Saturday, January 19, 2008

Boston Globe: Obsession With Fitness on University Campuses

"Despite an alarming rise in childhood obesity - and the fabled 'freshman 15' - the current generation of college students appears to be more fit than ever, with students working out several hours a week, and many able to cite their body mass index along with their height and weight."
This front-page story in today's Boston Globe describes an obsession with fitness among what appears to be a growing number of students on university campuses. Whether the obsession is healthy or unhealthy is a major focus of the story; it presents an interesting read on the subject.

Students who show up at the recreation centers more than once in a day are apparently being monitored to ensure that they are not engaged in obsessive numbers of fitness workouts. This is an odd criterion to use, however, because triathletes -- those who participate in combined swim, bike, and run training and competitive events -- routinely engage in two workouts per day, typically 10 or more workouts per week. Sure, many triathletes are obsessive about working out, but identifying them as engaging in a potentially unhealthy obsession via the multiple workouts criterion seems overly-broad. If the universities are concerned about unhealthy over-exercising, then why not instead just require everyone to have periodic clearance from a doctor in order to use the facilities?

Building New "Informal" Athletics Facilities

The Globe story focuses on students at Boston College and Boston University as its local examples, but the pattern of increasing focus on fitness appears to apply to a wide-range of universities.

The choice of these two examples, however, was clearly not random. Boston University recently built a large, new student athletics center, nicknamed the "Fit," at a cost of nearly $100 million. Boston College has proposed building one of their own (chapter 3) as part of their December 2007 institutional master plan, although its proposed size is somewhat smaller (200,000 vs. 272,000 square feet).
The conventional wisdom used to be that 1 square foot of workout space per student was sufficient, but that's no longer enough. Tom St. Laurent, BC's fitness director, says colleges are having to build bigger gyms to keep up with the students' interest.
(Laurent must be referring to a very small sub-category of "workout space", since 9000 students would only correspond to 9000 square feet of workout space -- far smaller than the overall 200,000 square feet proposed by BC.)

The site for BC's proposed Recreation Center is where Edmonds Hall, a 790-bed student dormitory, now sits on their main Chestnut Hill campus. Photographs accompanying the print version of the Globe article show the indoor Rec Plex (Flynn Recreation Center) at BC that would be torn down when a new center is built. Some additional indoor recreation facilities are proposed to be sited within the below-grade athletic support facility in the Brighton Campus (the former St. John's Seminary land), including indoor tennis courts and an indoor track.

While much discussion among the Brighton neighborhood, city officials, and BC have focused on the proposal to build a baseball stadium in the Brighton Campus, a large fraction, if not most, of the athletics facilities in BC's proposed master plan are primarily designed for "informal" athletic usage by students not part of varsity sports teams -- i.e., for individual exercise, exercise classes, club sports, or intramural sports.

Approximately 2000 BC undergraduates are involved in intramural sports each year, according to Jack Dunn, Director of Public Affairs at BC, which is around 22% of the undergraduate student body.*** Many students use the Rec Plex on a daily basis (although I could not find a number). (In the Boston Globe article, approximately 5000 students at Boston University -- i.e., 30% of their undergraduate enrollment of around 16,500 -- use their FitRec on a daily basis.) By comparison, only 780 undergraduates at BC were involved in varsity sports, according to BC's Fact Book. These numbers indicate the high level of involvement among undergraduate students in non-varsity, fitness-related activity.

Why did BU build an expensive, new recreation center in 2004, and why is BC proposing to do the same? In the case of BU, the answer was previously reported in a Globe story titled, "Campus officials hope $90m athletic center will lure top students":
BU's $90 million Fitness and Recreation Center, slated to open April 1, marks the newest entry in the college gym wars, a feverish race among schools to lure prospective students and faculty to campus and keep them happy once they arrive.
BC's proposed recreation center would be the latest addition to this trend among local and national universities to attract students, what the Globe calls the "gym wars." The print version of today's Globe story also has a photograph of the inside of the RecPlex, showing its age, heavy use, and crowded accomodations -- other reasons for wanting a new complex.

Harvard University seems to have been avoided in today's Globe story because its "informal" athletics facilities seem to, at least in part, buck the trend of the other universities. Harvard submitted a proposed institutional master plan in January 2007 for its North Allston campus which included substantial reconfiguration of its athletic facilities there, but only called for construction of around 50,000 square feet of (indoor) athletics buildings. The Malkin Athletic Center in Harvard Square is closest to the largest number of Harvard undergraduate students, but, despite repeated and significant interior renovations, it is, by comparison to BU's new center and BC's proposed one, an old and modest facility.

Harvard does not appear to be pushing for a flashy new undergraduate recreation center to attract students as part of their North Allston proposals. Harvard plans to resubmit their proposed institutional master plan in the Fall of 2008; their previous IMP proposal has been on hold while the science complex was considered.

Odd Choice for a Photo Subject

The print version of the story includes a photograph of a BC freshman woman working out, ostensibly providing an example of someone who is fit but may be questionably too thin:
Liz Kulze, a freshman from Charleston, S.C., is a former high school track and cross country runner. At 5-foot-9 and 118 pounds, she knows she's thin: It's in her genes, she says, and it's a healthy weight for her. She has heard that BC has "body image issues." But she still thinks the school's fit culture is a positive.

"At home, you never worked out unless you were an athlete," she says. "Here, everyone works out."
I think that the photo subject was not necessarily the best one to illustrate the story. If she is (or at least was until recently) a competitive track and cross-country runner, then her physique is actually appropriate for success at those activities. According to "The Competitive Runner's Handbook," by Bob Glover and Shelly-Lynn Florence Glover, the performance target weight for a female runner who is 5'9" is 129 pounds, with the weight range being 116-142 pounds. Kluze falls at the low end, but still within the range for competitive runners. Elite distance runners routinely fall at the low end of such target weight ranges -- just watch the lead pack at the Boston Marathon or this summer's Olympics.

The Globe would have done better at illustrating their story by picking out a student not connected to competitive sports whose successfull performance is associated with lean body-types.

*** Involvement in intramural sports is tabulated in BC's annual Fact Book, but the method of tabulation includes substantial double-counting of students involved in multiple intramural sports. Dunn provided the number of 2000 students that does not double-count.

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