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Is The Biggest Loser’s ‘faint, puke or die’ trainer mellowing?

Jillian Michaels at a Toronto GoodLife gym: Forget the pain, and think of goals like ‘sex with the lights on,’ she told fans.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Is Jillian Michaels some kind of wimp? The famously aggressive personal trainer from The Biggest Loser took an entire hour to walk four blocks in midtown Manhattan last week. "A disaster! An absolute disaster!" she shouted into the phone after struggling back to her hotel room, almost sounding defeated for the first time in her hyperactive, hyper-successful adult life.

Granted, Michaels doesn't know much about snow, being a classic golden-hued Californian. Nor do Michaels and her partner, Heidi Rhoades, know much about schlepping two small children through the stuff. Both children came into their lives suddenly last summer – a girl, Lukensia, now 21/2, by adoption from Haiti; and a boy, Phoenix, born to Rhoades eight months ago.

But neither snow nor family stopped Michaels from doing half a dozen major interviews throughout the blizzard – Anderson Cooper, Dr. Oz, Rachel Ray, and so on – to promote her new book, Slim for Life. And when she arrived in Toronto a few days later to launch Jillian Michaels BodyShred, a new fitness regime available at GoodLife gyms across Canada, the notorious mistress of pain was driving as hard as ever.

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The women who crowded the gym to take part in Michaels's intense BodyShred did not quiver and weep like contestants on the show that made the trainer famous. They attacked with gusto as Michaels cheered them on. "Love it!" she shouted over the heavy beats. "Love this room!"

At no time did Michaels advise the exercisers to "faint, puke or die," as she has contestants on The Biggest Loser. Nor did she repeat a former observation that, "It's fun watching other people suffer like that."

Slim for Life is "the exact opposite of that," Michaels insisted in an interview. Becoming a mother herself led her to take "a softer approach" to the challenge of losing weight. "Here's a way where you don't have to eat perfect all the time and you don't have to work out every single day," she said. "That's really what this book is about."

Rather than outlining strict routines, Slim for Life offers a cornucopia of sensible tips, each weighted for effectiveness, and encourages readers to select the mix that works best for them. "But you don't have to do them all," Michaels said.

No mere mortal could. Far from simple diet advice, Michaels advocates a lifestyle revolution as extreme as anything dreamed up by religion – with elaborate food rules, rituals and psychological demands. The new message is that lapses are allowed.

"Granted, you might not lose 100 pounds in two months," Michaels said. "I can make that happen for you as well, but if that's not realistic this is something that will make the weight come off. How fast it comes off is up to you."

Mind you, "nice Jillian" has her limits. She is rarely seen in the opening episodes of each season's Biggest Loser, when the shamefully fat are first exposed to her tyranny. "I need them to have what I call a rock-bottom moment where they realize how bad things have gotten and that the pain of being where they're at is more painful than the fear and work associated with change," Michaels said.

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"Unless they realize they've created the situation they're in, they're completely unaware that they have the ability to create the solution," she added. Working against time, she drives them quickly to the bottom the better to raise them up with an achievement. "And when we solidify that and get them into that headspace, then I'll get into 'nicer Jillian.'"

Forget the pain, the discipline, the broccoli, Michaels advised her Toronto fans. Instead, concentrate on your goals. "Skinny jeans! Sex with the lights on! Meeting your grandchildren's children!"

Nice Jillian retreats when asked about a recent study from the University of Alberta showing that people who watched The Biggest Loser had more negative thoughts about fitness than people who watched classic couch-potato fare like American Idol. Making people scream and cry and throw up depicts exercise as "this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong," said lead author Tanya Berry, an associate professor in U of A's phys-ed faculty and holder of a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion.

"We have a 60-per-cent success rate on that show," Michaels responds crisply, "and in real life, 5 per cent of the people who lose a large amount of weight keep it off.

"I would simply say, if Biggest Loser was doing so much harm in the world, I don't know how I would have built an empire off it. It's got to be motivating somebody. I've sold a lot of DVDs, you know what I mean?"

And with two-thirds of U.S. adults said to be obese, along with one in three of their children, there's more work than ever for the tough-love gospel of Jillian Michaels.

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"Right now, a lot of people are feeling a bit hopeless and a bit depleted, and what we need to do is to educate, inform, fight the good fight, pump people up, incentivize them as positively as possible and hopefully we'll start to turn this thing around."

In other words: Faint, puke or die – it's up to you.

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