A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Reality TV Fitness Shows: Fact vs. Fiction

Posted August 17, 2013

More often than not, what you see on reality TV shows doesn’t come close to real life. Still, shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser have captivated audiences for years with their no-nonsense approach to weight loss and contestants’ dramatic results.

We’re always on the kettlebell_feature lookout for safe, effective exercise advice here at Club Red, and our team of professionals never disappoints. We sat down with UVA exercise physiologist Shannon Slovensky for some Q and A to get the real-life scoop on high intensity workouts – like those featured on reality TV – and how to find an exercise routine that works for you.

Q: When people think of “fat busting” workouts like boot camp, it can be intimidating for first-timers. What’s a good starting point for people who are new to high-intensity exercise?

A: The term “high-intensity” is relative. For one person, it could mean jogging for 30 seconds every two minutes during a walk; for another person it might mean a full 45-minute class of jumps, squats and sprints. It all depends on each person’s baseline fitness level. The idea is to push to at least 80 percent of your maximum effort, then back off to recover, and then push again. The length varies but is designed to achieve maximum benefit in a shorter amount of time.

Q: What are some examples of effective high-intensity workouts?

A: With all of the hills around here, cycling or walking a hilly course can be a great interval/high-intensity workout. This workout recently posted in The New York Times is a great example.

Another example is Fartlek-interval training, which involves varying your pace throughout your run and alternating between fast (sprinting) and slow (jogging or walking) segments. Based on how you feel, you can walk instead of jog during the slow portions. The length of each segment can be short (around 30 seconds) or long (about 3 minutes) and can be done on any kind of terrain or a flat track. Many runners use Fartlek intervals when training because it improves general speed and endurance while also burning fat.

Q: Are high-intensity workout regimens realistic and sustainable? How can you avoid potential pitfalls?

A: The long-term evidence hasn’t really been examined, but the short-term evidence shows benefits such as greater caloric expenditure, improvements in aerobic fitness and reduction in abdominal fat.

To avoid injury:

  • Have a good baseline level of core strength. Most high-intensity workouts you’ll find at a gym or online involve some type of high-impact movement like squat jumps. I would not recommend plyometrics (jumping), kettlebells or other popular high-impact moves without a good base level of strength in the abdominals, glutes, shoulder stabilizers and obliques. These muscles are key in keeping the body properly aligned during the movements and absorbing the shock when landing.
  •  It sounds obvious, but if someone has a recurring injury it’s important to ease into a program and do modified movements until the injury heals. Modified movements include stationary squats or ball squats on a wall instead of squat jumps.
  • Listen to your body. Muscle fatigue is one thing, but if you feel pain in your joints, back off.
  • Get an instructor or trainer to help you enhance your body awareness and knowledge about proper form. Even the most “effective” exercise can be harmful when done with poor mechanics.

Q: How often per week should you engage in a high-intensity type of exercise?

A: According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the guidelines are:

  • Moderate intensity: 30 minutes, 5 days per week
  • Vigorous intensity: 20 minutes, 3 days per week

Q: How many calories should you burn in a workout if you want to lose weight? How many calories should the average person take in every day?

A: This depends on the person’s gender and body makeup – height, weight, muscle mass and any metabolic abnormalities like insulin resistance, etc. Individuals wishing to have an assessment of their resting metabolic rate can visit the UVA Exercise Physiology Core Lab for a body composition analysis. You can check out this video to learn more about how it works .

Q: If someone tries high-intensity exercise and it’s just not for them, what are some other effective workouts they can try?

A: No one should feel pressured to do a high-intensity workout. These workouts are gaining popularity and can generate quick results, but there are still many lasting benefits to workouts that are lower in intensity and longer in duration, like brisk walking and swimming.

Q: In your opinion, are weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser more helpful or harmful?

A: Weight loss shows give viewers the false impression that:

1.)  To lose weight you have to do nothing but exercise nonstop for weeks, and

2.)  Losing a lot of weight in a short time is a healthy option

The most effective method for long-term weight control is to eat a moderate amount of calories and move every day. You need to move every day consistently. The weight may come off more slowly, but it’s more likely to stay off.

You can read more about high-intensity workouts and the UVA Exercise Physiology Core Lab .

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