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Columns

January 23, 2010

Extreme measures may be needed to get U.S. in shape

Last month, faculty at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania amended a requirement that obese students take a fitness course to graduate, after the controversial policy was criticized as unfair, stigmatizing and possibly even unconstitutional.

Previously, students who were deemed obese (as assessed through Body Mass Index and waist measurements) were required to take a one-credit course called "Fitness for Life." Under the revised policy, students with health risks will be advised to take the class, but they can opt out of it.

The requirement may have seemed extreme, but with nearly one-third of American adults weighing in as obese, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force only just recommending that school-age children and teens be screened and treated for obesity, extreme measures may be in order.

It's too bad the Lincoln faculty caved to pressure, because the college's policy might have been a groundbreaking "tough love" step in a new direction. By impressing upon students that obesity could severely limit their quality (and quantity) of life " and forcing them to take steps to do something about it "" the college might have dramatically changed, or even saved, lives.

College is the perfect time to influence behavior. Students are away from any potentially unhealthy home environments and have access to free or low-cost resources such as fitness centers, nutrition counseling and a variety of healthy food options.

Of course, addressing obesity before students even get to college would be ideal, and, there's good news on that front. Five years after concluding that pediatric obesity programs did not offer significant benefits, an influential advisory panel has reversed its position. In new guidelines issued Monday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said studies show these programs do work and recommended that doctors screen children for obesity and refer them to treatment.

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