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Does TV give health and fitness a bad name?

January 31, 2012
Dan 'Action Man' Corbett from Channel 4's Fat Fighters

Channel 4's Fat Fighters, inspiring couch potatoes or shouty super-camp panto?

It’s January and the UK’s TV channels have been falling over themselves to fill lounges across the country with health and fitness programming. Surely this is a good thing since Britain’s on the verge of an obesity epidemic?

Channel 4 kicked off the new season with Fat Fighters, which follows four personal trainers in a London gym as they try to help their clients lose weight over a period of months. The programme consists of three distinct sections:

  1. Following the clients trying to get fit from their initial consultation to their final weigh-in
  2. Auditions for a new type of workout (from the ‘spare tyre workout’, which involves lugging around a car tyre to the ‘high heel workout’ which involves strutting through an aerobics class in 6-inch heels)
  3. An audience participation aerobic workout at the end of the programme

The four personal trainers are at absolute extremes, from the macho body-building champ Matt ‘The Pillar’ Miller and rottweiller-esque Dan ‘Action Man’ Corvett, to former high-jumper and perpetually leotard-clad Della ‘The Diva’ Mikneviciute and former personal trainer of the year and clothes shunner Tamaya ‘The Pussycat’ Adams. Everyone has a costume (Matt must have a massive wardrobe since he insists on ripping his way out of at least one t-shirt each show) and a character from the Spice Girl school of subtlety. Fat Fighters, in case you hadn’t guessed, is for healthy living what Cinderella is for theatre.

Techniques for making progress with clients include shouting at them, taking them shopping for dresses, telling them you’re going to kill them and driving half-way across the country to try to stop them from dropping out when the shouting gets too much. Heaven forbid you let your Gym Box membership slip.

The other primetime ‘health’ programme is The Biggest Loser on ITV. In this series, dieters are teamed up with the objective of losing the most weight week-in-week-out in order to stay on the programme. Three personal trainers work with them to help shift the weight, and like Fat Fighters, each programme follows a set format:

  1. A challenge, where the prize for winning is often immunity from eviction
  2. Last-chance training, where the contestants slog it out on a rowing machine/elliptical trainer/circuit training course until they vomit/collapse and paramedics are called in
  3. The weigh-in, where we see how much they’ve lost

Given that the programme is essentially an hour-long advert for an online weight-loss club and meal replacement shakes, you might assume that it would take a sensible approach to weight loss and give some kind of information about healthy eating and sensible exercise. You would, however, be completely wrong. In fact, it does the opposite.

Week after week we’re confronted with:

  • disappointed faces where contestants have only lost 5lb (with no mention that a weekly 2lb weight loss is the maximum recommended for sustainable and sensible dieting)
  • challenges where contestants need to eat as close as they can to 500 calories from a buffet table loaded with French Fancies, sausage rolls and pizza, and
  • a single exercise session with the implication being that if they really push themselves they can shift extra pounds in a day.

For all its pantomime characters, camp gimmicks and the questionable value of its audience participation workout (which features ‘normal’ people alongside highly toned men and women in their pants), Fat Fighters genuinely gives useful hints for exercising sensibly and even (shock horror) talks about sensible eating. For example, a recent episode featured a woman who lost two stone in her first month, who was promptly taken to task to make sure she was eating enough and not skipping meals. It also featured an anorexic woman who was overcoming an exercise addiction, reintroducing her to sensible exercise alongside healthy eating. (For all Matt ‘The Pillar’ Miller comes across as a shouty beefcake with a propensity to refer to himself in the third person, he handled the reintroduction to exercise very well and sensitively, even shedding some ‘Hulk smash’ tears.)

And yet, despite this, I’m not entirely comfortable with Fat Fighters as a shining paradigm of the kind of programming that’s going to get Britain off its expanding butt. Part of my problem is that the programme is so… well… extreme (although in a different league of extreme from The Biggest Loser). At no point on TV is regular moderate exercise and healthy living seen as normal – you’re either a super-buff muscle mountain who bench presses small elephants and needs the calorific intake of a small country just to make it through the day or you’re a jelly-mould of a human being who doesn’t so much use cutlery as a Generation Game conveyor belt at mealtime.

Granted, as a marathon runner there’s an element in this post of pot and kettle by most people’s standards, and a TV programme about someone exercising moderately and eating sensibly might be a bit dull. But no matter how many New-Year-new-you shows find it to our screens, no amount of gimmicks and contrived scenarios are going to change the fact that the most effective way of getting fit and maintaining a healthy weight is to exercise regularly and eat sensibly. Yet, so long as the mainstream media portrays exercise as an intense and unpleasant experience, the preserve of the outlandish, and weightloss of less than 5lb a week as a failure, the more likely people are to drop their New Year’s resolutions when changes to their body haven’t been immediate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Wazza permalink
    February 3, 2012 1:15 pm

    There’s 2 similar shows on AT THE SAME TIME here in Australia Lewis.

    One is good old fashioned “Biggest Loser”. This time its “Biggest Loser Singles” with 4 each of men and women, over and under 30. As usual these series rate well at the start and taper off.

    The other show is “Excess Baggage” where 8 celebrities are paired with 8 normal people on their weigh loss journey. Its part travelogue as they go to some of the more interesting spots in Australia, part educational and part pantomime. Unlike Biggest Loser this show at least preaches “healthy eating” without specifically counting calories. They also are focussing on all over fitness as each person has been benchmarked not only for weight but BMI, waist measurement (and they are big), as well as a 10 part fitness test including e.g sit ups, push ups, 40 metre sprint, 1.6 kms run, squats, sit and reach etc.

    I read this morning that Excess Baggage is in danger of being discontinued as the ratings are so terrible. More likely it will end up on at midnight when the TV ratings period starts again. This one has potential to be more educational than Biggest Loser but may not continue long enough to have an impact.

    What’s thrashing these shows in the ratings you might ask – Masterchef ! We are after all the fattest nation on earth. The further irony is we are rapidly selling most of our good land to the Chinese and destroying our self sufficiency in food production.

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