‘Freshman 15’ theory is validated by medical study

College students talk about the “Freshman 15.” That’s the typical number of credit hours a full-time student takes during a semester.

Some also claim it’s the number of pounds students gain eating dorm food and studying all night.

WUSTL researchers have now confirmed that most students do, indeed, gain weight in college.

Reporting in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that about 70 percent of students gained a significant amount of weight between the start of college and the end of sophomore year.

“It wasn’t surprising,” said principal investigator Susan S. Deusinger, Ph.D., professor and director of the Program in Physical Therapy at the School of Medicine. “Normally, eating habits in this group are not great. Most don’t eat five fruits and vegetables per day, and many don’t get enough exercise.”

In exchange for measuring their height and weight and asking them to fill out questionnaires about eating and exercise habits, Deusinger and her colleagues offered bookstore gift certificates or small cash stipends to incoming WUSTL freshmen. They recruited 764 students for initial measurements.

After those students completed sophomore year, 290 returned for a reassessment. Seventy percent had gained weight, but most gained less than the “Freshman 15.”

The average weight gain was closer to 9 pounds, but why the students gained the weight isn’t completely understood.

“There were some things we couldn’t measure in this study,” Deusinger said. “For example, people who are more muscular will have a higher body-mass index as a result of their muscles, rather than poor eating habits. That may have accounted for some changes.

“Others may have underestimated their caloric intake or exaggerated the amount of exercise they did. That’s what most of us tend to do.”

Deusinger said it’s difficult to pinpoint reasons for the weight gain because most students didn’t really alter their eating or exercise habits very much during the two years. They tended to make poor food choices and not get enough exercise when they began college, and that still was the case when they finished sophomore year.

“We were dismayed a bit that these young people didn’t change much in terms of their habits,” Deusinger said. “They grew a little taller, but they also tended to remain sedentary, high-fat, fast-food people.”

Deusinger’s team is continuing to study the students as they make their way through college, but preliminary results from those studies don’t show much behavior change. So the team now is looking for ways to make it easier for college students to eat better foods and get more exercise.

The University has a full-time dietitian — Connie Diekman, director of University nutrition — at the Hilltop Campus.

Healthy-living dorms have opened, where students pledge that they’ll stay away from drugs and won’t drink to excess. Wohl Student Center in the heart of the South 40 has an exercise facility.

“There’s literature that suggests if exercise options are in good proximity to work or home, people are more likely to use them,” Deusinger said. “We don’t want students to have to travel across campus to exercise. It’s all about creating an environment where healthy choices also are convenient.”

She said, for example, most working adults will munch on food that’s brought into their workplace. They will eat it whether it’s donuts and cookies or carrots and fruit. She wants to give college students additional easy opportunities for carrots and fruit.

“We hope to give healthful messages to children and young adults so they won’t face the same health risks as their parents and grandparents,” Deusinger said.

“We are a culture in which people are dying from a condition (obesity) that is, in part, controlled by behavior. To me, that’s good news. If you know early that you can take steps to prevent problems later on, then to some extent, the opportunity for good health is in your own hands.”