As most of you have heard by now, the press picked up the story recently that Lincoln University in Pennsylvania requires all their students to be weighed and measured, and if their BMI is over 30 ("obese") then they are required to take a Fitness For Life course at some point before graduating. No Fitness For Life course, no graduation....but only for the fatties. (You skinny folks, you obviously don't need any fitness courses.)
This offends me on so many levels I can't even tell you....but I'm going to try.
- First and foremost, it is not the college's business. THEIR FOCUS SHOULD BE ON LEARNING, PERIOD. They are an institute of higher learning, not a institute of higher fascism. Whether I'm fat or not has nothing to do with my academic abilities or accomplishments and should have nothing to do with whether or not I get a college degree. College is about learning, it's about academics, it's about hard work and accomplishment. The work I have done during college should dictate whether or not I get my college degree. Whether I'm fat and whether or not I exercise is completely irrelevant and should have no bearing. GAH!
- This policy assumes that all thin folk are perfectly fit and have no poor eating or exercise habits. This is absurd, as others have pointed out. BMI is no marker for good eating or exercise habits. We all know people who are thin but who eat crappy and rarely exercise. They are simply blessed with skinny genes, but that doesn't make them healthy, for heaven's sake! And there are a lot of fat people who eat a lot healthier than a lot of thin people, but because of differing genetics, they'll never be thin. That doesn't mean they need re-education camps or drastic measures. BMI is a lousy marker for habits, period.
- If their objective is to promote fitness for life, THEN THE REQUIREMENT SHOULD BE FOR ALL STUDENTS, WHATEVER THEIR SIZE. People of all sizes can benefit from a greater emphasis on fitness if it's properly done. I don't really object to the idea of a P.E. requirement for college because exercise is a good counterbalance to the mind exercise of academics, but if it's going to be part of graduation requirements, it should be required for all. Singling out only the fat students is wrong, and no one needs a scarlet letter F on their transcript. It's shaming and has potentially long-lasting discriminatory effects.
- If they are going to have a PE/fitness requirement, then it should only be about fitness and health (not weight judgments), and it needs to be accessible for people of different abilities. It needs to be a class that people of varying athletic talents can be successful at. If your objective is for people to want to exercise their whole life and thus be more healthy, they need something they feel successful at and can do joyfully. A fitness class in which students are lectured at negatively, shamed, or forced to do activities unsuitable to them or that they are really bad at is not going to acheive that objective. They need to seriously look at their objectives and see if their activities really dovetail to them.
- This course has great potential to backfire. College is a hotbed of eating disorders and this kind of approach may well worsen that. Is that really the kind of healthy outcome they are looking for? Is there a way for them to track whether they are achieving their objectives in the long-term, or whether they are actually making things worse?
- They assume that more exercise will automatically result in weight loss and less obesity. But as the wonderful Marilyn Wann pointed out (comment #32 in this article), "Science shows that regular physical activity magically makes people healthier; it does not turn fat people into thin people." I think many of us who have tried the exercise "cure" can attest to this. We should exercise because of the health benefits it can bring, but to promote exercise as a sure-fire way to weight loss is misleading and a good way to turn people off to exercising when it doesn't magically succeed in keeping all that weight off.
- Fat people face enough discrimination as it is. There are enough barriers in place to our success; we don't need to add more. Fat people of color face even more barriers. Do you really want to make it more intimidating for fat folk to go to college? Don't you think that a requirement like this would be humiliating enough to keep some people away from college? Think through the possible implications this class might have.
- This policy sets a precedent for other schools and you know that other fitness fascists at other schools are going to say, "Ahhh, what a great idea!" Now, some folks point out that if you don't like this college's policies, don't go there. But the problem is the precedent. Let it be "okay" in one place and soon enough all the colleges will have policies like this---or harsher. Taken far enough (and you know there are health fascists out there who would like to do this), this could lead to policies that might well keep a whole class of people---fat people---from access to higher education degrees or to a certain quality of university. Discrimination is discrimination and it shouldn't be in place anywhere. And especially not in a place of higher learning where the emphasis should be on academics.
My college had a PE requirement for graduation, but at least it was for all students, not just the fatties. I was still in my dieting years, so instead of the fun stuff like dancing, I took a fitness course in order to try and halt the strong weight gain I was experiencing (from PCOS and undiagnosed hypothyroidism, but that's another story).
The course was probably much like this course would be. The emphasis was on improving fitness and getting lots of exercise with a view towards encouraging life-long exercise. They didn't mandate losing weight, but we were weighed at the beginning and end of the class as part of their tracking of our progress.
I exercised more in that class than I ever did in my life (and I was not a sedentary child). We ran laps, ran up and down stadium steps like crazy, swam laps, biked, lifted weights, you name it. I was worse than my peers at things like running and stairs, but I was significantly better than most of my peers at things like bench press and swimming. Basically, I did OK.
All this time, I was also going to Weight Watchers in an effort to rein in my weight gain. But by the end of the semester, I had gained 25 pounds, all while doing a huge amount of exercising and being on Weight Watchers. (And no, it wasn't from muscle gain either.) The coach was so incredibly disappointed in me; I could see in his face that he thought I was lying about food and must have been binge eating like crazy. But no, I wasn't; not at all.
That was beginning of the end for me in terms of dieting. I still dieted for several more years, mind, but it was the beginning of the end of my belief in the validity of the formula of calories in/calories out, that if I just exercised more and ate less I could lose weight, and that it was all about habits, period.
I did pass the class, but thank God I took the thing pass/fail. If I hadn't, it would have messed up my GPA and might have lost me my magna cum laude status. I completed all the assignments and did everything they asked....but because I couldn't match some of the benchmarks of the skinnier people and because I gained weight instead of losing it, my grade was docked.
(Thank goodness the university let people take this PE stuff pass/fail! That way it couldn't ruin my college GPA the way it torpedoed my 4.0 GPA in high school.)
Sadly, the long-term legacy of the class was all negative. I went away with an increased hatred of exercise. I exercised less after that class rather than more. I went away with shin splints and some significant pain, and a real distaste for athletic trainers and gyms and everything associated with them because of their judgmental attitude. It had the opposite effect than they wanted and to this day, I still struggle with negative attitudes towards exercising. Even as I read all the research on the benefits of exercise and knowing I feel better when I exercise, I struggle with actually doing it sometimes.
So while I'm sure the coaches and administration of Lincoln University have the best of intentions, I'm afraid they may end up having quite the opposite effect they intended. Is that really a productive use of this course?
It's an alarming policy, no matter which way you look at it.