Q+A: The Troublesome Implications of Monitoring Student Weight

A Fitbit Surge smart watch. Photo by Sam Sailor.

With one university taking a high-tech stab at keeping its freshmen class’ weight down, an expert in weight stigma in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions is alarmed by their methods.

Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, announced in January that it is requiring all incoming freshmen to wear Fitbits, a piece of technology worn on your wrist that can be used to track your activities.

With the Fitbit, now Oral Roberts will automatically get data submitted from the students on their physical activity, weight and eating and sleeping habits. This data will be processed for each individual student at the school and a grade will be assigned to them. The Fitbit is an extension of the manual reporting students at Oral Roberts were compelled to do in the past.

It is all in an effort to better “focus on the Whole Person — mind, body and spirit,” according to the school’s president, William M. Wilson.

But Janell Mensinger, PhD, associate teaching professor, thinks that Oral Roberts could be doing significant damage to the “mind” part of that formula. She shared her thoughts on the implications of the school monitoring — and grading — students’ physicality.

Do you think the measures Oral Roberts seems to be using — exercise, food intake, body weight and sleep — can accurately depict a person’s overall health?

A good measure of a student’s health and well-being is far more complex than what a Fitbit could ever tell a school. This policy really concerns me.

While good nutrition, adequate sleep and pleasurable physical activity are important components of a healthy lifestyle, they only make up a part of the picture. I am not convinced there is consideration for the “Whole Person” in this policy. Where are the mind and the spirit components? Are there concerns about the mental health implications of doing this?

Do you find it problematic that a grade is being attached to the data they’re taking from the students?

It is very troublesome. Monitoring all of these parameters, especially body weight, is inappropriate from a health promotion and policy perspective. That is stepping too far into privacy issues, and I am surprised this is considered ethical.

Giving students a grade on their weight will, in the long run, likely come with a price if their body does not fit tightly defined ‘healthy’ norms. The scholarly literature on weight stigma has shown the outcomes are likely to be increased stress and poorer health. Clearly, this is the exact opposite of the intention, which is not uncommon in public health obesity prevention and intervention strategies.

Stigmatizing and shaming people for their weight lead to physiological stress responses that ultimately wear and tear the body down.

Aren’t we aiming to improve student health?

As much as people would like to think weight is in one’s control, we need to remember the scientific data say otherwise. Studies show decade after decade that diets fail in the long run; unchanging population rates of obesity support this. How is it appropriate to give the student with the genes to be thinner a higher GPA than the student whose genes say they will always be heavier?

What kind of an impact could this monitoring have on the way that weight is viewed in the Oral Roberts community?

I think this could fuel weight obsessions, disordered eating behaviors, and compulsive exercising.

The college environment is a place where these things are already heightened due to social and academic pressures, the stress of change, leaving home, etc. We need to imbue prevention strategies and interventions for struggling students — not create an environment that is a breeding ground for these disorders.

How could a school introduce policies or programs that encourage healthier activities without going so far as to monitor the students?

Weight-neutral wellness programs do exist and they are evidence-based (at least in women thus far). In fact, I recently completed a study showing health benefits for women with high BMI even without weight loss. Weight-neutral programs focus on self and size-acceptance and are guided by intuitive eating practices where participants are taught to become more attuned to internal signals of hunger and satiety.

The physical activity component of weight-neutral programs is also mindfulness-based. It involves teaching people to figure out what kind of movement they truly enjoy and learn to pay attention to their body’s cues about when to stop in order to avoid injury. One does not need to engage in traditional exercise to receive the health benefits of physical activity. The key is recognizing what energizes you and makes you feel good when you do it.

Ultimately, the program was meant to help people stop the diet-binge cycle that is so common for those who struggle with their weight.

Weight-neutral programs truly focus on the ‘Whole Person’ in efforts to integrate the mind, body and spirit to enhance health and well-being.

Any media interested in speaking with Mensinger should contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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