October 19, 2006

C.U. Fails to Make 25 ‘Most Fit’ List

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According to a survey conducted by Men’s Fitness magazine, the Cornell student body may be in less than stellar condition. Men’s Fitness, in association with the Princeton Review, surveyed 12,500 male and female students from 115 different colleges and universities across America in search of the 25 “Most Fit” schools.

Schools that made the list did so based on their physical education requirements, recreation center amenities and the range of healthy choices available in their dining halls. According to the list, the most fit school in America is Dickinson College of Pennsylvania. Ithaca College placed at number 23. Cornell, along with all of the other Ivies, failed to make the list. The results of this survey can be found in the October issue of Men’s Health.

Taken at face value, this absence should lead the Cornell community to be concerned about whether or not Cornellians are as active as they should be. But according to a number of members of the Cornell athletic department and recreational staff, this survey is misleading and does not indicate a campus-wide lack of fitness.

Andrea Dutcher, Helen A. Newman Director of Recreational Services, is one of those whose opinions differ with the survey’s “conclusive” findings.

According to Dutcher, we have a “very healthy and active population here.”

Dutcher lauded the recently expanded student fitness and wellness program, begun in 1997, which includes residence hall outreach programs.

“Our fitness programs are outstanding. We have many nationally renowned staff and programs available to our students,” Dutcher said.

A large percentage of the Cornell student body takes advantage of these fitness opportunities. Last year, 54 percent of Cornellians opted to pay the extra fee for a gym membership. There were an estimated 406,000 visitations to Cornell fitness centers that year alone. 48 percent of Cornell students took part in some kind of intramural sport. These numbers, according to Dutcher, are “pretty significant.”

Similarly large numbers are reported by the physical education department at Cornell. According to Al Gantert, associate director of athletics and director of physical education, the physical education department at Cornell averages about 5,000 students a semester, with approximately 2,800 taking a course to meet a requirement and 2,200 taking a course for their own enjoyment. A physical education requirement was one of the criteria for the Men’s Health survey, but Gantert disputes the correlation between physical education and fitness. Only about 25 percent of P.E. courses at Cornell are fitness related.

“Physical Education is not fundamentally a conditioning program … the primary objective as I see it, and as I have designed [the program], is to promote social interaction among students and to offer relief from the pressures of daily academic life,” Gantert said.

Tom Howley, assistant director of athletics for athlete performance, suggested that the survey would be more accurate if it looked “outside of the box.”

“A lot of kids are involved in a lot of different ways,” said Howley of physical activity at Cornell. “Don’t just look at traditional fitness programs. Look at the outdoor education programs, which are bursting at the seams.”

Howley also criticized the survey’s failure to take into account the number of varsity athletes at each school. Cornell has about 1,200 athletes, about one in every fifteen of whom are involved in “a pretty intense and rigorous fitness program.”

Though Cornell’s athletic, fitness and wellness programs are alive and well, there is one area in which Cornell could improve its students’ ability to stay fit. Dutcher assumed that the primary reason for Cornell’s being left off the list and other schools’ being singled out as physically fit stems from each of the other institutions’ “newly dedicated rec center as the cornerstone of the campus.”

And Cornell’s lack of, as Gantert called it, a “modern student recreation center” is not merely coincidental. New student recreation centers do “tend to promote greater focus on fitness,” according to Gantert.

Currently, Cornell does not have the facilities to cater to all its students’ fitness and recreational needs. According to Dutcher, in winter one might see “80 to 100 guys waiting in line for a basketball court … It’s almost comical.”

Part of the problem is the lack of a recreation center on West Campus. The original plan for West Campus included a recreation center, but when the time came to actually build it, funds were not sufficient. Students on West Campus do not have the access to recreational facilities that students on North Campus and even in Collegetown have.

But this problem will soon be remedied by the opening of the Noyes Community Recreation Center, scheduled for completion in 2009. This center will bring Cornell absolutely up-to-date in terms of fitness equipment and facilities. Older, less adequate centers at Cornell are also due for renovation. The Helen Newman Center, built in 1963, is about to undergo a $15 million renovation and expansion. The expansion will include a two-court gymnasium and a new lap pool.

The Cornell athletic department staff hope that these new additions to Cornell’s fitness program will finally lead the University to be regarded for what it is: a school with an academically and physically active student body.

Al Gantert believed that the Ivies were left off the list because of the assumption that “highly intense academic programs create substantial time demands apt to draw students away from physical activity.”

But in Gantert’s words, “Cornell is doing one of the better jobs of the elite universities of promoting the balance between academics and physical activity among students.”

As for the annual Men’s Health survey, Gantert said, “a more in-depth study would be appropriate.”