Top 25 'fittest' colleges in U.S.

The Active Times put out its ranking of the "50 Fittest Colleges in America 2014" last week. Here's the top 25.

1. Texas A&M.

2. U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

3. U.S. Naval Academy.

4. The Citadel.

5. Penn State.

6. Texas at Austin.

7. Florida.

8. California Maritime Academy.

9. Norwich University.

10. Virginia Military Institute.

11. Ohio State.

12. North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

13. Virginia Tech (No. 1 in 2013).

14. North Georgia.

15. Michigan State.

16. Alabama.

17. Syracuse.

18. Georgia.

19. Indiana.

20. Notre Dame.

21. Stanford.

22. Wisconsin.

23. Florida State.

24. UCLA.

25. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Editor's Note: Clemson and South Carolina were not listed in the Top 50. USC was ranked 26th in 2013.

SOURCE: The Active Times.

From now until the New Year, millions of Americans will be obsessed with polls featuring colleges, namely the football rankings. Who's No. 1? Who broke into the Top 25? Who dropped out of it?

It will generate endless hours of opinions on sports channels, not to mention among the chicken wing-eating, football-jerseyed set in sports bars.

But one poll released last week may be indicative of a culture change that is underway on college campuses, including The Citadel, that goes beyond spectator sports.

"The Active Times" released its annual "50 Fittest Colleges in America 2014" poll and ranked The Citadel as the fourth fittest.

It noted the Military College of South Carolina as "(requiring) all full-time undergraduate students to be cadets, participate in ROTC and live on campus for all four years. The physical training is demanding, but students still make time for intramural sports and cadets are also able to be part of the varsity, Division 1 sports teams."

Ahead of The Citadel were Texas A&M, West Point and the Naval Academy, which seems a bit unfair considering that "PT" (physical training) is a mandatory part of academic life at those schools. (A&M has a corps of cadets as part of its student body.)

The online publication noted, "While other lists leave off the military schools, as ours did last year (though it ranked West Point 13th), this year we let the military institutions duke it out with the other four-year universities up for consideration."

Regardless, clicking through the 50 schools reminded me how much better student fitness facilities are now compared to when I was going to college in the 1980s. I also often see college students being active, including cadets with their signature blue T-shirts and shorts and reflective belts running on the Cooper River bridge.

And it's not uncommon to see cadets running down King Street as College of Charleston students are hiking up it with yoga mats on their backs.

Experts even note the changing lifestyles and priorities.

"I am definitely optimistic about what seems to be a trend toward making health and wellness an institutional priority in higher education," says Susan Johnson, the director of health promotion at the Medical University of South Carolina and part of a new consortium, Building Healthy Academic Communities.

More than spectating

Johnson had mixed feelings about The Active Times poll. She was not surprised that military schools topped this year's ranking, but also thought the publication placed "a high importance on athletics as an indicator of healthy campuses."

"At big schools with successful football, basketball programs and other sports, teams are highly competitive and I'd venture to guess that the majority of the student body are not playing college sports," says Johnson.

"Even more, there tends to be a lot of unhealthy behaviors around spectator sports, such as unhealthy eating, smoking, drinking (alcohol)," says Johnson. She noted, however, she also enjoys going to University of South Carolina football games and doing all of the above - except smoking.

Johnson says the most important factor in identifying a healthy campus is the culture of the institution, notably its policies, programs and amenities. Among those would be making campuses tobacco-free, requiring physical education, providing healthy food options and offering extensive intramural and club sports, as well as state-of-the-art fitness and wellness centers.

Also important is the geographic location and community. Is the campus walkable and bikeable? Does it have access to outdoor activities? Does the community as a whole promote healthy lifestyles?

In that way, both The Citadel and the College of Charleston benefit by being located in an increasingly health-conscious community.

Fitness horizons

The College of Charleston didn't make The Active Times Top 50, but it is pulling out the stops to engage its student body in a healthier lifestyle.

"In a given year, the College offers over 45 sections of (physical education activity classes) with an enrollment of over 2,000 students," says Tom Carroll, activity class coordinator. The goal is to offer instruction that will lead to lifetime physical activity.

Carroll says classes such as stand-up paddleboarding, sea kayaking and sailing are quick to fill and tap into the area's natural environment. Other classes include women's self-defense, yoga, physical conditioning, tennis, badminton and other court sports.

"Basketball and volleyball continue to be some of the toughest classes to get into, given the high demand. These classes, and many others, carry two credit hours so students not only learn technique, they learn foundational information to create a greater understanding of the sport or activity," says Carroll.

"Our classes are popular and in demand. A great example is our women's self-defense class. After the first section filled quickly, we had the administrative support to offer a second section. Even though the class made it on the books extremely late in the process, spots were filled in less than 24 hours."

Carroll adds that campus recreational services offer even more opportunities for students to become and stay active, including 24 sports clubs ranging from ice hockey to belly dancing.

Better facilities

Like me, Carroll has seen a major improvement in fitness facilities at his alma mater in the past three decades.

"When I was a student here in '86, the fitness area was confined to what is now Silcox 111, which was the size of a typical classroom. Then the area expanded to what is now the men's bathroom in Silcox," says Carroll.

"When I started teaching here 12 years ago after teaching elementary physical education for 11 years in Atlanta, Ga., the space had grown to cover what is currently the lab space in Silcox. Now there are areas throughout the campus" providing activities.

Beyond PT

Whether at the college or elementary school level, instilling the importance of physical fitness needs to be a part of it.

As a runner for 37 years, I've always noticed a contingent of military, retired and active, in races. Conventional wisdom says that if you are made to do something, once you don't have to do it again, you won't. Obviously not all military veterans continue with that routine, but a notable segment does.

Col. Kevin Brace, who is director of The Citadel's Summerall Guards and a battalion tactical officer, was not surprised that The Citadel made it in the top five of The Active Times ranking this year.

Brace, who has run 10 marathons himself, adds "physical effectiveness" is one of the four pillars of life at the school. The others are academics, military, and morals and ethics.

Brace says The Citadel follows the Army standards for physical fitness, based on timed sit-ups, push-ups and a 2-mile run. The minimums are 53 sit-ups in two minutes for both males and females and 42 push-ups for males and 19 for females in two minutes. Also, the 2-mile run must be run in 15 minutes, 54 seconds for males and 18:54 for females.

The majority pass, but those who don't must participate in a remedial physical training program in addition to a regular twice-per-week physical training.

But it goes beyond PT. Brace says he hopes to underscore with cadets that physical fitness need to be a lifestyle for a lifetime. "It helps you in life in so many ways, from your effectiveness in the office to handling the challenges of everyday life," says Brace.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.