What the Fitness Industry Gets All Wrong

Erin Glabets
May 4, 2016 · 7 min read

Having lived with several people who were Biggest Loser fanatics, this article in the New York Times has been at the top of our conversation this week.

TL:DR. Many of The Biggest Loser winners have gained their weight back, with some exceeding their starting weight. This is due to a significantly slowed metabolism and decrease of the hormone that curbs hunger.

Much of the conversation amongst my friends (and the readers of the article) centered on the extreme, gimmicky nature of the TV show and questioned whether people who take years to lose weight and improve their fitness suffer the same fate.

I don’t know the answer to that and I am certainly not qualified to speak on the disease of obesity. But that idea of extremism got me thinking. There’s always a danger with extremism, and fitness is not immune to that.

That all-or-nothing attitude can lead fitness to fail people in a number of ways, some of which are present in The Biggest Loser. I will admit I’ve only seen episodes in passing with my roommates and have never watched a season start to finish, so this piece is more outlining all the ways so many coaches, philosophies, and gyms can do more harm than good. Don’t worry, though, there’s a better way.

I’ve had this idea on my mind for a while. When people find out I run marathons or work for Runkeeper, they often say “I hate running” somewhat apologetically. These are often athletic people who excel at other sports, so I ask them if they had to run laps as punishment for screwing up at practice. The answer, unsurprisingly, is often yes.

Even people who didn’t play team sports and run punishment laps have most likely been scared by the mile segment of the Presidential Fitness Test in high school. You’re judged by your time, you either pass or you fail, and you run in circles with the entirety of your gym class watching you.

In Biggest Loser, loads of exercise is baked into each week’s challenge, but extra sets seem to be doled out as a punishment for screwing up. Or to beat your fat horrible self into submission (please read that with irony). There’s no joy in it, and the main consolation is that pain is weakness leaving the body. Whoopee.

From Jillian Michaels’ Pinterest page and a riff on a line from her book, Making the Cut: The 30-Day Diet and Fitness Plan for the Strongest, Sexiest You. Sounds like a book I want to read.

Part of what drives the extreme nature of Biggest Loser is that each week is a competition — a fight for survival to not get kicked off.

Not all competition is unhealthy. Team sports can give kids purpose and teach them discipline, and the hope of a championship trophy plays a huge part in that.

The type of competition I’m cool with. Texas Forever.

But competition that forces you to compromise your safety or health or beat yourself up if you lose is a different story. Fitness is such a personal, long-haul journey that it’s hard to imagine boiling it down to a win or a loss each week. There’s no model for that in real life.

Initially it seems that Biggest Loser provides teams that have a support function built in, but as the season progresses, those people all stand in the way of your big win. When you’re competing against every single person in the room for a winner-takes-all showdown, it destroys community. And community is often cited as a huge positive force in helping people start a fitness journey and stick with it. (I’m looking at you, Morgan).

This week I took a strength and conditioning class at my gym because I’ve been having a really hard time working non-running activities in my fitness routine and not being bored. I’m (slowly) gearing up to run another half marathon this summer, and strength training has helped my running tremendously. It’s made me feel a lot less beat up at the end of my most recent races and more confident that I will prevent long-term injury. That was my motivation for signing up, plus the dedicated time and $5 cancellation fee meant I was much less likely to blow it off at the end of a work day.

When class started, one of the first things the instructor said was “summer’s only 48 days away.” It seemed out of place to be discussing the weather at the gym, but I get it: it’s grey out this week and who isn’t looking forward to some sunshine? He said it a few more times, and closed the class with the announcement: “This Saturday I’m hosting a 90-minute outdoor bootcamp, for those of you that are worried about beach season.”

It clicked. Ohhhh, so he thinks I’m here for a beach body? That’s what this is all about?

Well, Mr. Trainer Man, actually I’m running to be stronger in the sport that I love, because it gives me a clear head and makes me feel accomplished and melts away my stress and there’s no high as extreme and intense as crossing a marathon finish line. Or whatever finish line you choose. At whatever pace you can do.

