Fit to a fault on campuses

Athletic staffers keep eye out for those who go too far

Email|Print| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

It's late on a Friday afternoon, and the ellipticals and treadmills at the Boston College recreation complex - the "Plex," as it is known - are a blur of legs pumping furiously, with students waiting in line for the next available machine.

Down Commonwealth Avenue at Boston University, the Fitness and Recreation Center - or "FitRec" - offers Happy Hour workouts on Friday afternoons featuring sessions such as "fat burn," "bootcamp," and "aerobox." The classes are always packed, as is the center itself, with students waiting when the doors open at 6 a.m. or being shooed out when they close at 11 p.m.

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.

But when does a healthy activity become an unhealthy obsession? Can there be such a thing as too fit? Athletics staffers at both campuses say they watch for students who are too skinny, who work too long on a machine, or who come in more than once a day. The consensus is that when you start to build your life around exercise, that's an unhealthy fixation.

Though the majority of students exercise responsibly, campus officials have occasionally had to deal with those who overdo it. "It can get out of balance," says Sara Lang, senior fitness trainer at Boston College. "It's not a huge problem, but at any campus or health club you're going to have people who take things to an extreme."

One such student came to her attention last year. "I didn't like the way she was exercising on the treadmill," Lang says. "She was a very thin girl on for a very long time going very fast." Approaching such students can be tricky. "You can't always just walk up to someone and say something, just like you can't walk up to someone on the street who's morbidly obese and tell them they need to lose weight." Because Lang is a trainer, she felt she could recommend a healthier workout program to the woman.

To appeal to prospective students, schools are finding they need to accommodate the fitness craze: Boston University spent nearly $100 million in 2005 on the 272,000-square-foot FitRec center, and Boston College plans a 200,000-square foot center to replace its aging Plex. 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. "They're noticing students and faculty becoming more conscious of fitness," he says. "Wherever you look, it's all over the place."

In 2005, Boston University ranked third in Men's Fitness magazine's survey of "America's Fittest Colleges," and Boston College was No. 11. Last year, BC moved to third place; BU didn't make the top 20. At both schools, students are working out as much for the social aspect as for the health benefits.

"You hear it a lot, 'Will you be at FitRec tonight?"' says Rossella Avitabile-Muller, fitness manager at BU. In the eight years she's been there, she has seen interest in fitness rise among students, and the 60-plus exercise classes are always maxed out.

Women more than men
The obsession with exercise is more pronounced among young women than young men. Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a BC sociology professor, says the difference between today's female students and those of a generation ago is that women now want to be thin and muscular. "So there's this double whammy they have to live up to," says Hesse-Biber, author of the new book "The Cult of Thinness."

"How much is too much? If the conversation on the way to the library is, 'What am I going to eat today, and when am I going to work out?' which I hear, then you know it's a problem," says Hesse-Biber, who is also director of women's studies. In the 25 years she has been at BC, she says, the body ideal is "getting thinner and thinner." For many women, "who you are is the number on a scale or their [body fat] index. They know what it is, and they're trying to burn it off as quickly as they can."

At BC, a Body Confidence Committee made up of faculty, staff, and student leaders meets regularly to tackle the issues of body images, with presentations made to student organizations. The staff at the Plex also puts out flyers on issues such as body fat ("Lower is NOT necessarily better") and healthy exercise - as opposed to "obligatory exercise" or "anorexia athletica," feeling compelled to exercise and feeling guilty and anxious if you don't. John Pagliarulo, associate athletics director at BC, says his staff monitors students closely. Sometimes students are referred for dietary, medical, and psychological help.

At BU, 5,000 people visit the FitRec daily for its two Olympic-size pools, basketball courts, climbing wall, dance studio, jogging track, racquetball and squash courts, and classrooms that offer group exercise, martial arts, and health and wellness workshops. There's also Healthy Blends Cafe, serving smoothies, salads, fruit, and sports bars.

Like BC officials, BU fitness manager Avitabile-Muller trains her staff to look for signs of over-exertion and has asked some students who appear too thin and fatigued to have their body-mass index checked. She won't let them back into the center unless they have written clearance from a doctor.

She can also monitor the number of individual workouts through the card-swipe system. To enter the FitRec, one must swipe an ID card through a machine; if someone has multiple swipes in a day, it can be a warning sign that they're working out too much.

Dr. Margaret Ross, director of behavioral medicine at BU's student health services, tells of one student who was banned from FitRec over concerns about her eating disorder and obsessive working out. "It's a very fine line, because students have a right to do what they want to do as long as they're not a danger to themselves or others."

Peer pressure succeeds
Andrea Walkonen, a senior from Jaffrey, N.H., works at the fitness center and is on BU's varsity track team. In the past three years she has noticed a large increase in students working out. Some of that, she says, is the draw of the new gym, some is due to an increasing emphasis on fitness. "It's a lot of peer pressure, seeing everyone around you in great shape," she says. "They want to be fit, and it motivates others."

Though she and others at BU stress that most students exercise responsibly, Walkonen says she does worry about some, including her teammates, who overdo it: "People who are on the treadmill or elliptical for over an hour at a time at really high speeds, working out until they're pouring sweat." Her own body-mass index is 18.5, which is right at the cutoff for being underweight. (The Centers for Disease Control considers you underweight if your BMI is less than 18.5 and overweight if it is over 25.)

Over-exercising doesn't plague just women. Men and boys today are much more insecure than earlier generations about their body image, says Hesse-Biber, which might account for the increase in the use of steroids. "Men want to be big; women want to be little," she says, adding that male athletes and celebrities are much more buff today than a generation ago; ditto for the ridiculously ripped action figures that little boys love. Alcohol consumption, she says, is another motivator, with male students in particular saying they're working off a hangover.

John Newman, a senior from Long Island, was lifting weights at BC's Plex on a Friday afternoon. He had already gone for a half-hour run. It's a routine he repeats five or six times a week. "It just makes you feel good about yourself," he says. "When you're hung over, it gets it out of you and gets you in shape to go out again. Most of my friends work out."

Nearby, Alexandra Bodo, a sophomore from Scarsdale, N.Y., finished an hour and 10 minutes on the elliptical and then some ab work on the mats. "I think it's in style to go to the gym and be in shape," she says. She's there six days a week and sees the other regulars. She also sees some who shouldn't be there. "There are a lot of girls who are really, really skinny, and they're here for hours."

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."

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