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Schools fight back against the freshman 15

Oral Roberts University is issuing Fitbits to its students for a fitness program.  BTNHD Production/Flickr

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If you wear an activity tracker — like a Fitbit or something similar, and have a goal of reaching 10,000 steps a day, consider this: what if you were a college student and completing your degree depended on hitting that mark — at least some of the time.

Oral Roberts University recently began requiring incoming freshmen to wear FitBits and walk 10,000 steps a day. Their FitBit records are recorded by the school and count toward graduation requirements.

Now, the school has opened up the FitBit program to the rest of its student population, which had been keeping track of their aerobics requirements the old-fashioned way: in a fitness journal.

Oral Roberts isn’t the only school with physical education requirements. At Cornell, students must jump feet first into the deep end of a pool, and swim 75 yards, in order to graduate. Columbia, MIT and others also have physical education requirements.

There’s a scientific case to be made for such policies.

“We know from many, many sources that the more fit that children are, the better their test scores,” said John Ratey of Harvard Medical School, author of the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

He says exercise can improve memory, creativity and other measures, Ratey said.

But that’s not the main reason 97 percent of colleges used to require students to exercise. Among other things, such exercise was “a preparation for war, for soldiering,” said Ratey.

But most universities today would consider that an outdated notion. Over the last few decades, many have cut back on physical education requirements. According to a 2013 study, only 39 percent of colleges, an all-time low, have exercise requirements.

Steve Mitchell, professor of physical education at Kent State University, says schools are facing under pressures to limit undergraduate programs, to facilitate students completing their programs in four years.

“College educations are expensive. And I think the perception perhaps is that for subjects that are not central to an undergraduate major, perhaps they should no longer be required,” Mitchell said.

Instead of requiring, most schools today have taken the approach of encouraging physical activity through elective classes, programs that promote competition among dorms and shiny new gyms.

“If we have a quality health and wellness program, that includes plenty of physical activity, ‘The Freshman 15’ might be 15 points on the academic scale, you never know,” said Dennis Docheff, who heads the Department of Nutrition and Kinesiology at the University of Central Missouri.

“There are some law schools and medical schools that also are heavily encouraging” physical fitness, said Ratey.

But are more colleges going to be adopting new, strict physical requirements, such as Oral Roberts University? Those days are probably long gone, said Mitchell.

“We’ve probably come too far down that road now,” he said.

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