TV's 'The Biggest Loser' draws those eager for a life change

An overweight person eats lunch.
An overweight person eats lunch. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

What kind of person drives 550 miles to sit in line for 11 hours to try out for a reality show?

When the show is "The Biggest Loser," it's usually not someone who wants to be famous or is even all that interested in the $250,000 first prize.

"I've been heavy my whole life," said April Cowan of Connersville, Ind. She arrived outside Nebraska Furniture Mart at 10 p.m. Friday night and pitched a large camp chair.

"I have three kids of my own, and I'm married. My weight's affected my marriage. It's affected my children. I'm not stopping until I get it. I need it."

"It" is the regimen of grueling workouts, sensible diets and endless encouragement made famous by "The Biggest Loser," NBC's popular weight-loss competition program.

Every few months, enough people to fill a supersized life raft are chosen by casting directors at open calls like this one, held Saturday. Almost all are at least 100 pounds overweight. Many are already experiencing diabetes, heart trouble and other ailments that they know will kill them at a young age.

These lucky few are sent to "the ranch," a fitness oasis in Arizona, where collectively they shed thousands of pounds during the competition, not to mention their feelings of hopelessness, fear and self-loathing over a lifelong failure to beat back weight gain.

"I want my health back," said Morgan Harris of Granby, Mo. A former Division I athlete, Harris blew out his leg playing flag football in the Army, and that's when his weight got out of control.

More than 300 people lined up for the chance to spend a minute or so pitching their case to a "Biggest Loser" casting director. The odds of being selected are extremely remote -- a teacher named Marty Wolff was the sole contestant chosen from the last tryouts held here, in 2006 -- but at least it is something a person can do after the dieting, even the gastric bypass surgery, has failed.

One contestant, who asked to be identified only as Jenny, said she would lose her job if her employer knew she was trying out for a show that would take her away for three months.

But if chosen, she would quit and go to the ranch.

"It's the only reality show that changes lives," she said.

One of the most compelling documents illustrating the spread of obesity in the United States is a series of maps, published as a slideshow, on the Web site of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The map shows each state color-coded according to the percentage of adults whose body mass index (weight divided by height) has climbed above 30, the threshold for adulthood obesity.

The slideshow begins in the mid-1980s, with a few states colored in powder blue, indicating obesity levels of less than 10 percent. A couple of years later, some states turn royal blue as their levels climb past that threshold.

Joseph E. Donnelly, the director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas, has watched audience members react as the slideshow advances into the 1990s.

They gasp.

Starting in the Deep South, a tide of deep indigo washes over the country as obesity levels in state after state push toward the 20 percent level. And then, in the new millennium, they crash right through. Then, the map starts to change colors.

Suddenly, around 2007, the blue areas start to turn orange, indicating a full one-fourth of the adults are obese. In three states. Then 10 states. Then 27, including Kansas, Missouri and all their neighbors. By 2008, six states had broken into uncharted territory: Nearly one-third of adults in those states are dangerously overweight.

What this vivid map sequence doesn't show is the pervasiveness of higher calories in virtually every household in the country. When the overweight are added to this census of the obese, the nation's supersized account for 54 percent of all adults, according to the CDC. No state -- not even 50th-ranked Colorado -- can claim a majority population of low or normal weight.

Every September, Donnelly brings in experts from around the country for an obesity conference to help local practitioners understand the state of the art in weight control -- and the social consequences if this expansive epidemic is not reversed.

He has seen a rise in public awareness regarding obesity. He has presented scientific research that shows a majority of people do get their weight under control in one to three years through simple lifestyle changes that include exercise.

And yet, he is discouraged. Americans still have easy access to food -- with technology making it easier every year -- while only about 25 percent of the country routinely exercises, a number that hasn't budged in half a century.

"I have to admit at some level I am pessimistic," Donnelly says. "There's very little to suggest that the population as a whole is getting thinner. The problem is huge, and I don't see anyone with a magic wand."

What he sees, instead, are spiraling rates of diabetes among the overweight, and the medical costs associated with that disease.

"Diabetes has the ability to bankrupt the entire health care system," Donnelly says.

Marty Wolff tried out for the show on the Martin Luther King holiday in 2006. He had the day off from North Kansas City High School, and he says if it had been a work day, "there was no way I would've gone out to audition for some stupid reality show."

There is a sense of desperation that many contestants bring to "The Biggest Loser," reinforced through tearful close-ups and edited sequences set to pulsing music. But no such fears seemed to possess the 25-year-old schoolteacher.

"It was pretty cool to be out there amongst your peeps -- the fat people. To be out there celebrating your obesity," Wolff recalled.

A local radio station showed up and handed out Krispy Kreme doughnuts to people waiting in line.

When his turn to audition came, he was rounded up with a few others (the casting directors prefer to interview 8 to 10 people at a time). Someone started throwing out questions to the group.

Wolff never did learn why he was chosen, but since the session only lasted a couple of minutes, he's convinced it had something to do with an answer he blurted out. A funny, ribald slogan that he would put on a T-shirt after he lost all that weight. Something about a body part he hadn't seen in a long while.

From there, he was flown to Los Angeles for more extensive interviewing, and then on to the third season of "The Biggest Loser." He was put on the Blue Team, along with Amy Hildreth, a sales rep from Baltimore.

Pushed to their limits at the show's famous "Boot Camp" by personal trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, Wolff and Hildreth together dropped more than 250 pounds.

They also fell in love.

His previous marriage ended, and he and Hildreth married in 2008. The wedding was reported by People magazine, as was the birth of their first child this July 4. They now live in their shared hometown of Omaha where they run a business, Reality Wellness, that helps clients lose weight through lifestyle changes.

Eating right and exercising regularly. Health advocates like to say that prescription for weight loss will never be very popular in America because it can't be packaged and sold to the public.

Still, "The Biggest Loser" is the most popular reality show on NBC and -- unusual for a competition series in its seventh cycle -- is actually growing in the ratings, with an average of 10.3 million viewers.

Only Sunday football and the show "Heroes" draw more young adults to the network, meaning that commercial time during the two-hour broadcast of "The Biggest Loser" is sold at a premium. It has spawned a cottage industry of merchandising. A cable channel bought the rights to the show's reruns, and the show's trainers have their own video game titles.

And while the core message of the show -- that nothing short of behavioral modification can save a fat person -- may seem overwrought at times, it actually dovetails with the conclusions of obesity experts.

"You can't just take a pill," says KU's Donnelly. "Most of the drug strategies have failed. If you don't change your lifestyle, you don't have a chance."

Sherrie Kisker, an educator with the Platte County Health Department, has been working closely with area schools to promote healthier choices and more physical activity. Just last week, she learned that obesity rates among a group of students who have been tracked since 2001 have dropped over the years by one-third.

"It's a lifestyle change for families," Kisker says. "It's not that they can't have fast food. They have to have it in moderation. The schools looked to make environmental changes, and it's obvious that they did."

Read more of Aaron Barnhart's coverage

Related stories from McClatchy DC