Implementing healthy habits early can help stave off weight gain in college students

Everyone has heard of the so-called Freshman 15, but new research from the University of Georgia suggests that countering this weight gain could be more complicated than just taking a stroll around the quad.

Freshman 15 is actually a misnomer as high school students typically only gain about 8 pounds in the first year. But that’s a considerable amount of weight to gain, especially for students who are already overweight. In the study, UGA researchers found that first graders gain an average of about 3 pounds over the course of the semester. But implementing healthy patterns early on can help prevent this weight gain.

A factor that contributes to weight gain

The study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that vigorous physical activity, the type of exercise that gets your heartbeat racing and sweaty, was almost non-existent among freshmen at a public university in the south. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (or a combination of both) per week. At the start of their studies, only two out of five students achieved the recommended level of activity.

That doesn’t mean that none of the students trained. In fact, her moderate physical activity, like walking around campus or biking at an easy pace, didn’t change much from her school days. Some freshmen even increased their moderate level of activity.

But at the end of the study – who followed students in their first semester at school – nearly 70% of students said they did not have any vigorous physical activity at all. At the start of the study, students reported higher levels of activity, with only 40% saying they weren’t exercising hard enough to gasp at the start of the study.

You need to be really motivated to get involved in this level of activity. There are many ways to play sports in high school, but these are disappearing for many college students. “

Yangyang Deng, lead study author and PhD student at Mary Frances Early College of Education

The transition to college

As a result, the students in the study saw a modest but significant increase in the body mass index, or BMI, a screening tool that divides a person’s weight by their height to determine if they are a healthy size. (A normal or healthy BMI value should be between 18.5 and 24.9.) Students also gained a little more than 3 pounds on average at the end of the semester, which sounds small but adds up easily over college years .

Despite meal plans and 24/7 access to some on-campus dining options, the study showed that neither the status of the meal plan, nor whether the student lived on campus or off campus, significantly predicted weight gain. But the lack of vigorous activity did.

“The life transition from high school is big, and we know from research that life transitions are an important factor in changing our health behavior,” said Sami Yli-Piipari, study author, associate professor at the College of Education and director of children – and fitness laboratories. “And other studies have previously reported that the more academically demanding the university, the more the students gain weight.”

However, the students, who were very active in their pre-college life, stayed very active in the university, emphasizing the importance of teaching children that exercise and eating well are important to their future.

“The message of this study is that we need to better help young people to become active because it also affects how active they are later in life,” said Yli-Piipari.

Establish healthy habits early on

The study tracked over 100 students and measured things like physical activity, BMI, motivation (or lack of) to exercise, and how their friends and family rated their exercise habits. The researchers also examined the role of higher education services on student activity levels.

For example, university health centers often have programs to teach students how to prepare healthier meals and incorporate more activity into their lives, but the researchers found that most of the students in the study did not know these services were available. And this awareness did not improve over the course of the semester.

The increased BMI of students is obviously an issue, but we really should focus on a more holistic view of health, particularly increasing student moderate and vigorous activity. Establishing these good exercise habits can have lifelong benefits. “-; Yangyang Deng, lead author of the study,

However, they were aware of the leisure activities in the student fitness center, and in-school sports and fitness classes had a positive effect on the physical activity of the students. Having friends who played sports and helped their classmates exercise also increased activity levels.

“Most strenuous physical activity comes from playing on a sports team or when you are really motivated to achieve a goal like running a marathon,” said Yli-Piipari. “You have to be really motivated to push yourself to that limit, where you are working really hard, to get the health benefits that come from that level of activity.”

From an institutional perspective, strong funding for healthy cooking classes, exercise classes, or other university resources could have a major impact on student health. On a more personal level, students looking to improve their fitness should consider signing up for intramural exercise teams, group exercise classes, or sessions with a personal trainer, often available at discounted rates at university centers.

“The student’s increased BMI is obviously a problem, but we really should be focusing on a more holistic view of health, particularly increasing student moderate and intense activity,” Deng said. “Establishing these good exercise habits can have lifelong benefits.”


Journal reference:

Deng, Y., et al. (2021) Institutional Factors Associated with Healthy Physical Activity and Body Composition of College Students: A First Semester Follow-Up. Journal of American College Health.

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