Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lincoln University: Epic fail

Lincoln University, a historically black college in southern Pennsylvania, has made the news recently for jumping on the now-mandatory "wellness" bandwagon. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lincoln's version is to institute a policy of weighing and measuring all freshmen; those with BMIs over 30 are required to take a one-credit course called "Fitness for Life" sometime before they graduate.

This policy exemplifies the worst of what's wrong with the way we as a culture approach fitness, health, and wellness. Like so many other institutions jumping on this bandwagon, Lincoln makes a fatal error in logic: It conflates weight with fitness.

So heavier freshmen at Lincoln are assumed to be "unfit" and "unhealthy." Just as bad, thinner freshmen are given a pass on the fitness course, the assumption being that they don't need it because they're not that fat.

If fitness and good health are the goals, shouldn't everyone have to take the course?

Some people object to the fitness course on libertarian grounds. Not me. I think good health and fitness is part of what we should be teaching children and practicing ourselves. But threatening or punishing larger people because of their size is not a useful strategy. As a researcher from the National Institutes of Health said recently, the number-one cause of obesity in this country is dieting. Programs like this buy in to the fat-is-unhealthy mindset. They also buy in to the thin-is-healthy mindset. By conflating weight with disease they do everyone a grave disservice.

My own school, Syracuse University, is looking at "wellness" programs right now. I hope I don't have to write a piece like this about SU someday.

23 comments:

Ms. Heathen said...

I think good health and fitness is part of what we should be teaching children

There's a problem right there, college students are no longer children. Singling out one group and requiring them to take a 1 credit course is infantilizing. At a time where younger adults need to learn how to deal with their newfound autonomy, pulling out a "for your own good" regulation only stunts their emotional growth and doesn't help them to discover physical activity can be fun.

Plus, a 1 credit course isn't anything more than a symbolic gesture. Why not require that all students complete at least 1 course per semester in a selection of physical activities, as my school did*? Give them the freedom to try out "Intro to Equestrianism" or "Beginner's Belly Dancing" or just complete their credit requirements in the gym or weight room, let them discover joyful movement instead of forcing them into a class I imagine is no more useful than high school phys ed.

*My school had so many pre-graduation requirements that it kept you faffing about with liberal arts classes for two years worth of school. I took a ton of literature courses trying to clear those hurdles, and I don't think I learned much. Oh, and I got a pass on required physical courses due to a mild arrhythmia. Intro To Equestrianism was always full, anyway.

jaed said...

Why do I have a really bad feeling about the curriculum of this "Fit for Life" course? With a class of Guaranteed Fatties to teach, I can imagine some real horrors and at least a few of them will probably come true.

(And on one of the focuses of this blog, will students recovering from an eating disorder be required to take this class anyway? That ought to work out real well.)

goodbyemyboy said...

Why not require that all students complete at least 1 course per semester in a selection of physical activities, as my school did*?

That's what my school did as well, except you had to take a total of 2 credits (and most health/fitness courses counted as 1/2 credit, so you ended up taking 4). Never caused any problems that I'm aware of.

Miriam Heddy said...

Do you have a citation for, "As a researcher from the National Institutes of Health said recently, the number-one cause of obesity in this country is dieting."

I'd love to see the original article where this appeared!

Fantine said...

I was required to take a general fitness class and a couple of half-credit exercise courses (one individual, one team) to graduate from college, and I had no objection to that--because everyone was required to take them in order to graduate. The instructors were (surprisingly, to me) centered on fitness rather than weight loss, and emphasized that everyone could improve on something, so that helped a lot.

Did I lose any weight? No. I actually gained about 40 pounds during college because phen-fen had just been recalled and I was on the upswing of a yo-yo cycle after having taken it for about six months. Did my fitness improve? Yes indeed. The individual activity class I took had me power walking a couple of miles three or four times a week, and my resting heart rate went from 82 to 73 in three months. By the time I took the team activity class (ultimate frisbee! woot!) I was able to jog across the field instead of walking, even though I was still over 300 pounds at the time.

