“The Affects of Changing Waistlines: How will Higher Education Change to Combat the Obesity Epidemic”

How does the expanding waistlines of the global population affect the future of higher education? What can be done to address the obesity epidemic in global higher education? What alternatives are there to the system used in the United States? Is the system used in the states a role model for other countries to follow? What can the United States learn and take away from their more healthy global partners in higher education?

Each of the questions above aim to scratch the surface of understanding the the obesity epidemic in the United States, and specifically how higher education institutions are attempting to combat the epidemic.

Durning the last two weeks abroad my eyes have been opened to see how diverse a culture’s outlook on fitness, health, and wellness can vary dramatically from that of my own country. The differences between the two cultures and lifestyle choices are drastically different and would lead one to believe they have had a direct impact on the health and wellness of those specific populations. In the United States where one’s car is the primary means of transportation, that is not the case for most Europeans. Aiding in this transportation difference, Switzerland, France, and Italy all have well established and connected public transit options (i.e. train, metro, bus). Thus, the decrease of the amount of dependence placed upon cars, and the increase in the amount of walking.

Another observation that highlights one of the leading causes for obesity in the United States is the regular (daily/weekly) consumption of fast food. Although many American fast food chains have made their way to Europe (McDonalds, Burger King, etc.) the amount of fast food intake by Europeans from my personal observations seems much less than in the United States. Along with the issues of consumption of fast food in the United States comes the intake of large quantities of sugar sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola and Pepsi both have a presence in Europe but you won’t find “Big Gulps” of Coke for Europeans to drink in one sitting. The idea of convince foods also is a major cultural difference. Where one would find every snack and soda brand in their own individual vending machine in the states, one vending machine seems to meet all the needs of the European consumer (and most machines offer healthier options i.e. sandwiches, fruits, etc.). Europeans seem to place a high level of importance on fresh, local, healthy food and drink options, instead of fast food or foods with copious amounts of fat, preservatives, or sugar. It would be misleading given my personal experience over the past two weeks to not address some of the issues (or general observations that make me raise an eyebrow) that Europeans and Americans share. Portion sizes have been a major issue in the states and I see the same issue in Europe (i.e. four course meals). This may not be any actual indication of obesity, but I thought the similarities in culture in respect to food portions/amounts should be mentioned. With that said the amount of time spent eating a meal (four course or not) in Europe has proved to be much more of a ordeal than in the states. Which could potentially point to the reason why my observations showed less fast food consumption than the amount of fast food consumption seen in the United States.

Fitness facilities have a strong presence in universities and colleges in the United States, most of these facilities offer not only cardio and weight lifting equipment but they also are home to many sporting groups (i.e. recreational sports, intramural sports, club sports, etc.) and group exercise classes. The majority of the European campuses visited over the past weeks have a strong fitness and/or sports sector to the university. The University of Zurich and ETH have a membership win the Academic Sports Association Zurich (ASVZ), a nonprofit organization that provides sports and fitness programs for all students, employees, and alumni. ASVZ offers over 120 varieties of sports and sports clubs (archery, fencing, skiing, ice hockey, etc.). Of the universities visited over the past two weeks not all had such amazing offerings at Zurich and ETH. The universities of USI and SUPSI have partnered together to offer USI-SUPSI Sport Services, which aims to promote physical and sport activities among students, teaching staff, and employees of the universities.

A one on one discussion with a 2nd year PhD student at Politecnico de Milano University in Milan, Italy expressed concern for the lack of fitness facilities for student use. The student noted there were no fitness facilities available to students, and that students must purchase their own outside gym membership if they are interested in fitness. During our talk the student stated this was a major shortcoming of the university in understanding the needs and wants of their students (especially graduate students) because of the stresses of graduate school the student was disappointed the university didn’t want to assist in meeting the health needs of their students. The student also strongly believed that offering a fitness facility would help students to reduce stress, but noted that outside trails were available so even if students didn’t want to pay or couldn’t afford a gym membership they still had access to other public resources. The student also mentioned that even if offered to students the health and wellness services may not be used due to the lack of work life balance.

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