Monday, November 30, 2009

Too fat to graduate?

No longer are the requirements for graduation purely academic. A recent story in The New York Times (and a related blog) reports on a university policy which requires students with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 to take a "Fitness for Life" exercise, health and nutrition course in order to receive a diploma. A normal BMI range is 18.5-24.9; over 30 is considered obese. As of this fall, 16 percent of the senior class had not had their BMI tested (or taken the fitness class).

Lincoln University, a primarily black college in rural Oxford, Pennsylvania, (population 4,300) instituted this rule as a way to combat obesity among its students and to encourage healthy lifestyle habits that will continue post graduation. The 3-hour/week course involves walking, aerobics, weight training and other physical activities, as well as information on nutrition, stress and sleep. Black populations in the U.S. tend to have the highest percentages of obesity in the country (36%), with Pennsylvania one of the highest ranked states.

So it seems college administrators have a genuine interest in helping a target population. But, is this legal?

As reported on NPR, the policy has caused an uproar among some on campus and in the community. Students want to know what BMI has to do with their ability to successfully complete their college education. They feel that health statistics have no place in assessing their academic abilities. In fact, they claim it is outright discrimination. If the university is so concerned about health, why single out only the overweight? Why not encourage universal health and require all students to take the class? Dr. James DeBoy, Chair of the university's Health, Physical Education and Recreation department responds, saying the BMI policy is just a test, which, like any other college test, assesses, and therefore, discriminates by its nature, but that it serves a rightful purpose. University officials believe they have an obligation to educate their students about the risks of obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. In their view, a college degree is not worth very much if these overweight students are highly likely to experience a major health crisis once graduated.

So why students? Poor eating habits and lack of sleep are familiar to college students and also happen to be factors that lead to obesity (see an earlier blog post on sleep's relation to health and rurality). In fact, students think the university's contradictory policies bear some responsibility as a cause of the obesity problem. The administration imposes this health requirement on their students, yet continues to offer unhealthy foods in the cafeteria (think: hamburgers, fries, pizza). The response? Isolation and lack of funding. Officials say the school's remote, rural location makes it difficult to provide fresh, healthy food options for its students. That, on top of the school's designation as an HBCU (historically black college and universities), which tend to be underfunded, prohibits it from offering healthier options.

According to Dr. DeBoy, "How do you keep costs in line? Unfortunately, one way to cut is that you have food that is going to probably be less costly. Healthy foods cost more; that's a reality . . . [w]e are who we are. We live where we live. Yes, there are certain things that you cannot control, absolutely, but some of the things you can, and they're the ones we're trying to, you know, embark upon as far as changing."

But is Lincoln U. really isolated? The university is only 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia and about 25 miles west of Wilmington, Delaware. It seems that if there was a will, there'd be a way to get fresh food in from the cities, that is, if there were no local supplying farms closer to the campus. Funding is a bigger issue, perhaps. But it still seems unfortunate that a college can't offer fresh, healthy food options to its students, even if on federal funding. You would think the government would want to encourage healthy eating, especially in the nation's schools. Aren't there other areas that could be cut back first, before fresh food? Vending machines? Landscaping budgets?

It seems that the university, while perhaps well-intentioned, is not quite pulling its own weight in the solution to this problem.

[The policy comes up for review by staff members at a meeting on Dec. 4].


Anonymous said...

Awesome post and a pretty interesting story that I've been following. As much as I agree with your point that a school making such a potentially disruptive move should put all its ducks in a row first, I think the problem of obesity in America has reached a point of absurdity and requires decisive action. In the current debate about health care, the role of preventative care cannot be understated. A recent study done for the National Institute of Health ( shows substantially higher costs in future medical care for those with BMIs above 30. This is a problem we may all have had a hand in creating, with consumer demand for quick, easy food and quick, easy fixes. It is also a problem we all have a hand in paying for, with increased health costs. I know there could be days of debate over why a person becomes obese, over how much is genetic and how much is environmental. I know sitting through a 3 credit class may have little effect on lifestyle choices. However, this requirement sends a message to those students that something corrective needs to be done. Fixing America's weight problem, especially in underprivileged areas, will require a bottom up approach. Teaching people healthy habits is definitely the bottom.

ceebee said...

Unreal. The rules/requirements should be for everyone. Not for a specific class or target. That's discrimination.

Schools in general are just a joke and a waste of money. Schools are nothing but broken promises and dreams. They teach people nothing of real value. The only thing schools teach is how to be subservient under a "one world government". No free thinking, no creativity, no independence in schools.

Better off using the internet for learning and education. You learn a lot more than being inside the box. A degree/diploma is nothing but a piece of paper.

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