'Fresher's 15' doesn't have to be inevitable: How students can avoid packing on the pounds

·4-min read
Time for snack. Happy students eating pizza and chatting at home
Away from nagging parents, many students turn to takeaways. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

Many students succumb to the dreaded "fresher's 15", gaining around 15lb (1st) in the first year of university.

After more than a year of coronavirus restrictions, students are set to return to lecture halls this September. 

Away from nagging parents, many 18-year-olds indulge in takeaways, ready meals and – of course – copious amounts of alcohol. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists from the University of Georgia found first-years tend to put on 3lb (0.2 stone) in the first term alone. This may not sound a lot, however, gaining 3lb every few months adds up, particularly if the student was already overweight.

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The fresher's 15 does not have to be inevitable, however, providing the student is willing to get physical.

Writing in the Journal of American College Health, the scientists report how almost 70% of the 166 students they analysed did no vigorous activity at the end of their first term, compared to just 40% at the start of the study.

Maybe some of that student loan should go towards a gym membership.

Female fitness still life. Scales and measuring tape on pink background. Mockup. Planning of diet and trainings. Top view with copy space. Healthy lifestyle concept. Slimming
The so-called 'fresher's 15' may be an exaggeration, with students generally gaining 3lb in their first term. (Stock, Getty Images)

"The life transition from high school is a big one and we know from research that life transitions are a big factor in changing our health behaviours," said study author Dr Sami Yli-Piipari. 

"Other studies have previously reported the more academically challenging the university is, the more weight students gain."

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The Georgia scientists followed 166 students, average age 18, while they were in their first year of university.

At the beginning of the study, only 40% of the students claimed to exercise vigorously enough to be left panting, rising to almost 70% by the end of the research.

The NHS recommends adults be moderately active for at least 150 minutes a week, which could include brisk walking, gentle cycling or even pushing a lawn mower. If time-pressed, be vigorously active for 75 minutes via jogging, cycling briskly or skipping rope.

"You have to be really motivated to engage in that level of activity," said lead author Yangyang Deng. 

"In high school, there are many opportunities to be involved in sports, but those disappear for many students in college."

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Moderate exercise levels did not change much from school to university, however.

This was not enough to ward off weight gain, with the students putting on a little over 3lb by the end of the semester – a statistically significant increase.

Nevertheless, the students who exercised regularly before university maintained these active habits.

"The message of this study is we have to do a better job of helping young people be active because that affects how active they are later in life as well," said Dr Yli-Piipari.

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Some universities offer courses that teach students how to cook healthy meals. In the Georgia study, however, most were unaware these programmes were available.

The students did know about fitness classes at the campus' gym. They were more inclined to attend these classes if their peers were also active, the results show.

"Vigorous physical activity most often occurs because of something like playing on a sports team or if you're really motivated, to achieve a goal, like running a marathon," said Dr Yli-Piipari. 

"You have to be really motivated to push yourself to that limit where you really are working hard to get those health benefits that come from that level of activity."

The scientists hope their results will encourage universities to better promote their cooking and fitness classes, as well as motivating students to sign up for sport teams.

"The students' increased BMI is obviously a concern, but we should really focus on a more holistic view of health, especially increasing moderate and vigorous activity for students," said Deng. 

"Establishing these good exercise habits now can have lifelong benefits."

Watch: How lockdown changed our bodies

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