Obesity: fitness or failure

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 13 | Dec. 4, 2009 – Jan. 13, 2010

At Lincoln University in rural Pennsylvania, students’ diplomas may soon be the newest casualties in the war against obesity.

Students with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 – the threshold of obesity, measured as the ratio of  eight in pounds to height in inches – must take a physical education class in order to receive their diploma. The program, called “Fitness for Life”, was applied to newly enrolled students in 2006, but this is the first year that it will actually determine whether or not a student can graduate. Students who were measured in 2006 and deemed obese must now take a fitness course to receive a bachelor’s degree. With one semester to go, 24 seniors still haven’t taken the class.

The program has been defended on the grounds that the obesity epidemic is an increasingly serious problem in Western society. School officials argue that educators have a responsibility to encourage students to engage in healthy, active lifestyles. Proactive measures must be taken to avert catastrophe. Understandably, however, the program has provoked a negative response from the student body and the blogosphere, with accusations of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and discrimination.

Lincoln University’s campaign against obesity is not sanctimonious or mean-spirited. Universities have the mandate to produce excellent graduates and a healthy lifestyle fits the model. In an interview with National Public Radio, James DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln’s department of health, physical education, and recreation, commented that, “obesity and its co-morbidities are going to rob individuals of quality and quantity of life … We believe that it’s our professional educators’ responsibility to alert students to this.” A holistic approach to education must take an active body into account, since we’re largely past the days when the mind and body are regarded as separate.

The second charge of the critics is hypocrisy, which is partially true. Healthy living entails exercise and proper diet. Lincoln’s dining hall fails to offer nutritious choices. The New York Times reports that Lincoln offers standard university slop; pizzas, burgers, fries, and a pathetic salad bar. DeBoy addressed this problem in his interview with NPR, arguing that the university’s rural location and funding constraints make it difficult to provide more healthy foods. However, he said, Lincoln was still taking a step in the right direction by promoting exercise. DeBoy is right. Lincoln may be sending mixed messages, but this is the only realistic approach.

However, while the goal of promoting health and fitness is laudable, discrimination is not the solution. Health problems emerging from lack of fitness are not limited to people who are defined as overweight by their BMI. Skinny people can also experience problems later in life as a result of lack of exercise.

If fighting obesity is going to be a priority for Lincoln University, then it should be applied to everyone. Exemptions should be available for those already participating in athletic programs, individuals who have health issues that render them unable to participate in exercise, and those who are unable to afford the time due to significant life commitments. It might be more expensive and more complicated, but it seems more likely to address the root of the problem. Lincoln would be able to hold the moral high ground, and obese students wouldn’t feel as though they’ve been singled out.

As for the 24 students who must take the fitness class before graduating next semester, they’ve known for years what was expected of them and could easily have transferred to another university in protest. Their decision to stay is a tacit affirmation of Lincoln’s graduation requirements and indicates their responsibility to pass the class.

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