Weight loss TV shows, such as the popular series The Biggest Loser, follow individuals as they throw themselves into the trenches of weight loss. In the pursuit of “getting healthy,” they slave through exercise, skimp on meals, and are weighed publicly for weeks. Inevitably, contestants do lose some weight. However, once the season ends and the weight is off — then what?
Well, the weight comes back.
According to Slate’s reporting on longitudinal studies, after a three-year follow-up of participants, 97 percent of dieters gained back the weight they’d lost. Even those who undergo bariatric surgery and similar surgical weight interventions gain the pounds back, often gaining debilitating disordered eating habits alongside their encroaching weight. Weight loss doesn’t work — and according to overwhelming scientific evidence, it never has.
For The Biggest Loser contestants, the results were similarly bleak. Contestants were leaving the show and gaining the weight right back — even if they maintained healthy habits and even when they were considered medically obese when the show began.
It was as if their bodies just wouldn’t support weight loss. Their brutal struggle indicated that their bodies simply preferred to be fat.
Baffled by the rebound of the very same fat cells scientists believe to be literally killing us, researchers dug deeper into an analysis of the show’s contestants.
Their study now surmised a new conclusion — that exercise (specifically, extreme amounts of exercise) is the solution to keeping the weight off.
Kevin Hall and his team of researchers assessed the lifestyle habits of 14 former contestants from the show. They took measurements six weeks after the contestants were selected for the show, then 30 weeks later, and then six years later.
They kept track of calorie intake, exercise habits, and other reported behaviors. Half of the contestants regained the weight they’d lost, plus an average of five pounds more. The other half did what the scientists wanted — they staved off the pounds for at least six years.
How did they do it? Extreme exercise. Specifically, either 80 minutes of moderate exercise or 35 minutes of high-intensity exercise every single day. This exercise was almost exclusively paired with what the results of the study called “greater dietary adherence” to “a very-low-calorie diet.”
Based on these results, Kevin Hall stated, “The messaging is you can keep the weight off, but you have to find a way to incorporate a lot of exercise into everyday life.”
Confused, we consulted Jonathan Robison, PhD MS, who holds a doctorate in health education and exercise physiology and a master of science in human nutrition. According to Robison, this is quite the leap of interpretation.
“This result is an association and does not imply causation,” he told The Daily Meal, “because it is an observational study.” He pointed out that the results were surmised using “a tiny group of people” and it was therefore irresponsible to assume these results as facts about weight loss when, in much larger studies, “the vast majority of people in these programs gain all their weight back after the program is over and many gain back more than they lose.”
“These realities mean that there will be negative psychological and physiological consequences for the vast majority of people who participate,” Robison asserted. “These competitions hurt way more people than they help — violating the prime directive of health professions to ‘first, do no harm.’”
And there is, in fact, a large amount of harm that can be done by recommending excessive exercise on a low-calorie diet.
Aside from the psychological consequences mentioned by Robison, there are a bunch of very real medical reasons a person shouldn’t relentlessly exercise long-term.
Firstly, engaging in high-intensity exercise for over just three times per week can cause amenorrhea, a condition in which women no longer get their menstrual cycle. If anything is a sign that a behavior isn’t making you healthier, it’s an entire body system deciding to give up.
Secondly, overexercise — characterized by exercise frequency that’s much less than 80 minutes every day — puts people at greater risk for osteoporosis, exercise injury, and nutritional deficiency. For one, so much exercise subjects your bones to the prolonged stress of impact — not to mention that your hormones go out of whack when you overdo it, and a woman’s menstrual cycle can lose its ability to maintain the body’s nutrient balance.
An extreme exercise regimen also releases tons of cortisol, the stress hormone, into the body. Cortisol has been shown to cause blood sugar imbalance, diabetes, suppression of the immune system, gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, fertility problems, chronic fatigue, and more.
You do not want excess cortisol floating around in your body.
So if a person exercises to such extremity, it’s likely they’re (at the very least) feeling exhausted and stressed out. Constantly.
The Biggest Loser contestants studied were also performing this overexercise on a low-calorie diet. Exercising without consuming sufficient calories can cause a plummeting metabolism, chronic fatigue, hormone disruption, and more, according to many studies. In other words, you’re going to feel terrible if you try it.
The study did not report data on the mood, menstrual cycle, or levels of perceived happiness from individuals. It also did not report hormonal changes, blood pressure, or other indicators of troubling health effects in the long-term.
So I guess this poses the question — is it worth keeping the weight off to trudge through 80 minutes of exercise a day until you can’t anymore? Or should we accept our bodies as they are, let the weight regain, and focus on adopting healthy habits instead?