How Fitbit Helps a Conservative Evangelical College Monitor Students’ Bodies For Christ

Insert Vol 108 Fitbit, courtesy of Flickr user Insert Magazine via Creative Commons

When fitness tracking industry leader Fitbit went public last summer it was valued at $4.1 billion. The company promises to “take your fitness to the next level” by tracking your heart rate, steps taken, and, with some devices, your GPS coordinates. These wearable devices have become popular despite the outspoken concerns of privacy advocates, security experts, and even the Federal Trade Commission, who have all warned that the trackers could be used to sell consumers’ information to corporations, or to spy on people.

In 2015, Oral Roberts University (ORU), a four-year liberal arts Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began to require freshmen and transfer students to wear Fitbits as part of an introductory physical fitness course. Students are expected to walk at least 10,000 steps a day and record 150 minutes of physical activity—as measured by heart rate—each week. This accounts for twenty percent of their course grade.

Though the model being sold to students does not come equipped with GPS, some believe that ORU is infringing on students’ privacy. As it turns out, Fitbits can record calories burned during sex—which created a minor scandal in 2011 when users realized that their sexual activity could be discovered through a simple Google search. This puts ORU students in an awkward position, argues Keri Paul, since their university prohibits premarital sex.

Is this the story, as the media narrative would have it, of a naive Christian college getting seduced by Big Data?

I would argue that it’s the other way around. At ORU, modern technology is merely catching up to evangelical Christianity’s longstanding tradition of monitoring student bodies.

The Student Body at ORU

Students at conservative evangelical universities today can generally expect two things: to receive a good liberal arts education and to have their behavior heavily regulated.

Though codes of conduct may vary, evangelical universities like ORU, Liberty University, and Regent University all prohibit students from using illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, wearing provocative clothing, and engaging in premarital and homosexual sex. Bob Jones University actually prohibited interracial dating up until 2001.

Oral Roberts believed that the survival of his own namesake university depended on its honor code, which mandated not just chasteness and academic honesty, but also that students “practice good health habits and regularly participate in wholesome physical activities.” ORU, like other evangelical universities, does not only enforce negative prohibitions—it also prescribes a positive vision of the “good” student.

This prescriptive model—what ORU has called its “whole person” concept since its opening in 1965—is epitomized in the school’s longstanding focus on its sometimes controversial student wellness programs.

The university made national headlines in 1977, for example, when a group of former students, working in coordination with the ACLU, sued the university for discrimination. The young men and women had been forced to enroll in ORU’s “Pounds Off Program,” a compulsory weight loss program introduced in 1976. ORU students deemed overweight were served special meals, and faced the threat of academic probation or expulsion if they failed to lose enough weight every week.

As far back as the 1970s, ORU has embraced fitness tracking technology. Incoming students had to undergo a series of medical tests—including diet history, a dental exam, blood analysis and anthropometric measures— administered by the Human Performance Laboratory and Student Health Services.

When ORU’s expanded wellness program was introduced in 1976, a significant portion of each student’s grade in the required first-year introductory fitness classes—Aerobics I and II—came from electronically recorded “aerobic points.” At the “Aerobics Center,” students filled out a computer card with their ID number, activity number, and the time, intensity, and distance of their workout. The data derived from the cards helped to determine grades.

One student who had been forced to enroll in the Pounds Off Program said, “I’m really sad for the school. It has so much potential, so many positive things about it, but you can’t treat people this way… They treat you like you’re not close enough to God or you’d lose weight.”

Wellness Gets an I.T. Upgrade

ORU has faced some criticism since introducing the Fibit.

Some argue that Fitbits aren’t actually that good at measuring heart rate and physical activity, and—as a cartoon in ORU’s student newspaper pointed out—users can also game the system by, for example, attaching the band to a hyperactive squirrel. More have criticized the policy for seeming, as Rob Quinn puts it, more “Orwell than Oral.”

Why, then, does ORU continue to require its students to buy the expensive fitness band?

The plan is good for everybody, ORU Provost Kathaleen Reid-Martinez argues, because the devices are convenient and efficient. For students, it allows them to save, plan, and share progress. And for ORU professors, who previously had to pore over handwritten workout journals, the devices are a time saver.

University spokespeople have argued that the Fitbit requirement is a logical extension of its “whole person” philosophy, whose objective is to show students how to cultivate their mind, body, and spirit in the service of Jesus Christ. Within the evangelical world, ORU is not unique in encouraging this holistic vision, but students who attend ORU know that the school is structured around its whole person ideology.

ORU freshman Christian Monsalve, speaking to USA Today College, said that the fitness bands have raised students’ sensitivity toward their activity level. “Most of them,” he continued, “kind of switched gears and started making themselves go to the gym, so I’d say the majority of people do like it, even though it does require a little bit more work.” Eden Watson, another ORU freshman, remarked that she liked the program because “it keeps you healthier and happier, and keeps you accountable…It keeps me motivated to exercise more.”

Fitbit has made the college’s longstanding practice of monitoring and regulating students’ bodies easier, and apparently, more attractive to those being tracked.

Orwell or Oral? Seems like a win for both.

Also on the Cubit: Touching the Hem of His Garmin?