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Wider college students, bigger chairs

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Wider bottoms – a sure sign of obesity – sometimes contain hidden costs that have little to do with health care or the need to buy bigger pants or to reserve two airline seats instead of one.

At Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico, some costs are tied to new seating. CNM recently spent $200,000 on chairs to replace others that one official said had become too tight a squeeze for some students.

This is not meant to downplay or make light of the effects of weight on health. The subject came up last week during a discussion of diabetes and youthful obesity at a convention of educators, the 3rd Bienniel Policy Summit on Latino Higher Education, at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Albuquerque. Like most in attendance, Phillip Bustos, CNM’s vice president for Student Services, expressed concern.

Obesity has become such a problem at the college, he said, that “we recently had to spend $200,000 on new chairs because so many students could no longer fit in the old ones.”

A spokesman for CNM on Monday said Bustos was mistaken about the reason for the new chairs and had probably been speaking “anecdotally.” Brad Moore, CNM’s director of communication, said the new chairs were part of a larger project – refurbishing a building that opened in 1989 and where the original, hard-plastic chairs were still in use.

“There have been anecdotal comments (about obesity) over the years, but that’s not what this project was about,” Moore said.

Before the project got underway, a survey of faculty members found a need for “more comfortable chairs,” for students, he said. “There was never a discussion of obesity being an issue.” Over the years, however, some students have asked for larger chairs, he added.

Samantha Sengel, CNM’s chief communications officer and executive assistant to the school’s president, acknowledged that the procurement office recently purchased chairs for Max Salazar Hall, the largest instructional facility on the main campus. She said the school had asked for the “current standards” for comfortable and practical seating.

“We infer from that, that the seats are a little larger,” Sengel said.

She acknowledged that some students are too big to be accommodated by regular seating. CNM, she said, does whatever it can to accommodate any student who requests special seating. “There are any number of reasons why students may need or desire special seating,” she said, specifically citing back problems.

A spokeswoman said UNM is buying sturdier chairs than in years past. Students today are apparently bigger than in previous generations.

“We are ordering heavier furniture,” said Karen Wentworth. “It’s not so much weight, but size.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than tripled among adolescents in the past 30 years. In that time period, the percentage of 12- to 19-year-olds who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent. Moreover, in 2010, more than a third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, the CDC says.

In addition to diabetes, obese youth are more likely to find themselves afflicted with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. And they are at a greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems, such as stigmatization and low self-esteem, according to the CDC. Obesity is also associated with increased risk for many types of cancer.

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