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.