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If you’re a freshman at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, you’re weighed, and if your BMI (Body Mass Index) is over 30, you have to complete a healthy lifestyle course in order to graduate, including either losing weight or participating in a sport.

The article above focuses on the legality of the course as it pertains to obesity as a disability, but of more concern to me is the fact that only people who are identified as obese by a particular measure are required to do the credit in order to graduate.

And is this the best way to encourage people to be fit? At the very least, it should be a course that is compulsory for everyone, not just people who meet a certain, fairly narrow, measure. I have a personal objection to treating adults like children, but if it’s equal for everyone it’s not quite as hard to stomach.

Another article on the topic, in Psychology Today, focuses on the illogic of treating body fat as if it were an indicator of fitness, and also the missed opportunity to train students to make healthy choices freely, and not because they’re being forced.

The only good grade I ever got in P.E. was in grade 10, when the instructor – in addition to marking us for the compulsory elements of physical education such as running speed and facility with sports – gave us the opportunity to earn extra credit by doing extra exercise, notably doing laps around the track on our own time. I raised my mark by a full letter grade, and it was the first time in my life that I had ever felt good about exercising. That one semester totally changed my relationship to exercise, and opened up the possibility of exercising for fun, something I took advantage of later when I became a serious long-distance runner and weight-trainer in my 20s.

Contrast that to when I was 12 and in grade six, when our young, handsome and idealistic physical education teacher called me into his office to discuss fitness with me. I was much bigger and more awkward than my peers, and did poorly in P.E. I remember nothing about what he said to me; what I remember instead is how all the other kids in my class teased me about being alone with my ‘boyfriend’ in his office, and what naughty, adult shenanigans we must have gotten up to. It was incredibly humiliating, and had the opposite effect from what my teacher intended.

My conclusion is that in order to choose activities that are good for us, we have to feel good about them. No matter how well-intentioned, taking actions that make people feel shamed or singled out is not going to work. Teach people the joy of exercise, by giving them education and choice, not by treating them like infants.

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