The Biggest Loser is a reality show on NBC soon wrapping up its 10th season. The contestants on the show are morbidly obese, have often tried and failed to lose weight numerous times, and many have undergone gastric bypass surgery – and gained the weight back. The premise of the show is to create an environment where they learn to eat healthy and work out for hours each day with the intensity of world-class athletes. The result is that they achieve something they have not been able to do on their own and in record time. As I was watching the show this season, it dawned on me that they have created a system that follows traditional change management principles.
The first episode usually involves a physical challenge, followed by medical tests. The physical challenge is something that most healthy individuals can do, such as run one mile. But carrying an excess of 100 pounds undoubtedly makes this challenge quite difficult and the contestants are faced with their first shock. This is followed by a series of medical tests that uncovers diabetes, high blood pressure, high body fat percentages, shortened life expectancy, and the general stress of the excess weight on their system. The impending crisis is staring them right in the face along with the fact that it can all be reversed if they act now.
Next, they meet their trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, who act as strong and powerful leaders to guide their change effort. And they truly take that responsibility to heart. Additionally, all of the contestants live together in the same house and they work out together, forming a group that is working toward the same goal. Smaller teams of couples exist within the group (pink team, blue team, green team, etc.) who often work together during challenges and are sometimes grouped together during weigh-ins.
The change enacted by contestants of seasons past serves as proof of concept and a vision of the end goal. To make this more tangible, Biggest Loser alumni, now thin and fit, often visit the set for support and encouragement. The vision is not merely superficial; often you hear the trainers appeal to the contestant’s deeper motivations, such as “being able to play with their kids” and “being around to see their children grow up and get married.” The trainers also provide strategies for achieving that vision---teaching the contestants healthier substitutions for their usual snacks (cue Jell-O commercial) and creating habits of increasing daily activity.
The trainers use multiple communication vehicles to reinforce their message:
It's a tad dramatic, but it is reality television and it does remind them of the end goal.
The underlying reason the contestants have tried and failed in the past is certainly not due to lack of willpower. Clearly, because otherwise they wouldn’t last on this show. The obstacles to their success are removed one by one, week by week. It starts with providing knowledge, then attacking their limiting thought patterns, then teaching good habits, and usually progresses to deeper emotional issues that have roadblocked their progress in the past. "I can't save you. You have to save yourself."
To say that the first few weeks of progress is dramatic is an understatement. The first weigh-in shows the female contestants losing ~20 pounds and the male contestants losing ~40 pounds. You can see the excitement and hope in their faces and it provides encouragement early on to push through and keep going.
As the season progresses, challenges come up that reward contestants who resist temptation. The temptation challenges have a twist—on the surface it appears that giving in to temptation will earn them a reward but over the long run, those who resist are rewarded. Social pressure is strong in this aspect – those who give in to temptation are often criticized by the other contestants.
As the competition goes on, there are twists and turns that are designed to throw the contestant for a loop. As it gets down to the final four, the contestants have to finish up the challenge at home on their own. Those who learn and stick with the basic principles of adopting healthy habits are the most successful in overcoming the unexpected.