A Different Kind of Test

One college takes "sound mind, sound body" to a new level, requiring students to lose weight or take a fitness class to graduate.
November 20, 2009

More than two dozen seniors at Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pa., are in danger of not being able to graduate this spring -- not because they’re under disciplinary probation or haven’t fulfilled the requirements of their majors, but because they were obese as freshmen.

All had body mass index (BMI) scores above 30 -- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ threshold for obesity -- when they arrived on campus in the fall of 2006, but none have taken college-sanctioned steps to show they’ve lost weight or at least tried. They’re in the historically black university’s first graduating class required to either have a BMI below 30 or to take “Fitness for Life,” a one semester class that mixes exercise, nutritional instruction and discussion of the risks of obesity.

It might sound like a joke, or a violation of individual rights, but James L. DeBoy, chair of Lincoln’s health, physical education and recreation department, said he sees it as his “professional responsibility to be honest and tell students they’re not healthy.”

Ninety-two students, 19 percent of the freshman class of 484 that entered three years ago, had BMIs of 30 or greater. While most of those students took the class or demonstrated to DeBoy’s department that they had lost weight, about 25 have neither proven they’ve lost weight nor signed up for the class. DeBoy began notifying the students about their unfulfilled requirement earlier this month, spurring an article Wednesday in The Lincolnian, the university’s weekly student newspaper.

Students interviewed for the story seemed upset by the requirement and, perhaps, a bit blindsided by it. “It’s not up to Lincoln to tell me how much my BMI should be. I came here to get a degree and that's what the administration should be concerned with,” said Lousie Kaddie, a sophomore.

DeBoy said it’s exactly what the university should be concerned with. “This country’s in the midst of an obesity epidemic and African-Americans are hit hard by obesity and diabetes,” he said. “We need to address this problem directly with our students.”

“No student should ever be able to leave Lincoln and not know the risks of obesity,” he added. “They could never say, ‘I wish I knew this was going to happen to me, I wish someone would have told me’ ” after suffering a heart attack or other major health problem because of their weight.

James C. Turner, president of the American College Health Association and director of student health at the University of Virginia, said he had “never heard of something like this before.” He added that he was unaware of any studies showing a semester-long class “to be effective to help someone lose weight in the long term.”

DeBoy said he will start collecting final semester data from the students in January so that he will be able to show, with raw numbers, that students benefited from the class.

DeBoy said he taught one class where, at the beginning of the term, the 14 students struggled to walk for 15 minutes at a time. By the end, some could run for a few minutes and all could walk briskly for 45 minutes.

“All of them had BMIs well over 30,” he said, “and some of them lost weight, some of them didn’t. But not one of them gained any weight during those 15 weeks of the spring semester of their freshman year.”

Turner expressed concern that the requirement “raises questions about personal rights and which trumps, personal rights or university policy.”

DeBoy defended the rule. “I’m not a lawyer,” he said, “but we test for written, oral communication skills and I don’t see this as any different…. We want our students to have a sound mind, but also a sound body.”


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