We all know about the "freshman 15," and many college students fear it because of how this weight gain will make them look and feel for the four "best years" of their lives. But as a health policy expert, I want us all to pay more attention to how this weight gain could affect our health 30 years down the road. Keep in mind that it's never too late to make healthy lifestyle changes, but it's also important to understand what weight gain as a young adult can mean for our health if we don't address it.
What does the "freshman 15" really mean for our health?
A recent Harvard University study found that gaining just 5 to 22 pounds between the ages of 18 and 55 can double one's risk of developing type 2 diabetes and increase one's risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity-related cancer by 25 percent. Obviously, these diseases are bad for people's health—but they're also terrible for health care costs. Young adults can help curb these costs by forming healthy habits early on.
Chronic diseases are driving up America's health care spending. Currently, these conditions account for 86 percent of the country's $2.7 trillion annual health spending. By 2030, it's expected that chronic diseases could cost the nation a cumulative $42 trillion.
Why are the college years so important?
Unfortunately, many young people are well on their way to developing chronic diseases, which will cause them to rely heavily on expensive health care. And the freshman 15 is often the launch point. The reality is that fewer than half of today's college students do cardio or aerobic exercise for 20 to 30 minutes three to five days per week. Just 4 percent eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. And most college students get much less than eight hours of sleep per night.
Not exercising or eating right obviously can lead to weight gain. But so, too, can sleep-deprivation. One study found that when people sleep just four hours per night, they eat fattier foods. Unsurprisingly, another study found that those who slept fours a night for five consecutive nights gained 2 more pounds than those who slept for 10 hours each night.
So what can young adults do?
College kids can greatly reduce their risk of weight gain—and developing chronic disease later in life—by developing healthy sleeping, exercising, and eating habits during these impressionable years.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults complete 150 to 300 minutes of aerobic exercise every week. That can amount to three to five hourlong study sessions on a cardio machine at the gym. College students also need to improve their diets, which can be difficult when you're eating on a budget or campus meal plan. Gorging on pasta and ice cream at the dining hall might be tempting, so start with a salad from the salad bar to make sure you're getting your greens. And try a piece of fruit for dessert. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and fiber, and they also reduce people's risk of cancer, hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. Because of the close connection between sleep and weight management, young adults (and the rest of us) would do well to skip the all-nighters and instead put their heads on the pillow. Doing so would stop them from gaining weight, decrease stress, and improve memory.
The take-home message? Prevention of chronic disease shouldn't start midway through life. College kids need to remember to sleep well, exercise often, eat right, and honor their bodies. Adopting healthy habits at a younger age will curb the freshman 15, improve future health, and ease the burden of chronic disease.