When College Hurts Our Health

Earlier this summer, I presented findings from a study about college students and exercise. In addition to having a fine excuse to visit Puerto Rico, it gave me a chance to talk about an issue that’s become important to me now I’m back in the college environment.

The issue: college seems to destroy people’s health.

Not all people, of course. But some. More than some. They don’t call it the “Freshman Fifteen” because only a handful of people gain weight in college.

Now that I’m back on campus, I’ve started having flashbacks of my own unhealthy undergrad habits. I’m seeing others succumb to the same fate. And I’m wondering if grad school will be worse. What lies ahead for me? The “master’s thirty”? The “PhD forty-five”?

I was at my heaviest from ages 18 – 22. Not 15 pounds overweight (an Atlantic writer points out that freshmen usually gain closer to 2.5 – 6 pounds in their first year). But I was a good three clothing sizes bigger than I am now, with a muffin top and a disappearing chin. More importantly, I didn’t feel good.

free pizzaDuring those four years, my ever-tightening jeans belied a diet of processed food and occasional unfocused exercise (e.g., gliding around on an elliptical machine whenever I felt like getting some good magazine reading in).

I worked full-time, attended school full-time, did homework into the night, and saved health for later. I figured I’d “get my life back” and “become human again” after I graduated. Obviously many college students share this mentality. Some research indicates that it’s common for young adults’ health habits to take a dive after the transition from high school to college, especially if they used to play sports.

And bad physical activity habits formed during this time can stick for life.

Our Study

In our study, we looked specifically at parental advice about exercise. Turns out, it does make a difference. Emerging adults (ages 18 – 30) are, on the whole, quite open to hearing advice about physical activity from their parents, especially when it’s given respectfully and supportively. Perhaps surprisingly, it matters as much or more than influence from their peers.

Many of the 200 hundred students surveyed said this advice from parents helped them work through an exercise challenge. (For more insights, here’s the full article in Journal of Social & Personal Relationships and well as a poster overview of the paper.)

True, most college kids are young. Their bodies can handle ramen binges and all-nighters and being permanent fixtures in chairs. But… can they?

Do we really “survive” that four- or six- or eight-year beating?

Roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight. More than 80% of American adults fail to meet federal physical activity recommendations. (I think their guidelines call for unnecessary amounts of cardio, but I’ll save that rant for the book.) All the same, we don’t protect our health as vigilantly as we should, because work productivity comes first. Did we learn that in college?

Like Warren Buffet put it, “They say the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

Maybe a lack of emphasis on health during college means students miss out on an ideal time to set good habits in stone, for life — and instead they’re working their way down into grooves that many will never get back out of.

After college, I had to learn that it was OK to prioritize my health, and I had to learn how to. I learned how to eat healthy and exercise effectively in my mid-twenties, and it was around this time that I finally realized these are essential to living.

The idea of the “Freshman Fifteen” may not be wholly accurate, but even if a student gains only three pounds in her first year, suppose she gains three more each year after?

The Other Kind of College Drinking…

My parents never gave me advice about exercise. They were more concerned I’d become a “lush.” Come to think of it, there’s an awful lot of attention paid to college drinking. It makes up a huge portion of the research focus in health communication. While I think it’s an important topic (and probably another source of college weight gain), it’s not the only health issue that young adults are up against.

Spotted in my building

Take, for example, the boxes of free diet soda that one might find lurking around campus. Or the free pizza and cookies they give out at almost every event.

It would seem that soda and other junk food flow freely on campus. And college students are especially vulnerable to things that are free.

Thankfully other facets of student wellness are gaining attention. This year the University of Utah opened a $50 million fitness facility called the “Student Life Center.” It’s free for students. I like the name, because it sends a message about recreation being integral to life. It also gives us a place to swim, climb, play racquet ball, lift weights, and eat healthier café food.

In an ideal world, professors will consider student health too. I’ve heard some teachers talk about students’ physical activity pursuits like they’re indulgent hobbies, like it means they’re not serious about school. There’s an idea that the best students are working day and night. This scares me.

We’ve recently received a grant to study exercise habits and parental advice among Hispanics ages 18 – 35. Hispanic adults in the U.S. have an even higher rate of obesity.

I really, really, really hope to see more emphasis on the health of college students and emerging adults, because research indicates that this age span is a critical period for building health habits, ones that could save us later in life.

And here’s me giving the same rant to academics. And failing, even in the Caribbean, to get a tan.




I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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