Implementing Healthy Habits Early Can Prevent Freshman Weight Gain for College Students

By the end of the first semester, almost 70% of students participating in the study reported no vigorous physical activity at all.

Although many new college students are aware of the “freshman 15” weight gain, new research suggests that implementing healthy habits early in the school year could help counteract the weight gain.

According to researchers at the University of Georgia, students typically gain approximately 8 lbs over the course of their first year of college, with approximately 3 lbs expected during the first semester. Although this is significantly less than the “freshman 15” misnomer suggests, exercising regularly and making healthy diet choices could help avoid it, according to the investigators.

The study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that vigorous physical activity was almost nonexistent among first-year students at a public university used for the research. The study authors defined “vigorous” activity as the kind of exercise that increases the heart rate and releases sweat.

Researchers tracked more than 100 students and measured things such as physical activity, body mass index (BMI), motivation to exercise, and how friends and family viewed their exercise habits. Researchers also examined whether university services influenced students’ activity levels.

At the beginning of the study, only 2 out of every 5 students were meeting recommended levels of activity as set by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to a press release, the AHA recommends that all adults participate in 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense exercise.

Despite their findings at the beginning of the study, the researchers noted that moderate physical activity, such as walking across campus or biking at a casual pace, did not change significantly from when students were in high school. Some students even increased their levels of moderate activity.

The study followed students throughout their first semester at school, and found that by the end of the semester, approximately 70% of the students reported no vigorous physical activity at all. This was in stark contrast to the beginning of the semester, when just 40% of students said they were not exercising hard enough to start panting.

“You have to be really motivated to engage in that level of activity,” said lead study author Yangyang Deng, a graduate student in the Mary Frances Early College of Education, in the press release. “In high school, there are many opportunities to be involved in sports, but those disappear for many students in college.”

As a result of this lack of physical activity, study participants saw modest but significant increases in BMI. By the end of the semester, the students added an average of just over 3 lbs. Although this is relatively small, the study authors noted that 3 lbs per semester can add up over the course of 4 years.

Interestingly, the researchers found that neither meal plan status nor on- or off-campus living significantly impacted weight gain; however, whether participants had physical exercise did have a substantial impact.

Students reported being aware of recreational activities at the student fitness center, and the availability of intramural sports and fitness classes had a positive effect on students’ physical activity levels. Having friends who exercised and supported their efforts to work out also increased the levels of vigorous physical activity.

“Vigorous physical activity most often occurs because of something like playing on a sports team, or if you’re really motivated to achieve a goal, like running a marathon,” said study author Sami Yli-Piipari, PhD, associate professor in the College of Education, in the press release. “You have to be really motivated to push yourself to that limit where you really are working hard to get those health benefits that come from that level of activity.”

From an institutional perspective, the authors said promoting healthy cooking classes, exercising courses, or other resources could positively impact students’ health. Students who want to increase their fitness levels should consider signing up for intramural sports teams, group exercise classes, or sessions with a personal trainer, according to the study authors.

“The students’ increased BMI is obviously a concern, but we should really focus on a more holistic view of health, especially increasing moderate and vigorous activity for students,” Deng said in the press release. “Establishing these good exercise habits now can have lifelong benefits.”

REFERENCE

Beeson L. Weight gain isn’t inevitable when you start college. University of Georgia Today; August 24, 2021. Accessed September 22, 2021. https://news.uga.edu/weight-gain-isnt-inevitable-when-you-start-college/

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