Monday, June 08, 2009

Cutting the Fat From Scouting

Saturday morning found me astride my mountain bike atop Big Rock. Big Rock is a prominent rocky outcropping on a mountainside east of North Ogden, Utah. The summit of Big Rock is a little more than half a mile from the trailhead, but it’s also about 560 feet higher than the trailhead. (That’s about 1 foot climb for every 4.8 feet of distance.) The steep trail is quite rugged in places. With sufficient skill you could get a dirt motorcycle up there, but you’d be hard pressed to get a horse up the trail I took.

I felt exhilarated as I looked out over the valley and prepared for the rest of my ride. Going up was difficult. Going down was harrowing. But before long I was back at the trailhead and on my way to other trails. As I rode, I pondered the prospect that new health rules could prevent me from participating in Boy Scout activities that require a similar level of exertion.

As explained in this SL-Trib article, the BSA is implementing new health policies designed to “preclude Scouts considered overweight according to a standard Body Mass Index chart from participating in high adventure activities that take them more than 30 minutes away from emergency medical help.” You can see the specific guidelines on the new BSA health record form.

Scouts and their adult leaders will still be able to participate in most Scouting activities, even if they exceed BMI restrictions. Local activities like short hikes, car camping, and swimming parties won’t be a problem, say representatives; although, the BSA medical form says that enforcement of “the height/weight limit is strongly encouraged for all … events, but it is [only] mandatory” for “high adventure activities” and “events in which emergency evacuation would take longer than 30 minutes by ground transportation.”

The BSA has been working to reduce risk and to limit liability for decades. I still remember as a Cub Scout being told of a tragedy where 22 members of an LDS sponsored Scout unit were killed when the truck they were riding in slid off a steep dirt road. That resulted in new rules for both BSA and LDS Church activities, requiring no passengers in truck beds. Even today I see this policy routinely violated. A couple of years ago a Utah Scout putting up American flags in his neighborhood was killed when this rule was violated.

Many of the safety guidelines implemented by the BSA over the years have been good. Most of them also increase cost and require additional training for leaders. Proper safety gear is now required for climbing. Leaders receive training for dealing with hazardous weather conditions. No adult should ever be alone with a youth that is not their own child. Many other safety requirements have come into place over my lifetime.

While the BMI restrictions represent just another thread in the ever expanding web of liability inspired limits, they are perhaps the harshest of such rules so far. Let me be blunt. I know a lot — a whole lot of overweight Scouting leaders. I’d say that in my area it’s more common to see a leader that is overweight than one that isn’t. I also know a fair number of obese Scouting leaders.

Years ago when I spent summers working on the staff of a Boy Scout camp, we used to call the fat leaders “Weebles,” because they were shaped a lot like Weebles toys. We’d also refer to them as “long shirts,” because they had to have really long shirts so they could wrap them around their ample bellies and still tuck the shirttails into their pants.

The BSA has to do something. Last year there were more than 50 heart related deaths at Scouting activities. The majority of the victims were overweight, and being overweight is one of the major contributing causes to heart problems.

There is also no shortage of chubby Boy Scouts running around any Scout camp. In fact, I was once one of those chubby little Scouts. Then I became somewhat of a health enthusiast a number of years ago. I have had a strenuous daily exercise program for years. Throughout the week I alternate from strength training to cardio training. I eat a selective healthy diet.

I’m not as slender as I was six years ago, but even at that low weight I carried a residual ring of fat above my waistline. In real life, I’m in pretty good shape, but according to the BSA’s BMI rules I am right on the borderline between “recommended weight” and “allowable exception.” Still, I have much less fat and more lean body mass than the vast majority of people that fit comfortably within the BMI weight recommendations. My 16-year-old, who is a darn fine physical specimen, is also right at the top edge of “recommended weight.”

The BMI weight suggestions work OK for most people that are adult, Caucasian of mainly northern European descent, have a sedentary lifestyle and eat a standard diet. Those are the people that were used to develop the BMI. For people in this category, BMI represents a decent rule of thumb that provides a starting place for determining if you’re a healthy weight. But BMI isn’t necessarily a good guideline for people outside of this category, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and people with active lifestyles. Even a number of people in the target group fall outside of the norm.

This is just another example of rigid implementation of a guideline. In general, guidelines cover 60-80 percent of intended cases and are developed to provide a springboard for more detailed handling. The BSA is hardly the first organization to turn a rule of thumb into an inflexible policy. We are killing people every day in our medical facilities by requiring unbending adherence to ‘best practice’ guidelines.

The BSA policy tries to insert some flexibility into its BMI policy with its “allowable exception” category. But in council safety meetings it has been made clear that in the case of a health related event, the BSA’s legal arm will aggressively work to transfer liability to any healthcare professional that certifies an applicant that is over the recommended BMI weight. When physicians recognize the added risk they are accepting, they will stop certifying even healthy people that exceed their recommended BMI.

Don’t think that this kind of thing won’t be coming to a youth program near you, even if you have nothing to do with the BSA. Before long you will see something like it in community and school sports. In their mad drive toward zero risk for each child, the safety Nazis and their friends in the legal industry will stop at nothing until each child is covered in bubble wrap and made to sit in a booster seat until age 21.

I’m sure the BSA’s new policy will achieve its desired goal of reducing the organization’s liability. But I wonder how many youth and leaders this new BSA policy will encourage to get into better shape. Or will anyone stop to count the number of youth and adults driven away from Scouting as the result of this policy?

1 comment:

Frank Staheli said...

Unfortunately, I've noticed that a large percentage of the most dedicated scouters are rather rotund.

I recall as a 14-year-old having come (because another vehicle crashed into us on a sharp mountain curve) within 1 foot of having been pushed down a steep embankment when riding in the back of a pickup truck. I don't think I ever rode in the back of a truck again.