South Carolina college enacts mandatory fitness assessment program for freshmen

Laura Donovan | Contributor

Though liberating, college isn’t all fun and drinking games. Late night booze sessions, post-bar burrito binges, irregular sleeping hours and infrequent gym visits turn otherwise fit college freshmen into tubby young adults, all of whom amaze family members with their paunch bellies, flabby arms and willingness to consume everything in sight.

This path is what Coker College, a private school in Hartsville, South Carolina, aims to prevent.

Starting this fall, first-year students will be required to fulfill a “fitness assessment” to determine their physical fitness level. During the test, they’ll will have their body fat measured, complete a one-mile run or walk, and see how many sit-ups and push-ups they can do in several minutes. The students might be instructed to do curl-ups, trunk lifts, and beep tests, in which they race to and fro between cones at fast speeds. Coker College 101 also requires students to partake in a minimum of four COBRAFIT activities, which include kickboxing, yoga, circuit training, Zumba, and nutritional assistance.

Coker College president Robert L. Wyatt told The Daily Caller that the school simply wants to expose information to community members, who are free to choose how to respond to the test results.

“The fitness assessments are not intended to prescribe specific changes, but they will provide the members of our community with objective data to inform the decisions each individual will make,” Wyatt told TheDC.

Asked how Coker College would deal with college kids dubbed out of shape, Wyatt said, “Students will be encouraged to make full use of the information. For those students who desire it, we will help them analyze the information and develop personal plans to help them meet their individual goals.”

Wyatt, who has dropped 100 pounds since his college days, stressed the importance of maintaining physical health in southern states, which are famous for serving high calorie foods like pie, fried chicken, cornbread and biscuits. (RELATED: Arizona school district sends letters home about overweight kids)

“I know from my own experience with working to be physically fit as well as through my conversations with parents, faculty and staff, how difficult it can be, especially in the South, which is so well known for generous hospitality and amazing cooking, to be disciplined about those practices that support good health,” Wyatt told TheDC.

Dr. Jean Gutierrez, a registered dietitian who serves as an assistant professor at George Washington University and earned a Ph.D. in exercise, nutrition and preventive health, told TheDC that the assessment could work well if done right.

“It’s all in the execution, so without more information on the execution, I can’t say definitively whether it’s a bad or good idea. I think it has the potential to be good and that they’re trying to do something positive,” Gutierrez said, adding that the program could be even more helpful by offering health resources and referral services for students.

A Cornell University graduate, Gutierrez says the body fat measurement should be done in a private, noninvasive manner.

“You really don’t want people comparing it to each other, it really should be done one-on-one and privately,” Gutierrez told TheDC. “I think in terms of the assessment it’s really important to do in a way that’s discreet.”

Coker College’s program isn’t a foreign concept to Gutierrez, who recalls going through similar physical assessments while attending elementary, middle and high school in New York state.

“One time in junior high I wasn’t so fit and they just lined us up in a row all in the same room and grabbed the fat on our arms and went down the line and told you whether you were fat,” Gutierrez said. “That was horrible, so if [Coker College] uses the skinfold caliper [to measure body fat] in public, that’s a problem, but there’s another measure called the BIA, which is where there’s no grabbing of fat, so if you do that one-on-one in a room that might tell a student where they are and get them in a frame of mind where they have to be taking care of themselves when they’re on their own.”

If students worry the assessment will make them feel inadequate or resurrect traumatic childhood memories of elementary school physical education class, the college kids should breathe a sigh of relief that Coker College decided against their initial idea of installing dorm scales and/or weigh stations on campus. Dean of Students Jason Umfress told Insider Higher Ed that such actions could make students feel more self-conscious or insecure about themselves.

“We’re not exactly sold on the fact that that would bring more benefit than it would harm,” Umfress said. “We’re sensitive to the fact that we do have students who have body image problems.”

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan addressed this issue in a tongue-in-cheek manner in an online article titled, “College Points Out to Freshmen: You Are Fat.” Joking that college students already have enough first world problems on their hands, Nolan wrote, “Now, [Coker College] is working to ensure that [students are] also mortified by their own lack of physical fitness. Progress!”

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