After Lincoln University received widespread media attention and negative criticism, faculty at the historically black university voted this month to repeal a policy that required students with a Body Mass Index of 30 or above to take a fitness class in order to graduate.
“In no way, form, or fashion was there any intent to discriminate or to insinuate that we were discriminating against a group of people,” says Lincoln University President Ivory V. Nelson of the policy that was instituted in 2005.
The Lincoln faculty decided earlier this month that all undergraduate students will be required to take a general health class instead. At the conclusion of that class, the professor will recommend, but not require, a fitness class for those students who they believe are at risk for hypokinetic disease (obesity) based on a battery of health risk appraisals, not just BMI.
BMI is a measure of a person’s body fat based on height and weight, but experts argue that it is a crude measurement that can be inaccurate.
There is a strong association between obesity and hypertension and diabetes, says Dr. Thomas LaVeist, director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In addition, obesity increases the risk to joint problems, asthma, and sleep apnea, which increases the likelihood of getting congestive heart failure. African American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. About four out of five African American women are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“I applaud Lincoln University for trying to do something proactive to deal with an extremely serious problem and a particularly important problem among African Americans,” says LaVeist. “However I think their mistake was assuming that physical and nutritional education should only be given to people with a BMI over 30.”
Dr. Ilene Fennoy, clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbia University College called the old policy “pejorative” but agreed that there is nothing wrong with requiring every student to pass a fitness class to graduate from college.
“Everybody is missing the point. The point is not BMI,” says Fennoy, who was listed on Black Enterprise’s List of Top Doctors. “The issue is that everybody needs to exercise. If we don’t teach it anywhere in the system, [it won’t] be a surprise that we spend 50% of our healthcare dollars for diseases that result as a function of obesity.”
Student Tianna Y. Lawson wrote in the Lincolnian, the school’s student newspaper, that the policy infringed on her right of personal choice. However, people who are overweight and obese do not have special protection under anti-discrimination laws, says Samantha Graff, director of legal research at the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity.
Graff recommends that private institutions promote healthier lifestyles without singling out a particular group of people. For example, they can open stairwells and provide free access to the gym to encourage exercise, get rid of junk food in campus vending machines, and/or sponsor a community garden or farmer’s market.