Study finds most students gain weight during early college years

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise common

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.

New work from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis confirms that most students do, indeed, gain weight in college. Reporting in the Journal of American College Health, the research team found that about 70 percent of students gained a significant amount of weight between the start of college and the end of sophomore year.

College eating habits and lifestyles can add pounds to students.

“It wasn’t surprising,” says 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 colleagues offered bookstore gift certificates or small cash stipends to incoming freshmen at Washington University. 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 nine pounds, but why they gained the weight isn’t completely understood.

“There were some things we couldn’t measure in this study,” Deusinger says. “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.”

Susan Deusinger
Susan Deusinger

Deusinger says 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 says. “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.

In recent years, Washington University has added a full-time dietitian at its Hilltop Campus. Healthy-living dorms have opened, where students pledge that they’ll stay away from drugs and won’t drink to excess. An exercise facility also has opened closer to the dormitories.

“There’s literature that suggests if exercise options are in good proximity to work or home, people are more likely to use them,” Deusinger says. “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 says, 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 more 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 says. “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.”

Racette SB, Deusinger SS, Strube MJ, Highstein GR, Deusinger RH. Weight changes, exercise and dietary patterns during freshman and sophomore years of college. Journal of American College Health, vol. 53(6); pp. 245-251, May/June 2005.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.