TV fitness star Jillian Michaels has a new reality television show out tonight called ‘Sweat Inc,’ where Michaels and two co-hosts talent scout for the next workout phenomenon. By all appearances, the show looks to be the typical ‘American Idol’ style format where contestants subject themselves to humiliation and praise from expert hosts in order to become ‘the next big thing’ in America.
Michaels gained notoriety for her tough love approach to fitness on NBC’s The Biggest Loser and Losing It with Jillian, where she took hugely overweight people and basically bullied them into extreme weight loss.
As someone with an extensive background in personal training and fitness, it was extremely painful to watch as Michaels and her team not only psychotically scream at fragile contestants for not pushing hard enough during punishing (and physically dangerous) 6 hour workouts or eating cupcakes when they weren’t supposed to in order to win a large sum of money. Michaels, a former bullied overweight child herself, attacks fat and anyone carrying it with a vengeance: fat is the enemy, and self confidence only comes from looking good. Michaels has built a brand around her personal story, and has capitalized on America’s dualistic obsession with extreme eating and extreme fitness.
My issue with this approach to fitness and weight loss isn’t necessarily with Michael’s credentials as a trainer, although as a kick boxing and boxing instructor I find her quality of movement (at least as it relates to her cardio kickboxing workouts) to be distinctly lacking, and understand that experienced kettle bell instructors have ridiculed her kettle bell workout series as exhibiting “regular displays of poor technique and unsafe training practices.” Michaels is clearly pretty good at whipping people into shape in a short period of time, and despite her questionable understanding of human bio-mechanics she certainly makes for good television.
My problem is with Michaels’ philosophy of fitness and the longterm toxic impact of her on-air psychological projections.
Having spent a long time working in the fitness industry, I can safely say that the majority of workout systems, gyms and trainers are not particularly concerned with the long-term health of clients. The industry as a whole is concerned with making money, and new trends it advocates reflect this. The exercise industry preys upon people relentlessly as it generates new fads, new experts, and new theories in order to recapture disillusioned practitioners of whatever the last ‘latest thing’ was – and it makes an un-Godly amount of money doing so.
This of course isn’t specific to the fitness industry, and like everyone else, they have to make a living (as did I). There are some fantastic trainers and gyms out there, and certainly lots of people interested in helping their clients get in shape and feel better about themselves. But the dark side of the fitness industry is very real, and millions of people are sold gimmicky products, overly expensive memberships, and fad trends that are based on junk science.
One of the most dangerous trends in recent years is the notion that fitness must always be extreme. Cross Fit, Tough Mudder, Soulcycle, INSANITY workout and so on have tapped into the overly ambitious, neurotic America work culture, and created extreme fitness trends designed to cater to professionals obsessed with personal achievement and pushing themselves to the limit.
This does serious harm to the human body over the long term not only physically, but mentally. With mounting evidence that things like Crossfit are simply too taxing a workout for regular people, extreme fitness trends are creating a dysfunctional relationship between people and their health.
Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at the Mid America Heart Institute of St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, told Time Magazinethat he warns his patients that extreme exercise can be just as dangerous as no exercise at all. After reviewing studies of people who participated in marathons, triathalons, ultramarathons or long bike races, Keefe concluded that extreme exercise is in fact toxic to your heart. The remedy to this is, unsurprisingly, moderation:
“We have people who are more and more on the extremes. Over the last 35 years, obesity rates have tripled in America, and the number of people completing marathons has gone up 20-fold,” he [Dr. O’Keefe] says. “What we need are more people doing moderate exercise daily, and not running heroic distances. You can get 70% to 80% of the benefit of exercise from doing it 15 to 30 minutes a day.”
The dichotomy is fascinating – as Americans get fitter, they get fatter too – a dangerous polarity that has little to do with long term health and well being. Trainers like Jillian Michaels and fitness cults like Cross Fit promote the belief that the antidote to extreme fatness it extreme fitness – and shame and narcissism is used to motivate people into working out. Just take a look at this horrific mashup of Michaels ‘training’ methods:
Psychological bullying aside, the workouts evangelized by gurus are also geared towards short term gain and profit. Repetitious workouts that are devoid of human creativity or pleasure deliver mechanical results (increasing the number of push ups or squats one can do and so on), but create injuries, burnout and relapse. Participants are expected to perform the same prescribed movements over and over and over again in a never ending quest for ultimate fitness, until the new trend comes along and the cycle begins again.
This cycle describes most American’s relationship with exercise and diet. They go through extreme cycles from religious devotion to complete collapse, destructive eating, shame, then back to extreme devotion.
I don’t doubt that Jillian Michaels means well, but she is a spokesperson for an industry that relies on this vicious cycle and promotes products and fads that provide short term benefit and long term damage.
The truth is, you do not have to punish yourself at the gym to be healthy. You do not have to banish fat and carbs from your diet to be healthy. You do not have to do whatever X expert thinks you need to do in order to get in shape, and you do not have to use shame or narcissism as a motivation to take up exercise.
Taking a balanced approach to health and fitness is the key to long term success, and that begins by taking control of your own body and exploring physicality in fun and interesting ways. Dancing, Martial Art practice, gymnastics, walking, hiking, swimming, rowing, rock climbing and so on are great ways to get in shape, but they should be approached with a sense of fun and exploration, rather than guilt and fear. Humans are biologically wired to play, so instead of getting fit, go and have fun doing something new and interesting. Once you begin to enjoy movement and regain control over your body, true health begins.
(A bit about my fitness qualifications: I’m an ISSA certified exercise therapist, a qualified Krav Maga instructor, a UK collegiate Kick Boxing champion, long time boxing coach and current Wing Chun instructor at Wing Chun DC. I also don’t believe qualifications mean much, and center my training around human movement and exploration)
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.