University Requires Obese Students To Take Fitness Course To Graduate

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. Pediatrician, Child Obesity Specialist, and Author, Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right!

Lincoln University is taking a firm stance against obesity. But are they going too far?

Starting this year, Lincoln University will require obese students to take a special fitness course. All students will have their body mass indices (BMI) measured. Those who fall into the obese category (BMI>30) will be forced to take "HPR 103: Fitness for Life." Students who fail to do so will not be allowed to graduate.

I am conflicted about this decision. On one hand, I certainly believe that as a society, we need to do something about the obesity epidemic. Major changes have to be made and our schools should be leading the way. But basing college graduation on body weight is going too far.

According to James DeBoy, professor and chair of the department of health, physical education and recreation at Lincoln University, "Basically every college has fitness courses -- we're {just} forcing this intervention." In response to criticism of this policy, DeBoy sent a letter to faculty stating: "The reasons cited for colleges not opting for intervention are multitudinous: time, cost, effort, misinformation and fear. Colleges will be damned if they try and can avoid public outcry when they ignore, minimize, or deny that a problem exists or that it is simply not their business nor in their best interest."

Yes, colleges cannot ignore the obesity crisis. And yes, increasing fitness and nutrition education is critical. But this is simply not the way to go about it.

A better solution would be to require all college students to take a fitness/nutrition class. Our country is clearly not doing a good enough job teaching our children how to live a healthy lifestyle. Even our thin teens tend to eat unhealthy foods and avoid exercise. All students, regardless of body size, would benefit from such a course. This type of education should begin in elementary school and should be part of the core curriculum.

We also can't forget that BMI is an imperfect tool. BMI will properly categorize the body fat levels of most college students. But those students who are particularly muscular will be misdiagnosed as obese. When I evaluate children for obesity, I do not solely rely on BMI. I use the child's BMI as a guideline and then make an individual assessment of each patient. If a child's BMI puts him in the obese category but it is clear that he is just muscular, I would not consider him obese. Simply using BMI as a measurement will lead to misdiagnosis.

We should not single out our overweight students by requiring such a class. This is really a slippery slope. Will we next require smokers to take a pulmonary medicine class? Will sexually promiscuous students be required to take a Sex Ed course? Once we start measuring our students' risk factors for disease, where do we stop?

I can't bear to imagine the stigma of having to take what is sure to be called the "Fat Class". College life is hard enough for an obese student. Forcing overweight students to take a special class will only increase their social isolation. I applaud Lincoln University for recognizing this increasing problem but I suggest their rethink their strategy