Influence of exercise and dietary patterns on weight gain throughout college

Susan S Deusinger, Ph.D.
Susan Racette, Ph.D.

Project Overview:
Lack of regular exercise, poor dietary habits, and obesity contribute substantially to adverse health consequences and early mortality. Approximately 30.5% of adults in America are classified as obese,1 and there is evidence that obesity during early adulthood can reduce life expectancy by as much as thirteen years.2 The greatest increases in overweight and obesity seem to occur between 18 and 29 years of age, based upon results of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.3 Furthermore, there is evidence from the 1995 College Health Risk Behavior Survey that dietary and activity patterns of many college students predispose them to future health problems.4,5

Sedentary lifestyles contribute to overweight and obesity, and the transition from adolescence to early adulthood is accompanied by lifestyle changes that predispose young adults to become less physically active. Data from the National Health Interview Survey6 indicate that participation in vigorous aerobic and strengthening activities declines progressively from 12 to 21 years of age, and a continuous decline in physical activity is common until 29 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 25% of adults in America and only 25% of high school students engage in the recommended levels of physical activity,7 despite the overwhelming evidence that physical activity and exercise have favorable effects on weight control, disease prevention, and overall health at all ages.

Final Report:
Physical activity and dietary behaviors adopted during college may influence the development of overweight and obesity in adulthood. The purpose of this study was to assess changes in weight status, exercise and dietary behaviors from the beginning of freshman year to the end of senior year of college in a group of undergraduate students at a medium sized private university. Students were recruited at the beginning of freshmen year to undergo assessments of height, weight, body composition, and self-reported physical activity and dietary behaviors. Students were re-assessed at the end of sophomore and senior years. Participants included 204 students (138 females, 66 males). Body weight increased from 59.4±1.0 to 61.1±1.0 kg in females and from 72.0±1.4 to 76.1±1.6 kg in males by the end of senior year; height also increased. The majority of weight change occurred during the first two years of college, with little change after that. BMI increased from 22.4±0.3 kg/m2 at the beginning of freshman year to 23.1±0.3 kg/m2 at the end of senior year. Importantly, self-reported exercise and dietary patterns did not meet recommended levels upon entrance into college, and did not change during the four years of college.

There were no relationships between change in body weight and participation in organized sports, recent exercise or dietary patterns, or living situation. Although health behaviors did not worsen and weight gains were modest during the four years of college, it remains a concern that many students did not meet contemporary exercise and nutrition recommendations. Such behavioral patterns may have detrimental long-term health implications ... Read the full Final Report.