COLLEGE PARK, Md. —Control over their life choices is part of the college experience for students. But that authority is not without cost: Schedules are jammed and in-flux; exercise, homework and friends all compete for time. Parents aren’t around to clean up, nag about homework and grades, or cook nutritious meals.
Faced with overwhelming choices, college students often end up gaining extra pounds. Moreover, at a time when obesity among Americans is a national epidemic, the college generation often is overlooked.
“People don’t look at this age cohort as closely,” said Dr. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, a national non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting communities’ health and preventing disease. “Since you certainly can find a lot of data showing that kids today under 18, under 19 are becoming more and more obese, they’re moving on to college — this is a trend that’s been going on for 20 years — and clearly admission to college doesn’t suddenly eliminate those rates of obesity.”
The percent of overweight and obese American college students increased from 27.4 percent in fall 2006 to 29.2 percent in fall 2011, according to the American College Health Association. The organization based its findings on body mass index, or BMI, which is calculated from an individual’s self-reported height and weight, and is a standard indicator of obesity. A BMI in the range of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while a BMI between 30 and 34.9 is obese.
A 2007 study on college students and obesity published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that obesity rates increased rapidly during the duration of the study. The researchers wrote: “Students entering college may be making independent decisions about their diet, activity, and television viewing behaviors for the first time. New environmental and social factors may emerge during this time period to have a greater influence on their behavior.”
College students can struggle with control. The tough decisions about nutrition and exercise can send them on a roller-coaster ride with their health.
“There are a lot of choices to be made; it’s a totally different environment,” said Emily Schmitt, the University of Maryland fitness programs coordinator. “You have to find the time, it’s not built-in for exercising, and you’re selecting your own food, which may be totally different than the meals you’re used to from home.”
More than one-third of American adults, about 35.7 percent, are obese today, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, Maryland’s obesity rate was 27.1 percent and it failed, along with every other state, to meet the “Healthy People 2010” goal to lower obesity prevalence to 15 percent, according to the CDC.
Moreover, during a recent Washington conference sponsored by CDC, a new study forecast an even grimmer picture for the next two decades. The research, conducted by Eric A. Finkelstein at Duke University, which appeared online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, predicted that 42 percent of Americans would be obese by 2030, including a 33 percent increase over the next 20 years.
Even the White House has taken notice. First lady Michelle Obama, the mother of two young daughters, has made childhood obesity her challenge. In February 2010, she launched the Let’s Move! campaign to encourage healthy eating and physical activity among children.
Almost one in three children in America is overweight or obese, according to the official Let’s Move! website.
But college students, it seems, are left to fend for themselves.
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Justin Winsor, for example, a freshman bioengineering major, experienced the highest peaks and lowest valleys during his journey for improved physical wellness.
A trip to Italy that involved eating horribly and drinking excessively for 10 days straight right before college ruined his high school health transformation. He finally got back on track with “Insanity,” a set of DVDs of an at-home workout combining long spurts of maximum-intensity exercise with short periods of rest, designed to burn lots of calories. He was on track to get back into shape — but then he began college.
“I gained 25 pounds. That number just came to me over spring break (of this semester),” said Winsor, from Olney, Md. “I got really mad at myself. I started tracking all of my food and working out religiously with Insanity. I’ve already lost 12 pounds since spring break started.”
Winsor now is committed to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.
“Letting all the hard work that I had done go to waste just bothered me internally,” Winsor said. “The intrinsic motivation didn’t really come until now. It’s not really about what anyone thinks — it’s about getting in the best shape I can for myself and being as healthy as I can be for myself.”
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Researcher Terry T. Huang, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, found that slightly more than two-thirds of 736 college students studied ate fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, which is the recommendation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His findings appeared in a 2003 study published in the Journal of American College Health.
Huang also found that students, on average, reported two days of aerobic exercise in the past week. The recommendation for weekly exercise is moderate intensity cardio, or aerobic exercise, for at least 30 minutes on five or more days per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.
While these findings paint a bleak picture for the health of college students, not everyone is at risk. Some, in fact, take advantage of their new freedom to make major health improvements.