I'm sure there are many, many thin students who could use that kind of improvement in fitness, but Lincoln U will never know that because it judges them based on their height/weight ratio and not any actual indicator of health. Or so it seems to me. But then again, I'm just a magna cum laude graduate of the year fatty fatty fat fat, so what do I know.

Harriet said...

I knew someone would ask me that. :) I will dig it out next week. It was a reference in someone else's research--i.e., I don't have the name of the researcher who said it.

Rebecca said...

This is pretty outrageous. I had to take a health and fitness course in undergrad, but so did everyone else. (I just took an online nutrition course, lazy fatty that I am. t-firmly-ic, of course)

I hope the students are up in arms over this.

Dreaming again said...

My college requires everyone to take nutrition, which included 3 out of 48 classes on eating disorders, their causes and complications. (it was the most thorough section of the course)
With no judgments made about anyone just information.

Oral Roberts University used to require students who were overweight to loose weight (not just be educated) ... and if they hadn't lost it by the end of their sophomore year (no matter how much they had to loose to start with) they were excused from school ... IOW ..kicked out.

Then Richard Roberts daughter hit her teen years ...which came with a weight issue, and suddenly, they were more compassionate about weight issues. They gave longer times and excused those with medical issues a pass on the requirement. Then she went into the school as a student and the policy was totally done away with.

Harriet said...

Well, unfortunately, the research shows that giving information about eating disorders like that often winds up triggering them.

I used to think my daughter would never develop an ED because she did her 6th-grade research paper on anorexia. It turned out that's when she started the restricting that eventually became anorexia.

It's a conundrum, because you want to educate people. I suspect there is a way to do it that's not triggering, but we haven't figured that out quite yet.

SweetAsCake said...

I had to take 2 credits of PE and a "health" class as an undergrad, but so did everyone else. I don't really have a problem with that (although I doubt how useful that sort of health class, which basically just repeated what we'd already heard in high school AND middle school, is).
It's the singling out of fatties, definitely, that makes Lincoln's move completely disgusting. The point is not "teaching children [although they aren't children] about health" but "telling these student's they're unhealthy" which, frankly, is none of the college's business.

Amy said...

We had to take a health/activity class in college. I actually don't recall weight coming up. We did have to learn our blood pressure, cholesterol, pass a fitness test, keep a food journal for a week and then compare it to the recommended daily guidelines, stuff like that. We could do a skin fold test if we were curious, but it wasn't mandatory. There was also mental health (including a trick quiz that turned out to be about eating disorders). Overall it was a decent class.

Losing Waist! said...

Mortified: "Please report to fat class"... that is all it says to me.

Ugh. And the free pass for the fitness- choke.

This is ridiculous. Serioulsy. I cannot even rant about it because I can feel how much this would hurt for a young, sensitive student.

Scattered Marbles said...

Ok honestly this brought up so many awful memories of middle and high school PE classes that it made my stomach physically upset. PE was such a horrible experience for me and the thought of having to go through that again would make me pass on school. I would dread PE all day... then suffer through it as I got taunted and mocked and then disappear into the bathroom to change and cry.

When I was researching schools to go to to get my BS in graphic design honestly I checked that out as a requirement and I wouldn't go to a school that made you take those courses. That kind of crazy isn't worth it to me anymore. My skills and ability as a graphic designer has nothing to do with how fast i can run or what I eat.

The fact that they want to single out anyone over a certain BMI makes my blood boil it is just so annoyingly wrong, and it really ticks me off!!

meerkat said...

Considering how awful phys ed is in elementary school I wouldn't want to attend any college that had a requirement like that even if it weren't exclusively for the fatties.

jaed said...

I actually found PE in college to be fine. (My college required a semester and a half, pass/fail, graded based strictly on attendance.)

