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?


  • My name is Nicholas Tolson, and I am CEO and co-founder of FitFeud, a web-based system that helps companies set up, run, and track the effectiveness of fitness and weight loss competitions amongst their employees. So, take my comments with however man grains of salt you like. ;)

    Many of the concerns you reference are what I would call common misconceptions about corporate weight loss competitions. They are things that one might think would happen, but in our experience, with thousands of people having participated, don’t actually happen in practice.

    It also seems as though your arguments are based on implementing a weight loss competition in isolation, as the only aspect of a corporate wellness program. This is not something we recommend, nor it is something we see our clients doing. (We typically work with large corporations, with thousands or tens of thousands of employees, FWIW.)

    As part of a comprehensive wellness program, with supporting efforts in education, exercise, healthy meals, biometric screening, etc. weight loss competitions are a powerful tool to jumpstart a corporate wellness program and motivate employees. In fact, because they are fun, employee-focused, and results-oriented (things commonly missing from corporate wellness programs) weight loss competitions can actually increase participation in your other programs and engage employees who may otherwise not have participated in such programs at all.

    We also counsel our clients to keep prizes very small, if they use them at all, precisely so the motivation is coming from the right place. (We are students of Robert Cialdini and his research on motivation.)

    Also, you are singling out weight loss competitions and ignoring that you can implement competitions, which provide much-needed motivation, based on other things. Compete on # of pushups, or # of steps (very common), or exercise minutes, or even # of salads or fruits eaten. We like to say, if you can count it you can compete on it.

    Indeed, the TV show reflects unrealistic and often dangerous weight loss behaviors. In the real world, however, people are participating in weight loss competitions for the right reasons and aren’t endangering themselves. And corporations sponsoring these competitions are wisely offering supporting programs before, during, and after the competitions to encourage the long-term health of their employees.

    Competitions are a push, a jumpstart to a lifelong effort, not the end-all be-all of weight loss and healthy living. They are for people that like a little more kick in the butt than a pat on the back, we like to say. In the end, I believe weight loss and fitness competitions, when run properly, be the very definition of healthy competition.

    Nicholas TolsonMay 20, 2011 7:26 pm
    • Thank you for your feedback and viewpoint, Nicholas. I agree with the majority of your post, so actually don’t view your comments as a rebuttal, but instead more evidence that these types of programs don’t work in the long run. First, where I agree: yes, this post is referring only to Biggest Loser contests that are used in isolation. Here at LaCarte, we often work with clients who are frustrated when their Biggest Loser contests start losing steam, and employees become uninterested or, worse yet, jaded toward that type of program (and the managers or departments implementing the programs).

      As you do with your clients, we encourage our clients to implement a comprehensive wellness program strategy- which may include competitions, but begins with an exhaustive needs assessment, and the development of benchmarks, objectives and goals. We encourage them to survey their employees to see what support the employees need to get and stay healthier. We also look at the company’s aggregate data related to healthcare costs, as well as other pre-program surveys and assessments. We then work to design programs that often include an element of competition. The former work is certainly not as exciting as a competition, but it helps the client to choose a program design that is a right fit for their employees, and more likely to be effective and sustainable. Biggest Loser contests aren’t appropriate for employees who are at a normal and healthy weight, but who may actually be sedentary, eating an unbalanced diet or who are chronically stressed. Contests such as the ones you described above that measure physical activity, diet habits or other health behaviors are much more inclusive of all employees.

      Where I do disagree: competitions can motivate employees to maintain health behaviors for the long-term. At LaCarte, we are students of Dr. Gary Foster of Temple University, and the former president of the Obesity Society. Dr. Foster encourages health practitioners to realize that we cannot motivate our clients- they must be intrinsically motivated to maintain healthy habits for the rest of their lives. This intrinsic motivation includes learning coping skills when confronted with barriers to change, or learning to reward oneself in a healthy way when the incentives are no longer available, no matter how big or small those incentives are (though I also agree with your comments- smaller is better!). Somewhere along the line, successful program participants stop being motivated by the “carrot” of an incentive, or the glory of winning a competition, and start being motivated by the thought of improved health and quality of life. This is a beautiful phenomenon- I call it a phenomenon, because it a rare sight to witness. We are more likely see this phenomenon when we in the wellness world do our work and combine programs like FitFeud with behavior modification techniques. Competitions get them in the door, so it is a critical and important component. If we can’t get the in the door, then the behavior modification work would never happen.


      Tamara MeltonMay 20, 2011 9:23 pm
  • Thanks for the great response! And indeed, it seems we are mostly in agreement.

    The key point, which you make at the end of your comment above, is:

    “Competitions get them in the door, so it is a critical and important component. If we can’t get the in the door, then the behavior modification work would never happen.”

    I guess I just wish this point (and the clarification that you’re discussing competitions in isolation) would have been included in your original post for balance. But this is the owner of a fitness competition company talking, so… :)

    Nicholas TolsonMay 20, 2011 10:09 pm
  • We’ve included a couple of weight loss campaigns as part of our wellness program over the years. One thing that you didn’t mention that I’ve observed is that they can trigger a change in the food culture in your workplace. We had about 100 of our 250 employees participate in a Biggest Loser campaign last year and I noticed fewer donuts in the office, food and nuts at retirement and birthday parties instead of just cake etc… 18 months later, many of those changes have stuck.

