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Katja Rowell, M.D. Headshot

Boy Scouts Mislead and Exclude With BMI Policy, and There's a Better Way

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The Boy Scouts have been in the news again for exclusionary practices, this time not for sexual orientation, but for body mass index cutoffs for their Jamboree.

The video spokesperson (who makes a point to share his own weight loss goals) assures young scouts that the "easiest" solution to the cutoffs is to just to lose the weight before Jamboree starts. While he is "obese" per his reported BMI, he seems to do just fine marching up and down the hilly terrain, all the while lecturing viewers about how hard it is to be active and heavy. Knowing that 85-95 percent of diets fail at long-term weight loss, his assertion that weight loss is the "easy" solution is a cruel lie to vulnerable young people. (Perhaps he speaks from experience that losing weight is relatively 'easy,' but maintaining weight loss is clearly not.)

The most upsetting line in the "Be Prepared" video is when he admits that while some heavy youth may be able to do the activities, he claims, "...it wouldn't be any fun for you or for us." Why not? I'm confused. Kids doing fun and awesome things is fun and awesome, unless they are heavy, then it's not? What message is this sending to Scouts, heavy or not?

Back to the jamboree, if the real concern is that the boys won't be able to complete the physical challenges and have fun or do it safely, they have an infrastructure in place that could address this concern in a meaningful way. A few thoughts:

First and foremost, Scouts could incorporate different levels of challenges to be more inclusive of both fitness level and special needs. (Scouts cite that they have had over 100,000 participants with a range of disabilities, with efforts "directed at keeping such boys in the mainstream of Scouting.") Since the facility cost 350 million dollars, you would think they could offer comprehensive options. A Facebook reader shared that one son can climb any tree or climbing wall, while her other son stays earthbound but can lift and carry anything. Working towards individual strengths, while giving the opportunity to be challenged and grow could be part of Jamboree too. And, if we tell children to be active for mental and physical health, it makes sense to increase those opportunities, not limit them.

If a comprehensive range of skill-levels is impossible, institute fitness standards, not arbitrary BMI cutoffs. With the Boy Scout hierarchy and the two years prep time, Scouts could come up with training programs to improve fitness and include subjective testing criteria. For example, can the youth walk three miles under a certain time limit? Maybe using the Presidential Physical Fitness Test or another test could work? Can the youth do a minimum number of pull-ups? If not, it may be reasonable to say that they are unable to participate in this particular Jamboree if it is truly as rigorous as they make it out to be.

In addition, require that all participants have a documented physical, which may include the BMI screening (note not diagnostic) test and address other concerns. My guess is they already do this with liability and insurance requirements. As a family doctor, I did these pre-participation screenings and physicals all the time; clinicians should do a careful cardiovascular exam, assess for concerns like asthma or other risk factors for rigorous activity, do a quick check of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems etc. Requiring the physical of all participants gets rid of the policy of needing additional clearance for kids with BMI 32-39, many of whom would be capable of safely participating.

When I sit poolside at our local indoor rec center with my family, I watch as children try over and over again to pull themselves out of the water and onto the floats. There are many children who simply are unable to get on top of the float, and guess what? Some are bigger than average (even heavy) and just as many are lean (even skinny).

A Jamboree climbing wall activity may require upper body and leg strength that some children don't have, big or small, and a universal fitness assessment combined with a thorough pre-participation screening is a more accurate and compassionate way to support young boys and men in the goal of going to camp and achieving health.

My friend's son is in the "obese" range (32-39) and plays soccer, wrestles, and is a strong, solid kid with a "six-pack." He would pass a fitness test with flying colors. Health and weight are not one and the same. The Boy Scouts have an opportunity to lead, and not pile on with misinformed, shaming policies.

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