University of Maryland senior Jon Butta, for example, lost 70 pounds between his first semester in spring 2009, and fall 2010. The 6-foot-7-inch, fire protection engineering major maintains his healthy weight of 260 pounds today. He is determined to defy his family legacy of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
“I knew that obesity was becoming a huge epidemic in America and I just didn’t want to become a statistic,” said Butta, from Baltimore County, Md. “At the same time I felt like I wouldn’t do or couldn’t do things that my friends would do. I wanted to be as normal as someone who is 6 feet 7 inches could be.”
Butta is completing for the third time the 90-day, DVD, at-home workout series P90X that targets different muscles every day. He also tries to select nutritious options from the campus diner. His favorite, for example, is a whole-wheat tortilla wrap packed with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato and yellow mustard, or sometimes hot sauce.
“There was that point during that first semester I was here when it really wasn’t a chore anymore, it was a daily routine to go and workout,” Butta said. “I was just like, ‘This is really something I want to keep up for the rest of my life,’ where I feel weird if I didn’t work out that day.”
Other college demons include stress, late nights, alcohol and easy access to fast food.
“I remember we had Friday night pizza and beer and we’d go to somebody’s house and order a keg of beer and a pizza and as long as the money held out, the pizza and the beer held out too,” said Cheri Merrihew, a Weight Watchers leader in Columbia, Md. “It’s challenging with the unregulated caloric intake and the fact that you’re often more sedentary when you’re on campus because you’re spending a lot of time studying in the library or sitting in class.”
And then there’s the pressure…
“A lot of times when we’re stressed we may forget about making time for ourselves,” said Schmitt, who also works as a dietitian for Livelyte Medical Weight Management in Annapolis. “I think that contributes a lot, particularly when it comes to nutrition — having that stress-eating, making those convenient choices when it comes to eating versus the healthy ones.”
John Kylis, a senior kinesiology major and personal trainer at the Eppley Recreation Center on campus, frequently sees students who sacrifice their health to the college culture.
“Everyone’s heard about the ‘freshman 15,’” and I’ve seen it firsthand being on the cheerleading team here. When a lot of freshman girls come in,” he said. “It’s a huge party scene and you just start drinking and when you move out of your parents’ house your parents aren’t overlooking what you’re doing, what you’re eating.”
Levi said college is an opportunity to develop healthy habits.
“Much more importantly, this is the first time that these students are going to be on their own. This is a real opportunity to build life-long habits around eating and physical activity. The pressures around studying and being in a new social environment can make it hard to adopt healthy practices in both areas.”
Proper motivation and an understanding of balance and moderation can help eave college with healthier life habits.
“Thinking about a healthy lifestyle when you’re young doesn’t seem like it’s a really big deal, but it’s going to be a big deal later on,” Merrihew said.
Staying healthy through diet and exercise should become a priority for college students, experts say. “Weight loss really comes down to calories in versus calories out, so it’s finding that balance of spending calories through exercise and limiting your calorie intake with your food,” Schmitt said.
It doesn’t mean you have to give up everything — moderation is the key. Merrihew, who morphed from a couch potato to five-time Iron Girl finisher (The nationwide Iron Girl events include 5 and 10 km. runs, half marathons, duathlons and triathlons) recommends that students always think about ways to “balance high-fat foods with healthy selections.”
Kylis recommends seeking professional help and friends’ support.
“If they’ve come to the point where they’re severely overweight, or even obese, then they need someone to talk to,” said Kylis, who also teaches several group fitness classes focused on cardio and strength training. “To let them know what they’re doing that’s good, what they’re doing that’s bad, what they need to change and what they need to do to maintain their health and their weight.”
Embracing these habits in college is critical, and may help stave off obesity related illness — diabetes and heart disease — later. Even baby steps will help.
“There are little things that you can do, like if you have study breaks, make them walking study breaks,” Levi said. “Stand up from time to time, walk around the block, leave the library — whatever it might take to be more physically activity and to be much more conscious about the food choices you make.”
“The consequences of obesity are happening earlier and earlier,” Levi said, “and living with chronic disease and managing those chronic diseases will really be a distraction from building a career and from building a life.”