    I’m particularly interested in your last comment about sharing your goals with friends and family. I agree with you, but recently ran across some research that suggests not sharing your goals. I blogged about it earlier this week and I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this matter. (Nicholas too.)


    Janet McNicholMay 21, 2011 1:43 pm
    • Excellent point, Janet. These competitions do produce small culture shifts in some workplaces. I’m very curious to see what this research you found looks like… headed to your blog now. :)

      Tamara MeltonMay 22, 2011 11:08 am
  • This is a fantastic, compelling, and important discussion. My two cents:

    For me, a couple of considerations when developing an employee wellness program include:

    1. Is it evidence based? (I don’t think everything needs to be evidence-based; but I think the core of a program should endeavor to be).
    2. Will it do harm?

    I am not aware of evidence supporting the effectiveness of Biggest Loser competitions. Though, I admit, I haven’t looked.

    As far as “will it do harm,” there certainly are accounts of significant harm occurring to participants of the Biggest Loser TV show, but Nicholas makes an important distinction between the show and the workplace programs he advocates. I like the point of agreement relating to conducting Biggest Loser programs in the context of a comprehensive wellness program.

    There is 3rd important consideration that I didn’t mention, and that I think we often overlook: “Do employees want it?” Increasingly, our industry delivers programs that we believe employees *should* have, with disregard for what they want. That’s a recipe for failure.

    I find that, for better or worse, employees strongly want Biggest Loser contests. In the program I run for several thousand employees, I have resisted offering a Biggest Loser Contest for all the reasons Tamara mentions. What I have found is that employees create the contests on their own — for their department, their building, or whatever.

    At this point, I’ve decided to find the middle ground. We won’t offer a company-sponsored Biggest Loser contest, but we will provide simple guidelines for how to run a program that is as safe, effective, positive, and fun as possible. We’ve been collecting some of the material from the programs that our employees are running on their own to identify opportunities for improvement, and will get input from participants and our wellness champions. Tamara’s last 4 bullet points will also be helpful for the guidelines. We’ll also advocate to have, included in these programs, the myriad existing resources available through our comprehensive wellness program that Biggest Loser participants can access to help support their healthy behaviors.

    I believe this approach will address concerns like those Tamara has raised, while acknowledging the additional realities Nicholas has mentioned, as we work with our employees and not against them. But I’m certainly open to feedback from others. :)

    [Tamara: Sorry to hijack your blog with this long comment. Seems like you’ve hit on something here that many of us are passionate about. Thank you!]

    Bob MerbergMay 21, 2011 6:15 pm
    • So true, Bob! With the clients we have worked with, if the employer hasn’t implemented a BL contest, inevitably a group of employees in one department will have started their own, and provided their own incentives! At that point, the employers should run the momentum of that program- they may not choose to make it as the main focus for the whole company, but it’s would be foolish to ignore and choose not to support those grassroots-style wellness programs.

      One thing I have founds (I’m thinking of one client in particular- this most certainly may not be the case everywhere): After about 1.5 – 2 years, these BL style programs start to lose steam. Employees who started the BL program at a time when their lives when they were ready, willing and able to lose the weight, have lost the weight. Employees who traditionally struggle with their weight secondary to deeper behavior modification-related or mental health reasons, will most likely still be struggling. And employees who never needed to lose weight in the first place are getting irritated that there aren’t more programs that they can participate in. At that point, the data collection you mentioned above, Bob, is invaluable. The main point I think we all have made is: competitions, Biggest Loser-style or otherwise, do work to get a great many employees engaged initially. But back-to-basics data collection is critical to the ongoing work of improving on the company’s comprehensive wellness program.

      Hijack the blog any day, Bob! Your insights are invaluable! :-)

      Tamara MeltonMay 22, 2011 11:21 am
  • This is a REALLY great discussion!

    Bob, I – and FitFeud’s clients – have data that says these do work. :)

    I agree with Tamara on capitalizing on the grassroots momentum! People in this industry are always clamoring for “engagement.” I don’t think you can get more engaged than people starting programs themselves!

    Let me ask you this: how many other wellness programs have your employees spontaneously started themselves when the company didn’t offer it for them?!! :)

    Nicholas TolsonMay 23, 2011 2:04 am
  • I am going to weigh in on ‘sharing goals’.

    I think it is highly dependent upon personality type whether sharing the goal is productive or not.

    For those who look outside theirselves for motivation it may be very beneficial. For those who are internally motivated maybe not.

    For myself having someone looking over my shoulder, asking about progress, etc. tends to sidetrack me from the intense focus I garner internally when I set a goal. I do not want to discuss it with others, I don’t want their feedback on my progress toward the specific goal, etc. If they compliment my progress that is fine but greater feedback (taking score on my progress, for example) tends to de-motivate me.

    Many years ago when I became a non-smoker I had attempted many times to quit smoking using a variety of programs. None came close to working.

    When I became a non-smoker I told no one what I was going to do until the day I became a non-smoker.

    I noticed back then that the more I was encouraged to quit the more resistant to quitting I became.

    Perhaps I am just a contrarian. I don’t know but for me I reach my goals in all areas better when they are private. I especially like that those who would be negative about my chances of suceeding are not able to weigh in when they do not know the goal(s).

    Jeanine BroderickMay 24, 2011 12:45 pm
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