Monday, November 23, 2009

No Diploma For You!

First, let me say that I am a big unfan of nonacademic requirements in the pursuit of gaining an academic diploma. That's one of the reasons I chose the college I did - it didn't have any phys ed requirements. No foreign language requirements (I'm not morally opposed to those, just academically insufficient), and private bathrooms for the dorms were also key factors.

So you can imagine how I feel about Lincoln University making a physical education class (HPR 103 Fitness Walking/Conditioning) a graduation requirement. But not for all students. No, just the students with a BMI over 30. Actually, you don't have to imagine how I feel at all; I think it bites. I think it bites hard.

One of the reasons it bites so hard, aside from my obstinate streak that makes me keen on doing the opposite of what is required of me, is that the BMI is, actually, mostly bunk. It is as inaccurate a way of testing someone's true body fat ratio as any method devised. Why? Well, as this handy BMI calculator I found on the interwebs demonstrates, BMI is nothing but an approximation of body fat based on a person's height and weight. So
If you’re going by your body mass index, or BMI, a measure that factors in your weight and height, you are considered overweight if that score is 25 to 29, and obese if it’s 30 or higher. But a surprising new study finds that some people with a BMI pushing 28 actually have little body fat — and some folks with a BMI as low as 24 have too much.
And why might that be? Well,
Because the BMI is dependent only upon weight and height, it makes simplistic assumptions about distribution of muscle and bone mass, and thus may overestimate adiposity on those with more lean body mass (e.g. athletes) while underestimating adiposity on those with less lean body mass (e.g. the elderly).
So, just based on those things alone, the idea that a facility of higher learning would use this particular test to decree sections of the student body too fat to graduate is somewhat horrifying, considering exactly how unscientific the body mass index actually is.

But beyond that, the university is playing into the same old trope that thin is automatically healthy, and people who are obese based on the BMI are automatically not. Which is, well, wrong. It is impossible to tell, simply by looking (or by analyzing a simplistic statistical measurement), who is exercising regularly and eating the requisite fresh fruits and vegetables and who scarfs down fast food and whose only exercise is from the car to the house. That isn't to say there is no correlation. It is just that you can't tell. And that's a problem if your stated mission is,
"As health educators we're concerned with the whole student, not just the academic part, but all the components that make up health and wellness."
Instead of demonstrating that, what this policy is doing is emphasizing the external differences of some of the student body, and punishing them by adding an extra requirement to their goal of graduation that is wholly separate from teaching the student body as a whole all the components that make up health and wellness. What you're doing is assuming that those other, skinnier, students already know and practice health and wellness. And hey, maybe a lot of them do and are. But I'll bet you some of them are naturally skinny.

Now, if the class was for all students to take, I'd still be a little pissy. Because I would not want to take Fitness Walking/Conditioning. Because (a) it sounds really boring, and (b) I didn't go to college to become a healthier me. I went to college to absorb some academic knowledge. If I felt like being a healthier me, I could take one of the many phys ed type classes offered, I could walk around my campus, and/or I could go to the gym - and I did all of those things.

But to make only certain students subject to this sort of requirement is pretty atrocious. And seems more in line with certain cultural aesthetic standards than any real and true concern for students' health. Because if there was an overwhelming concern for the students' health and wellness, then every student should be pressed to take such a course.


John said...

So if BMI is just a calculation based on height and weight, what are the other tests that determine a person's percent body fat? I'm pretty sure there's one where they measure certain parts of your body with those caliper things, and there's one where they suspend you in water. Obviously these are far too expensive to use on every student, but I'd bet they would give more accurate results.

I absolutely agree, by the way. After all, I sure as shootin' do not live a healthy lifestyle and my BMI is ridiculously (some might say alarmingly) low. As much as I would have disliked taking a mandatory fitness class, I wouldn't want to be given an unfair advantage by not having to take a class that one of my friends would.

petpluto said...

After all, I sure as shootin' do not live a healthy lifestyle and my BMI is ridiculously (some might say alarmingly) low.

You were one of the people I was thinking about when I wrote about the "naturally skinny"!

So if BMI is just a calculation based on height and weight, what are the other tests that determine a person's percent body fat?

There's one that calculates your waist to hip ratio:
and the caliper one. I don't know off the top of my head of any others. I'm sure they're out there.

MediaMaven said...

John, I know what you're talking about--as if I remember correctly, those are more accurate. Some gyms/doctors might have the caliber one, but the one where you are dipped in water is the most accurate but also the hardest to find.

I've read that waist to hip ratio is a much better marker of fitness, in terms of being overweight, because excess fat does (generally) hit those areas.