NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION — People may not automatically connect sleep to NBC’s reality show The Biggest Loser, but sleep is an increasingly important part of this highly successful show. Since the show’s seventh season, sleep studies have been added to the contestants’ pre-show medical work-ups, and treatment for those with sleep apnea has been provided, courtesy of Philips Respironics.
The results have been striking. Doctors found that a majority of the contestants had sleep apnea, often severe cases.
In one season, every cast member had a positive sleep apnea diagnosis. Pam Minkley, a sleep technologist from Philips Respironics who works with the cast members, explained, “In the first seasons of the show, the show’s doctor talked about the three pillars of health… psychological, healthy eating, and healthy exercise. Now he has added a fourth pillar called ‘sleep optimization.'”
The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleepmatters magazine spoke with two prior contestants from The Biggest Loser, Sean Algaier and Sherry Johnston, about how receiving treatment for sleep apnea changed their lives.
Sean’s Story When Sean Algaier arrived at the Ranch for Season 8 of The Biggest Loser, he was 29 years old and weighed 444 pounds. Sean had been overweight since high school. In his home, he found comfort in food, and exercise was a form of punishment. Sean didn’t know that he had sleep apnea before the show, but his wife suspected it.
She would wake up frightened when he gasped for air and stopped breathing in his sleep. Despite these signs, Sean opted not to have a sleep study. Even with health insurance, it would have cost a few hundred dollars, and Sean preferred to spend the money on his family rather than himself. Meanwhile, Sean’s friends teased him about constantly falling asleep.
He felt tired so frequently that it became the norm. He could fall asleep five or six times a day, even when he was driving. Sean snored so loudly at night that it affected his marriage.
“For lack of a better description,” he said, “we would go to sleep in the same bed, but we would move in the middle of the night. That’s not good on any marriage.”
On nights when he didn’t sleep with his wife, Sean would fall asleep on a chair sitting up. He felt it helped him sleep longer.
“But I was so overweight that all the blood would rush to my legs,” he added. “So I would have severe swelling in my legs. I could have had a blood clot or something.
There are a million things that could have happened, but I had time on my side.
They caught it in time to fix it, and now I don’t have to worry about that.”
Soon after Sean arrived at the The Biggest Loser Ranch for taping, he underwent a sleep study, but did not receive the results. On the first day, Sean started an intensive exercise regimen.
“They pretty much just scared the junk out of me. It’s one of those things where you don’t know what they’re saying, and you’re crying, and it’s crazy.”
“I fell asleep at the gym on the first day,” said Sean. “I hadn’t really slept the night before, and I was super tired. I had been on the treadmill for many, many, many hours. I woke up with a camera in my face and Bob (the trainer) yelling at me. It was totally embarrassing.”
Soon after this workout, Sean learned that his sleep apnea was so severe that he had to wake up to breathe more than 100 times an hour.
That evening, he slept with his continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for the first time and got a full eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Sean said, “It was probably the first time I’ve had that since I was in middle school. I slept, and I slept, and I loved it. I felt like I could just basically run a marathon the next day. Now I don’t stop breathing [at night], and I sleep in the same bed as my wife.”
By the show’s finale, Sean had lost 155 pounds—from 444 down to 289.
He credits using CPAP and getting a good night’s sleep as playing a large part of his weight loss. Now he’s down to 240, and hopes to lose another 20 to 40 pounds. “I think [CPAP] changed my life,” said Sean.
“I think anybody that’s got a sleep disorder, if they change it, it changes their life. They don’t realize how much they’re missing out when they don’t sleep at night. I never want to go back to that old feeling. I want to feel like I’m awake and alive during the day. I would recommend it to anyone that’s overweight and wants to start a weight loss regimen or just has sleep problems, you could save your own life by having a sleep study done.”