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Why "Biggest Loser" Wellness Programs Don't Work

Well, not for long, at least. Next week is the Season 11 finale of the NBC hit show “The Biggest Loser“.

There is no argument that this show can be inspiring for anyone looking to lose weight. Biggest Loser-style contests are also a favorite among companies when they are developing a wellness program. Many companies have implemented contests where an employee or a team of employees wins prizes or incentives based on the highest percentage of weight lost. But after the contest is over, HR managers are baffled at high amount of weight regain, even among the winning teams. Why don’t Biggest Loser style contests produce sustainable weight loss in employees?

  • Participants don’t learn to replace unhealthy habits with healthy habits. As opposed to learning how to cope with emotional eating, manage stress, incorporate appropriate physical activity and learn balanced eating habits, participants will often go to drastic measures to lose the weight. Some people will choose to starve themselves, overexercise, use diet pills or laxatives, or adopt other short-term harmful behaviors. Once the contest is over, participants will not maintain these behaviors, and the weight (with related health problems) will ultimately return.
  • Unrealistic expectations are set for weight loss goals. According to the National Institutes of Health a safe and effective rate of weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. In order to win the contests the participants will often go to the lengths described above to lose the highest amount of weight per week. What’s the danger in losing more weight? Rapid weight loss includes loss of lose lean tissues which means metabolic rates will slow down. According to the NIH, weight regain the weight is often rapid. Participants often find they will have a harder time losing weight again in the future.
  • Participants are externally motivated. A few days off from work, or a discount a chance to win a weekend way is great incentive- but once the excitement has worn off what will keep the participant on track? Participants need to learn why they want to lose weight and keep it off, and realize that no one can motivate them but themselves.
  • Other factors contributing to overweight and obesity are ignored. Participants who have had a lifetime of battling with their weight are often battling other issues. Comorbidities such as depression, diabetes, hyper-or hypothyroidism, PCOS and others need to be taken into account when designing a weight loss program. Though all effective weight loss programs include changes in diet and exercise, these other factors must be addressed in order for the participants to enjoy sustained weight loss for years to come.

What elements of the Biggest Loser are appropriate for an effective weight management program?

  • Using teamwork to encourage participation and compliance.
  • Consulting a professional when needed for nutrition counseling, mental health counseling, or personal training.
  • Keeping workouts varied and challenging.
  • Telling family members and friends of weight loss goals.

What have you learned from your company’s Biggest Loser-style programs? What elements worked, and what would you change for your next employee wellness program?