece of that to understand that regardless of their weight, body fat, jean size, or relationship to food they had immense value to me and others in their lives.
When we focus on excess weight as something that MUST be addressed, we imply that individuals who aren't at a "healthy body weight" must need fixing. That's a pretty rich message coming from a group of professionals who love exercise so much, we choose to do it for a living.
So what do we do when someone comes to us with weight loss questions?
We will still work with individuals on reasonable weight loss goals if they come to us 1:1 for that kind of support. But, we do it from the foundation message that good health is primary. If weight loss occurs as a natural outcome of healthy choices, then so be it.
We do still get asked by businesses if we'll help them run their weight loss challenge. The answer is no. Sometimes they'll respond to other creative health-related programming and other times, they're committed to their Biggest Loser-style weight loss competition and we have to bow out.
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