Compelling despite compromise
Clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, in her TV series 'Lose Weight for Love' about behaviour change in eating and exercise, reveals that “60% of people put on weight after they enter a comfortable relationship”. It seems so obvious, so overlooked, and perhaps explains a lot about public health. As an academic health psychologist, I wondered: What is it about couplehood that promotes unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyle? And if each partner is part of the other’s weight problems, would temporary separation help?
Each episode features an overweight couple, sedentary and with poor diet. After health checks, Professor Byron separates them for 10 weeks. Apart, but with social support from friends or family, Professor Byron and her team work to change their eating and exercise behaviours. Byron's team includes Rick Shakes-Braithwaite as physiologist and personal trainer, Professor Paul Dolan as “behavioural scientist”, and an off-camera dietician. Participants follow a personalised exercise and diet plan (with the personal trainer as kingpin), and Professor Byron works with psychological issues that lie behind the unhealthy behaviours. These often lead to eating or drinking to escape painful feelings, or involve the meaning of food in the relationship.
Byron and Dolan bring experience in broadcasting and skill at describing psychological ideas for a general audience. The programme does not sensationalise obesity and shows that, sometimes, unhealthy behaviours can be a result of psychological problems or relationship issues – which health psychology sometimes ignores. I appreciated Tanya’s warmth and wisdom, especially in Episodes 3 and 4. The charismatic personal trainer nearly steals the show, and also used simple behaviour change techniques. Behaviour change was rightly shown as a team effort, with skills of cooking and exercise counting as much as determinants of behaviour, and experts in nutrition, exercise and psychology playing their part.
But long-standing psychological issues seemed improved by a short conversation with Professor Byron, or a behavioural experiment or challenge; there must have been a great deal of work off-camera. There were also times when the added value was not clear of the academics' interventions beyond those of the skilful personal trainer. Paul Dolan, known for research on happiness and bestselling book Happiness by Design, played a minor role and without the airtime to explain the science behind them, his behaviour-change interventions seemed gimmicky. An outstanding researcher, he appeared less comfortable working with clients: it seemed they rarely welcomed his interventions, and these sometimes struck me as regrettable.
I was hoping for more airtime on how the couple’s togetherness contributed to their problems, or how separation led to more change than the other interventions alone. Even without underlying issues, health behaviour change rarely comes easily, and opportunities were missed to help the process (and educate viewers) by working with a health psychologist.
TV programmes such as Lose Weight for Love mix entertainment, education and inspiration, and the team achieves a compelling programme despite the necessary compromises. The core concept of separation for behaviour change is fascinating (though perhaps unrealistic except in severe cases), and the series casts light on causes of behaviour and change that the media and psychologists often ignore. I wished for more attention to its intriguing core concept, but this was a show I looked forward to each week and learned from. It is worth watching for anyone interested in living more healthily, or anyone who helps others to do so.
- Watch all four programmes in the series now.
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