Page last updated at 14:20 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

US university links exam success to weight loss

By Helena Merriman
BBC News

An unidentified woman takes a walk 29 August 2007 in Washington,DC
Adult obesity rates in the US have doubled since 1980 from 15 to 30%

How would you feel if you had studied for your university degree but were unable to graduate because you were overweight?

This is what some students are facing at Lincoln University in the US which has introduced a unique way of tackling obesity.

In 2006, the university in Pennsylvania introduced its Fitness for Life programme with the aim of encouraging students to lose weight.

The premise was that if a student had a body mass index (BMI) - a ratio of weight to height - of above 30, then they should take some college-sanctioned steps to show they had lost weight or at least tried.

The course includes walking, Pilates, exercises and fitness games.

But this year, some students have not completed the course, so they may not be able to graduate.

Professor James L DeBoy, head of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation department at Lincoln University, who proposed the programme, says that around 30 students are unlikely to pass.

"Around 15% of the student population each fall has failed to earn a BMI of less than 30," he told the BBC World Service. So we anticipate two dozen not being able to complete the course."

'It is ridiculous'

Sharifa Riley, a journalism student at Lincoln University who has been reporting on the uproar amongst students, says that losing weight should not be part of the curriculum.

"The BMI requirement is ridiculous," she told the BBC's Newshour programme.

"I am fully aware that obesity is becoming a problem, especially among people our age.

Lincoln University, Pennsylvania
Lincoln University is the first known university to introduce such a measure

But students come to colleges to get an education...and for me to work for four years to get to the end of my course, and for somebody then to tell me that I cannot graduate because of something to do with my weight, I feel that has nothing to do with university.

"It should not be a requirement. It should be an option."

But Professor DeBoy says that drastic times call for drastic measures.

"We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic in the United States and we know that obesity is associated with certain co-morbidities such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes, selected cancers and muscular skeletal disorders," he says.

A growing problem

Obesity rates in the US are rising.

At a conference on obesity control in the US in August, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that two out of three adults and one out of five children in the US are now obese or overweight.

And according to a study carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US medical system spends around $150bn (£90bn) on treating preventable health conditions caused by obesity - which is twice the amount it spends on fighting cancer.

Professor DeBoy believes that universities now have a responsibility to address this.

"We as an education faculty believe that it is our professional responsibility to be honest with students," he told the BBC's Newshour programme.

"We need to let them know where there might be an impending issue that could put them on a collision course with these health issues down the road.

"And we are responsible for their total well-being, not just the academic, but the emotional and psychological state of our students."

While the US government has set a target of cutting adult obesity rates in all 50 states to 15% by next year, a recent report from the Trust for America's Health has said this target is certain to be missed.

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