Lose big by not winning! Why weight loss competitions probably won’t help you lose weight and what to do instead.

There are numerous community and workplace weight loss competitions and fitness challenges underway in our area right now. These programs are a popular way to start making health improvements with friends or coworkers. Many people find the competition aspect of these programs to be motivating. Even those who are reluctant to start a diet or exercise program are more likely to give it a try. But this raises the question, are “biggest loser” type weight loss programs effective at promoting lasting weight loss? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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The short answer is probably not. Remember, the goal of any diet should be for you to lose weight and keep it off. The majority of people who lose weight will eventually gain it back, plus some extra. This is more of a problem for programs that emphasize rapid weight loss. As a general rule, the quicker someone loses weight, the quicker they are likely to gain it back. So, an eight-week weight loss competition is likely to promote rapid weight loss followed by weight gain when the program ends.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off, people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how to eat and exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. It is unlikely that trying to win a weight loss competition, which emphasizes quickly losing weight over learning new skills and behaviors, would support that outcome. In addition, some contestants may follow inappropriate diets or participate in exercise that is too intense. This could lead to injury, illness, or, at the very least, a bad experience.

That’s not to say that these weight loss competitions don’t have benefits. There are certainly participants who would not otherwise consider losing weight at that time. Many programs organize participants into teams and the benefits of group support in promoting weight loss are well established. Some programs provide incentives for participating like access to exercise facilities or personal training sessions, which may encourage people to be more active. Others provide monitoring and education to promote success beyond the program.

For example, some programs include weekly education sessions and weigh-ins, a strong group dynamic, and monitoring to prevent rapid, unhealthy weight loss. Other programs, however, are shorter in duration and provide little in the way of education or support for making long-term lifestyle changes.

And don’t think that you are likely to achieve similar results to the contestants on the reality TV shows. The environment on those shows is so different from real life—constant supervision, guidance by experts, and the ever-present cameras, which make the contestants accountable to millions of viewers. The fact is that most “biggest losers” regain all the weight they lost after the show ends. Despite the intensive education and intervention, many contestants are not prepared to make the type of lifestyle changes needed to maintain weight loss in the real world.

There is a simple solution if your goal is to lose weight and keep it off: participate in the competition, take advantage of the resources, but don’t focus on winning. Instead, use the program to develop healthy eating and exercise habits.  You will find that concentrating on modifying your behaviors is the key to success. Whether you win or not, know that the end of the program is just the beginning of your weight loss journey.

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