How Grading on Fitness Fails College Students

Dennis Kortunov via Flickr
Dennis Kortunov via Flickr

By Kira Rakova

This year, Oral Roberts University (ORU) announced that it would start requiring its students to wear Fitbits to track physical activity. Students’ recorded physical activity will then be graded as part of their physical fitness requirement. Although the use of Fitbits is mandatory for incoming students, older students are also being encouraged to use them (since all students are required to pass a fitness component).

ORU’s decision has, of course, sparked pushback from the larger body-positive community. Fitbits have been critiqued for contributing to eating disorder relapses by focusing heavily on numbers and offering virtual rewards for reaching certain goals. Many are concerned that grading students for their Fitbit use could spark obsessive exercise and competitive behaviors. Activists have also critiqued ORU’s program by arguing that health cannot be standardized and that creating arbitrary benchmarks places unrealistic expectations on students.

But the problem with ORU’s Fitbit program proposal goes beyond body-positivity politics. ORU’s attempts to promote a “healthy” lifestyle are misguided, because the program focuses on compartmentalizing and universalizing a singular definition of health. Yet health and illness, disability and ability, and bodies themselves do not exist in neat categories. In attempting to create a uniform understanding of health with specific quantified requirements, programs like the one at ORU are excluding a number of students, whose bodies, health, illnesses, and (dis)abilities are seen as outside of the norm.

Our society’s fixation on fitness and healthy eating trends is undeniably classist. It demands that working-class individuals prioritize their time and money on extremely expensive food and fitness regimes. This fixation on “health” consistently places blame on working-class and low-income individuals. In choosing to promote fitness through Fitbits (which the students must pay for themselves), ORU is contributing to the blaming and marginalizing of low-income individuals.

From a practical standpoint, the position of working (and especially working-class) students comes into question. For students who work full-time to pay for tuition or to support themselves and their family members, those required daily steps may be difficult to achieve. If the student’s job requires them to be sedentary for long periods of time, such as many receptionist jobs, it may be difficult for them to find the time to meet the program’s specific benchmarks. Aside from the fact that gyms and fitness equipment may be unaffordable to these students, they may not have the time or energy to “make up” for the steps they weren’t able to log because of work.

Furthermore, the university does provide some accommodations or exceptions for students with physical impairments, but it largely excludes students with chronic pain and invisible disabilities. Many people with invisible disabilities or chronic pain don’t—or can’t—register themselves with disability offices at universities, because their conditions aren’t thought to interfere with their ability to take a test or take notes. ORU’s policy does provide the opportunity for such students to declare “conditions” that may interfere with their ability to meet their fitness program’s requirements, but this places an additional burden on students to attain medical paperwork to prove their conditions. The program overlooks disabled individuals, like most other fitness-oriented narratives do.

Similarly, the program overlooks the fact that students with mental illness have different needs. What about students who struggle with depression, which might make being active on a daily basis difficult? What about students with anxiety who might have difficulty participating without exacerbating their anxiety?

Mental illness is often even more difficult to declare at college than physical disabilities are due to stigma and most universities don’t have logistical frameworks to accommodate those with mental illnesses. This leaves students with mental illness the same burden as those with physical disabilities, the burden of “proving” they are sick. And with the stigma, victim blaming, and sanism that surround mental illnesses, students may find it difficult to approach their professor to discuss the issue.

There are, of course, many other nuances to consider when critiquing initiatives like ORU’s Fitbit program. They may also affect students who are single parents, caregivers, commuters, etc. But the real question is, where do we go from here?

To actually promote a healthy lifestyle, these programs must focus on being inclusive. Instead of grading students on the number of steps they take in a day, why not create more accessible campuses (even gyms)? Why not expand mental health counseling services? Why not create a space for community-supported agriculture programs to sell low-cost, healthy foods on campus?

There are so many ways our universities can help promote health in an inclusive matter. But first, we have to start thinking outside the mainstream, non-inclusive narrative of health and fitness.

(Do you agree? Let Oral Roberts University know—sign the petition here!

Kira Rakova is a graduating senior at the City College of New York, studying international studies, communications, and anthropology. Her research and activist interests include mental health and eating disorder justice, social development, and gender justice. Currently, she is proud to be a Steering Committee member of the first World Eating Disorders Day. She is also the blog manager of the online recovery-focused community Beating Eating Disorders, and a contributing writer to Proud2Bme.

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