Nothing like high school or elementary school - there was a choice of activities, the activities were varied (I took racquetball, juggling, and fencing), and the teachers seemed genuinely interested in helping everyone develop physical competence.

The problem I really have with this is that, as several people has said, it singles out the fatties. It also sticks a scarlet F on their transcripts for all to see, which is hard to forgive given the degree of discrimination those students are likely to be subjected to as a result when applying to graduate school or for jobs. Some of the commenters in Harriet's links talked about this as a class issue - that Lincoln wants a reputation for graduating only slim, elegant, aspirational upper-middle-class people - and I tend to think that will be a result once fat people stop applying there.

living400lbs said...

Scattered Marbles ---

When transferring from community college to a 4-year school, I picked a school that didn't require PE, but did have it, in case I had an empty slot I wanted to use for weight lifting or yoga or something. (Didn't, but oh well...)

Said school also had no frats/sororities and a "no alcohol" policy, which I also saw as a boon. I'm not a teetotaler, but after an adolescence of getting dragged into my parents' arguments over my dad's drinking I just flat didn't want to have to deal with drunk freshmen.

Anonymous said...

It would be a lot less offensive if they required all students to take the course. (Cornell requires all undergraduates to learn to swim, for instance, and that seems pretty reasonable.) Only requiring it for fat students turns it into fat-shaming, into punishment. It looks like they are trying to teach that thin people have no need for to know about lifelong exercise or healthy eating...that's dangerously wrong.

Frankincensy said...

I'm from the UK, where you choose one subject to study at university and don't have to study anything else whilst you're there, so the concept of required classes unrelated to a student's major is unfamiliar to me all by itself. Apart from that, however beneficial a fitness class could be, making BMI the criterion just seems irrational: a lot of people who are already active, fit and knowledgeable about exercise will be made to take an unnecessary and stigmatising class, and many, many thinner people who aren't fit will be excused. Are there practical reasons why they can't make the class a requirement for every student who's physically capable* instead of singling out a few who may or may not be helped by it?

*I don't necessarily believe this would be a good idea - like I said, the concept is unusual to me - but it would be better, IMHO, than selecting a few based on BMI.

Harriet said...

I also remember the horrible old required PE in high school and would never suggest that was a good idea in college. :) But I know at the uni where I teach, the phys ed courses are amazing--everything from ballroom dancing to rock climbing. There are so many choices now--something for everyone. That's what I'd love to see at a place like Lincoln.

Folks on the Academy of Eating Disorders listserv, which is also discussing this, suggested that maybe Lincoln is concerned about higher than normal rates of diabetes, cardiac problems, etc. in its population. Maybe so. But it's still true that weight is not a marker for health, and if they really are concerned about the health of their students, they need to address that systematically and not through discrimination.

Campus Controversy said...

I actually just commented on this on my own blog. I think its ridiculous that the administration would force obese students to take an additional course. If student's are happy physically and mentally, and are doing well academically, what does it matter? The students are paying thousands of dollars to attend this school. They shouldn't have to put up with taking such a course! Furthermore, is there an additional fee to take this course? The whole thing could be just a money grab. Why not capitalize on the obese student population when it turns into an extra $100,000 every year? More information needs to be provided, and the university needs to realize that it has just opened a whole new can of worms.

Campus Controversy said...

I actually just commented on this on my own blog. I think its ridiculous that the administration would force obese students to take an additional course. If student's are happy physically and mentally, and are doing well academically, what does it matter? The students are paying thousands of dollars to attend this school. They shouldn't have to put up with taking such a course! Furthermore, is there an additional fee to take this course? The whole thing could be just a money grab. Why not capitalize on the obese student population when it turns into an extra $100,000 every year? More information needs to be provided, and the university needs to realize that it has just opened a whole new can of worms.

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.

Harriet said...

ceebee,
I have to disagree with you here. There's an awful lot of crap online. And at a good school you learn far more than what's in the books and in writing.