PSU’s bulging student body

For a campus seemingly overpopulated by malnourished hipster kids, it may come as a surprise that Portland State is one of the fattest campuses in America. According to a Men’s Fitness article from October 2005, PSU is the fifth fattest school in the nation.

The magazine teamed with the Princeton Review for the study and used an 18-question survey to determine the list. Those surveyed gave personal information such as body weight and height, listed bad habits such as smoking or drinking and gave appraisals of campus fitness options.

The University of Louisiana was named the fattest school in the country, followed by the University of New Orleans, Mississippi State and Southern Illinois University. Portland State was the only West Coast school to crack the top 20.

“It’s always tough with surveys,” said Dr. Chris Hanel, a staff physician at the Center for Student Health and Counseling. “I don’t know how much faith you can put in that survey. It would be interesting to see how many similar universities they compared us to.”

While PSU doesn’t have any official numbers on obesity, a study is due to come out next month that should provide more conclusive figures. Hanel says that most students he sees don’t come in for help until it’s too late and they are already suffering the effects of obesity.

“Most of the time we deal with the consequences,” Hanel said, which include diabetes, back and joint problems and heart disease. “There isn’t a quick fix, it’s a lifestyle issue. I can’t force you to make good choices.”

If obesity is a lifestyle issue, attending an urban commuter campus such as PSU provides it’s own unique challenges for those pursuing a healthier life. Most students at Portland State work and go to school, making it increasingly hard to eat healthy and find time to work out.

Dr. Carlos Crespo took over as director of the School of Community Health four months ago and says Portland State is an active campus, but that it takes more than exercise to be fit.

“Frankly I’m surprised [about the report],” Crespo said. “It’s a wakeup call to see internally what avenues we provide to students and faculty.”

Crespo, who is on the Board of Directors for the American Council of Exercise and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, also pointed to the difference between fat and fit. A skinny person can still be woefully out of shape and at risk for some of the same diseases that larger individuals suffer from.

“You have to separate fitness from fatness,” Crespo said. “We have this unique pattern saying physical activity is only one component.”

It is a sentiment Hanel agrees with.

“Obesity is on the rise and continues to be on the rise. It’s a lifestyle issue. It’s a culture issue. It’s not a genetic issue in most cases in the US,” Hanel said. “If you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight.”

Hanel said that the diet pills that are available to those desperate to lose weight do little or no good. After six months, those taking pills lose no more weight than those who aren’t.

It all comes down to diet and exercise. In those areas, Oregon as a state does well. Oregon is one of the most active states in the nation, yet it is also one of the most obese.

Crespo says that the university needs to do more to help students who want to lose weight.

“The university needs to offer space and facilities. The main point is that everyone engages in some healthy activity,” he said. “We need more healthy food options in the food courts. All these things should be readily available.”

Crespo recommends students looking to lose weight and be more fit make simple but meaningful changes to their daily routine.

“Limit the number of hours of television you watch a day,” he said. “When you watch TV you are more likely to eat junk and expose yourself to the marketing of unhealthy food.”

Quitting smoking and committing to being active are other common sense changes students can make to start losing weight, though Hanel warns that less weight is not always the healthiest option.

“I tell my patients to try and forget about the weight issue,” Hanel said. “It’s about fitness. There’s no excuse for not exercising, it requires effort.”

Both Crespo and Hanel are excited about PSU’s plans for the new recreation center, due to break ground sometime in 2006.

“It’s time to take a step back and look at our facilities. We need to prepare students not just mentally but physically,” Crespo said. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but so is the other 95 percent of the body.