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Too Fat For School

Obstacles in the Battle to Help Students Stay Healthy


 

Mark del Rosario

Lincoln University in Pennsylvania took a lot of heat last fall for enforcing a fitness curriculum requirement for its larger students.

University faculty began requiring freshmen four years ago to take a Body Mass Index (BMI) test - a measurement of their weight compared to their height . Obese students (BMI >30) were told to enroll and complete a one credit course in Fitness Walking/Conditioning.

The university’s efforts to reduce obesity reflect the concerns of American society in general. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes American society as “obesogenic,” meaning we are lazy and eat too much (unhealthy) food and so we get fat. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in America is 68%, half of which are obese. Health consequences of being overweight/obese include heart disease, diabetes, increase risk for cancer, stroke, hypertension and the list goes on. The bottom line is: America is becoming fat, and being fat is bad for your health.

So an esteemed institution tried to tackle the challenge of obesity by requiring a course in walking.

Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, it turned out that two dozen Lincoln seniors were being denied their diplomas for failing to register for the fitness course. The resulting outcry spawned a decision to retract the policy. Instead the school will recommend a "Fitness for Life" course to those students with potential health risks, but enrollment will not be mandatory.

Was that the right decision? The students who initially were being denied their degrees enrolled in the university with the knowledge that they would be subject to health assessments. The university’s intent was in the right place. Right? So what went wrong?

Lincoln University made the mistake of requiring the class for only a select population. While the university faculty should be applauded for their intent, their tactics were less than tasteful. Some would argue that this is discriminatory. Others claim that it is illegal for universities to force this level of medical disclosure. Critics are quick to point out that academia should stay academic. Plus, BMI is not always an ideal indicator of fitness (Lincoln addresses this by taking waist measurements).Whatever the criticisms may be, the university’s approach was not without flaw.

If the university wants to promote health and wellness, it should promote it to everybody. Just like biology majors are required to take humanities electives, all majors at Lincoln University should have a physical activity elective. If students don’t want physical activity to be part of their curriculum, they can go somewhere else.

The steps taken at Lincoln poses a question this nation must find an answer to. What to do about obesity? Along with all of the health consequences, economic consequences are just as real. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the country spends $147 billion a year in direct medical costs for obese and overweight patients. Without the increasing trend of overweight/obesity prevalence, this epidemic is sure to strain an unsustainable healthcare system in uncertain financial times.

Something must be done.

Schools of all levels should follow Lincoln University’s initiative in addressing this preventable epidemic. Whether it be requiring formal physical education classes, extended recess time or healthier food options, schools need to institute measures to turn the tide against obesity. For example, the Anschutz Medical Campus is building a Wellness Center with the aim of improving nutrition and increasing exercise on campus as well as in Colorado as a whole.

Lincoln University’s model was not perfect, but it set an example that we can learn from and improve upon. We should follow its lead and fight obesity with force.

Mark del Rosario is a second year medical student at the University Colorado School of Medicine. He is passionate about community health and envisions a fitter future for America.