N° 25 | July 2008

Selected health behaviors that influence college freshman weight change

Freshmen gain an average of 4.2 pounds, a rate gain that is an
alarming 11 times greater than the average.
Therefore, the effect of physical activity (PA), fruit and vegetable
intake, and alcohol use on 6-month weight change was
investigated in 193 college freshmen to help identify the causes
of an increased weight gain for this population.
All first-year freshmen aged between 17 and 19 years at
Winthrop University were eligible to participate in the study.
During the third week of fall 2002 classes, and last full month of
classes in spring, an e-mail was sent that explained the study
and contained the survey Web address. The online survey
became available after the student checked the informedconsent
box at the site.
Baseline survey respondents reported demographic information
on age, race, sex, residency, and meal-plan status. Two questions
were added to the follow-up survey:
1. How much do you think your weight changed? and
2. Did you complete the fall survey on freshman weight gain?
Respondents’ self-reported weight and height were collected to
calculate body mass index (BMI) scores (in kg/m2). Respondents
were categorized according to initial BMI values; BMI values <25
were desirable and values ≥25 were overweight. There were not
enough students with BMIs >30 to justify a separate analysis.
The 3 CDC–YRBS questions was used to assess physical activity
1. How many times in the past week did you participate in
activities for 20 minutes that made you sweat?
2. How many times in the past week did you participate in
activities for 30 minutes that did not make you sweat?
3. How many times in the past week did you participate in
strength-training activities?
Response choices ranged from 0 (no activity sessions per week)
to 7 (activity every day of the week).
The 1995 American College of Sports Medicine recommendation
for vigorous physical activity — 20 minutes or more at least
3 days a week to provide substantial health benefits — to was
used determine categorization for total activity. Total activity
scores were created by summing the frequency of response to
create 3 categories: 0–1 activity sessions per week (low), 2–3
sessions per week (moderate), and >4 sessions per week (high).
For alcohol measures, 2 questions were adapted from the
CDC–YRBS: (1) on how many days have you had at least 1 drink
of alcohol? and (2) in past 30 days, on how many days did you
have at least one drink of alcohol? The definition of one drink was
not given, but it was stated that “this includes drinking beer,
wine coolers, and liquor such as rum, gin, vodka, or whiskey. For
these questions, drinking alcohol does not include drinking a few
sips of wine for religious purposes. To determine the number of
fruit and vegetable servings consumed per week, the Block
Reduced Food Frequency Questionnaire (RFFQ) was used. The
RFFQ provides a quick estimate of frequency of intake but does
not account for portion size. To tally fruit and vegetable intake,
the frequency of consumption of fruit juice, fresh or canned fruit,
green salads, potatoes, soups with vegetables, and any kind of
vegetable was summed. Fruit and vegetable intake was
described as adequate, ≥11 servings/wk, or low,<11/wk.
Results showed an overall average weight gain of 2.5 lbs (p<.05),
although only 57% reported weight gain (M=7.1 lbs). Fruit and
vegetable intake decreased (p=.034), alcohol use increased
(p>.05), and PA was unchanged. Weight gain for students with
BMI≥25 kg/m2 was nearly twice that of students with BMIs< 25
(p<.05). Students with low-frequency baseline PA were twice as
likely to be overweight. Follow-up data showed that students
reporting high frequency of low-intensity PA were twice as likely
to have healthy BMIs as students engaging in low- and
moderate-frequency PA. Initial BMI score was the measure most
highly associated with weight gain. Overweight students
(BMI>25) gained nearly twice as much weight during the 6-
month interval as did students with desirable BMI scores.
Individuals with higher initial BMIs experienced an average
increase of 6.99% in body weight, whereas students with
desirable initial BMIs experienced an average 5.21% weight gain.
These findings justify the need for immediate and appropriate
interventions to prevent weight gain, especially among students
with overweight BMI scores.
One limitation is that fruits and vegetables tallies included
potatoes, thus, students likely did not meet actual criteria for
adequate fruit and vegetable intake.

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