At Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a new rule was instigated for the class of 2010: All students with a Body Mass Index above 30 had to take a physical education class at some point during their four years. If they did not complete this course, the students would not be allowed to graduate. In the fall of 2006, 92 students (19 percent of the student body) were required to take “Fitness for life.” As of last fall, more than two dozen had yet to take the course. But many of them refused.
This spring, however, all of them will graduate. In December, under intense pressure from the media and students and fearing legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act and various privacy laws, the University rescinded its policy. Instead, the course will be recommended to students with “potential health risks,” but not mandatory and not based on BMI.
While Lincoln University took too extreme an approach, the ultimate goal was the right one. In a country in which over two-thirds of adults are overweight and one-third are obese, physical education should be a requirement of an American college education.
At Yale, where academics are emphasized so heavily and active living is left to the responsibility of the students, it becomes all too easy to lose track of everyday health requirements. While we have access to gyms at all hours, we don’t get credit for physical activity — in fact, we have to pay to take the classes. And because we’re not required to take them, we don’t. Our physical health suffers at the hands of our academic and social priorities.
But a serious commitment to academics does not have to preclude a commitment to keeping students active. Columbia, Dartmouth and Cornell all require students to complete physical education classes or participate in recreational activities. At Columbia, students can even count up to four classes towards their graduation requirement. In addition, the majority of classes offered at these universities are free.
And the classes are fun. At Columbia, you can ski or scuba dive or take Tai Chi. At Dartmouth, you can rock climb, kayak, whitewater raft and mountaineer.
It should be possible to give students many options for physical activity, and still ensure that each has an education aspect that encompasses nutrition, fitness and relevant health topics. Students should have the opportunity to learn about vaccines, sexually transmitted infections, healthy eating, gym exercise and other health topics that are currently left for students to learn about on their own or through personal experience.
Last January, it became clear that simply providing information to students is not the correct app-
roach. When Yale Dining issued, “Wellness Information and Nutrition” tips, many students were surprised and doubted its authority. If nutrition were offered as part of a broader health curriculum, perhaps this flier would have been better received and more effective. While no special attention should be paid to students at college who are technically overweight, weight should not be omitted from the academic program, either. Students struggling with weight issues may need a push to address their health and college may be the place they can get that push..
The need for physical education extends even to those who are already active. I spoke with a varsity athlete with mutual concern about health and wellness at Yale. She confessed that she was often shocked to see her teammates retreating to the dining hall after practice and gorging themselves on, “junk food, often times without a single fruit or vegetable on their plate.”
This pattern of poor eating habits is not a new concern: Lisa Kimmel, Yale’s sports nutritionist noted that she regularly screens between 20 and 40 students each week. Students are referred for a wide variety of issues stemming from general nutrition guidance, weight loss or gain, eating concerns and medical conditions like diabetes, food allergies, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Yale is a school that emphasizes its commitment to a comprehensive education. But to be comprehensive, students must have the opportunity to access physical activity as easily as they can tutoring or a quiet place to study. As college students, we are in a place and at a time in our lives in which it is easy to lose track of healthy habits. As a nation, we’re at time when obesity has become an epidemic.
Until the 1960s, Yale required all its students to take physical education. It’s time to bring it back.
Rebecca Stern is a sophomore in Berkeley College.