Forget the ‘Freshman 15’: Study shows students gain weight throughout college

Small weight gains over time may not seem like a big deal, but a few pounds here and there can add up to an unhealthy lifestyle and associated health risks — especially for college students, who gain on average of 10 pounds over four years of school, according to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

“The myth of the ‘freshman 15’ has been widely debunked,” said the study’s lead author, Lizzy Pope, assistant professor in the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont. “But our study shows that there is concerning weight gain among college students that happens over all four years they are in college.”

About the study

The study measured student weight and body mass index at the beginning and end of students’ first and second semesters and again at the end of their senior year.

At the beginning of their college careers, the mean weight of the students in the study was about 147 pounds. By the end of senior year, it had increased to about 157 pounds.

The problem is compounded when a student begins college at an unhealthy weight. Twenty-three percent of the students in the study were overweight or obese as they were starting college. By the end of senior year, 41 percent were in that category, a 78 percent increase.

Obese young adults are at risk for a variety of health conditions, Pope said, including diabetes, hypertension, polycystic ovarian syndrome and psychosocial distress. Adults with a BMI over 30 are considered obese, while those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 are considered overweight.

How to help

The transition to college can be especially difficult for students who were active in high school or played varsity sports, Pope said.

“They struggle to find their way out there on their own,” she said.

Parents should help their kids establish healthy eating and exercise patterns, said Pope, who offered the following suggestions:

-Make sure students know where the gym is located on campus.

-Encourage them to join an intramural team.

-Find friends who they can exercise with.

-Ask them about their sleeping habits. Poor sleep is related to obesity.

-Encourage them to be mindful of their choices and figure out a routine that works for them.

College-age students fall into the adult category in government recommendations for exercise. They should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

“More is better. I encourage an hour a day, five days a week, but that can be broken up. So if they walk 10 minutes to class that counts as part of their daily exercise,” Pope said.

College can also be an opportunity for students to adopt healthier behaviors.

“Almost every college has a gym and memberships are free, and meal plans offer lots of healthy choices that may not have been available to them at home,” Pope said.

Written by Melissa Erickson. Photo by 123RF.

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