PROVO, Utah – On those annual lists of the nation's college campuses, Brigham Young University (search) is probably best known for its regular ranking near the bottom when it comes to party schools.
But now the university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (search) has earned a new distinction: fittest college campus.
The ranking comes courtesy of Men's Fitness magazine, which earlier this year went in search of the fittest and fattest schools. Working with the Princeton Review (search), Men's Fitness surveyed more than 10,000 university students from 660 campuses and released its rankings in its October issue, which hit newsstands this week.
BYU graduate student Jeff Dixon, 26, who lifts weights about four times a week, said regular workouts do more than just whittle his middle. It also helps in life's mental games.
"When I feel good, it helps me in school. It helps me have a crisp, sharp mind," he said.
He also thinks the early marriage-age of most Mormons plays a role.
"Most of us get married in college, so ... maybe we do it just for the opposite sex, so we can catch a wife," he said with a laugh.
The survey asked if students had gained weight during college, if they work out regularly and what types of campus facilities or services support — or discourage — healthy habits.
Along with BYU at the top of the list are the University of California, Santa Barbara; Boston University; University of Vermont and Northwestern University.
Topping the list of the fattest schools: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, followed by University of New Orleans, Mississippi State University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Portland State University.
Men's Fitness editor-in-chief Neal Boulton said the survey found that college students are "eager to balance Animal House practices with a fit lifestyle."
Although the survey is isn't scientific, Boulton believes it paints a profile of fit campus environments that can be instructive for their chubbier counterparts.
Schools with the highest rankings for fitness, for example, provided healthy meal programs, good access to fitness education and facilities — including fitness trainers and rehabilitation support for injury recovery — and high campus safety rates. Most also mandated at least some physical education courses as requirements for graduation.
"At the bottom of the list, maybe they just had a gym," Boulton said.
At BYU the fitness-first attitude is illustrated by steady traffic through student weight rooms, heavy use of swimming pools, booked courts for basketball, racquetball and tennis, and phys ed courses that are among the first to fill up each semester.
There's also a campuswide wellness program for students, faculty and staff, where a full fitness analysis, with screenings for cholesterol, body fat and cardio-respiratory fitness is available for less than $100. The program comes complete with a personalized training and nutrition program and three months of coaching support.
BYU also has one of the busiest intramural programs of any university. An average 13,000 students — of 30,000 enrolled — annually organize teams to play soccer, flag football and more, said Phil Kelly, director of intramural programs.
BYU's administration, had little to say about the ranking, however. Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school was "pleased that BYU students are recognized for being healthy, active and physically fit," but she didn't have much more to say about praise from a magazine that sometimes features bare-chested men and bikini-clad women.
Students were more enthusiastic.
"It's nice to be known for something other than not being a party school," said sophomore Lisa Horton, 19, who says she gained the "freshman 15" and now is jogging daily with a roommate.
Students credit their school's fitness ranking and their personal habits to their religious teachings. In 1833, Mormon church founder Joseph Smith laid out his doctrine for living a righteous life. Among the rules: Eat a whole-grain and fruit diet, eat meat sparingly, don't drink alcohol or "hot drinks," generally interpreted as coffee and tea.
"Our prophet (Smith) said that our bodies are what fulfills the work of the spirit," said junior Justin Withers, 21. "I feel better about myself when I'm fit and we're encouraged to take care of our bodies."