A new study has debunked the idea of the “Freshman 15”—but that doesn’t mean college students are in the clear when it comes to weight. Young adults actually gain about 10 pounds over the course of four years in higher education, say University of Vermont researchers, which can still put them at risk for obesity-related health problems.
To measure college weight gain through the years, researchers recruited about 100 incoming freshmen for a study about exercise and weight. They measured participants’ weight and body mass index (BMI) four times that year, and then again (for 86 students who remained in the study) at the end of their senior years. During their final check-in, the students also answered questions about diet, physical activity, and other factors that might influence health and weight.
In that time, participants’ average weight rose from 147 to 157 pounds. The percentage of students who were overweight or obese also rose from 23 percent to 41 percent—a whopping 78-percent relative increase.
The students did gain about a third of that weight during their first year at college. But the fact that they continued to pack on pounds over the next few years is important, say the study authors, and has implications about how weight-loss programs for college students are designed.
"These findings suggests that health practitioners should not limit their programming to just to that first year, but extend it over all four years of the college experience," lead study author Lizzie Pope, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences, said in a press release.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, also showed that most students did not meet recommended levels for fruit and vegetable consumption, and only 15 percent got the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week.
These elements did not appear to have a direct effect on weight or BMI gain; nor did other lifestyle factors such as drinking habits, relationship status, or where students got their food. But the authors aren’t able to rule out these connections entirely. They wrote that physical activity could have decreased between freshman and senior year, for example, which may have contributed to weight changes.
Regardless of why the students gained weight, says Pope, the increase is troubling. Obesity raises young adults’ risks for a wide variety of health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and can contribute to stress and depression. One study found that men who entered adulthood as obese were twice as likely to die early as their normal-weight peers—a risk that followed them for the rest of their lives.
"This study and earlier ones suggest that college students are prone to weight gain that can impact their health in the present and even more significantly in the future," said Pope. "An important element of any strategy to stem the obesity epidemic would be to target this population with behavioral interventions over all four years of their college experience."
The findings were especially surprising considering the fact that these were mostly white college students who had signed up for a study that was advertised as a way to encourage exercise, the authors say. (Minorities and people with lower education are traditionally at higher risk for obesity.)
“Theoretically, this should have been a motivated population that was more inclined to physical activity than a random sample,” they wrote. “These results suggest that even in populations considered to be at low risk for obesity, small and consistent weight gains become significant over time.”