A beach body is for other people. A runner’s high and confidence is for me.

How often does the fitness industry tell us we need to be better so others will accept us? This is what fat shaming is all about, right? Are we ever told to start with ourselves and our own mental health and our own emotional well being?

So What’s the Answer?

Like I said, there’s a better way. It’s not something I’ve patented, but the trends I’ve observed in the pockets of the fitness industry that don’t rip people apart.

It will takes years. No TV show is going to want to chronicle you. You’re going to be humbled. There will be ups and downs. You may want to give up. You’ll need to lean on other people. A lot. Community is a must here.

Again, I do not mean this as a scientific recommendation for those who are suffering the disease of obesity, but I do believe there is merit for all of us in this. Aim for a journey that looks a lot more like Brian’s than a TV show telling you to ignore the piercing pain in your knees.

“Over the next couple of months, I kept increasing my running distance. I never focused on how fast or how far, but for how long. As long as I kept my knees up, I was running. One day, I finally crossed a threshold when I realized that I could keep going. My breathing was under control, and my heart rate didn’t get too high. I knew then that the only thing holding me back were my muscles. That morning, I decided to keep going. I decided to see how far I could go. After about 15 minutes, my headphones chimed that I had reached one mile. I slowed down to a walk, and a huge smile formed on my face. Here I was at 31 years old, and I had just run a mile.” (via)

Can the promise of a perfect beach body help someone work fitness into their lives forever? Maybe. Staying in shape and fitting nicely into our clothes can certainly be motivating, but when that’s all we look at we sell ourselves short.

I’m sure it works for some, but I’d rather model my life after Ida Keeling, profiled in The New York Times story “At 100, Still Running for Her Life” She started running at 67 with the encouragement of her daughter, as a way to get through personal tragedy and heartache. She’s now winning races in her age group and feeling better than ever. She runs for freedom, not a six-pack.

I also think of all the people who have written in to share their story for the Runkeeper blog. Beach bodies have been mentioned zero times, but lines like this abound:

“The first time I tried to run as part of this new lifestyle, it felt amazing — like complete freedom.” (via)

or

“When I run, my mind is clear and there is only me and the ground below. I learned self-love in pacing my strides, self-forgiveness when I take breaks, and self-confidence that if I can run 10K, anything else in life is game.” (via)

Runner’s high can’t be photoshopped. Endorphins don’t make for a flashy magazine cover. Fitness is a business and this mental benefit side of it doesn’t sell juice cleanses or books or DVDs as easily. But it’s so, so good.

I’m talking news, not food. For all the ways fitness journalism (if you can even call those shitty magazines journalism) gets it wrong, there’s one outlet that gets it incredibly right. Do me a favor and subscribe to The New York Times Well Section, or follow their Facebook page. They’re constantly covering studies, with headlines such as “Running 5 Minutes a Day Has Long-Lasting Benefits” or “Is Fat Stigma Making Us Miserable?”.

They even have 4-minute workouts that don’t require you to quit your job. (Something Biggest Loser season 8 winner Danny Cahill did in order to fit in his 5+ workouts a day in the pursuit of his 3500-daily-calorie-deficit goal.)

These articles don’t say anything about a muscular physique, but they sure as hell take a lot of pressure off. So take it in, get out for that 10-minute walk, and please stop being so hard on yourself.

Bottom line? F*ck beach bodies and fat shaming and grueling competition. You deserve better than that.

The best fitness journeys resemble the life you share on Snapchat versus the one on Instagram. Messy. Funny. Sometimes mundane. Wonderful in its rawness. Better together.

ASICS Digital

Fitness, technology, and how we see the world.

Erin Glabets

Written by

Community & content director for healthcare team at @polarisvc. Previously grew marketing & brand at @runkeeper

ASICS Digital

Fitness, technology, and how we see the world.