From My Perspective – Students & Health

October 2, 2002

I recently read a back-to-school article somewhere that stated that university students tend to gain weight shortly after entering post-secondary education. The “Freshman 15″ has been reported on by a variety of news articles and research sources, and it is common knowledge that around 75% of students (particularly females, lucky us!) gain an average of 15 pounds during their first year of university. There are valid reasons why this occurs. Some are obvious, such as the lack of exercise due to more hours sitting in class and studying. Greater intake of fast food and skipping meals are also contributing factors. Increased alcohol consumption adds to the intake of empty calories as well, since for many students university is an excuse to party. Money is an important issue as well. Many argue that it is cheaper to prepare a healthy meal of fruits and vegetables at home – yet when students have to decide between going grocery shopping and expending time to make a salad – eating at MacDonald’s is cheap, does the job, and takes less time.

Although the Freshman 15 is generally spoken of in the context of campus-based students who are fresh out of high school, Athabasca University students are also subject to a variety of health problems brought on by our dedication to our studies, and weight gain is only one of them.

Most Athabasca University students are eking out study time while juggling work, family and community activities, and taking care of our own health often takes second place. AU students come home from work, grab a bite to eat, say a passing hello to their loved ones, and hit the books. Or for shift workers, we hit the books and then go to work!

During my first six months of university, I suddenly started to gain weight, partly because of long hours sitting in front of the computer or reading textbooks, but also because I started to rely on more fast, pre-packaged, easy-prepare meals that are high on energy but do not constitute a balanced menu. I love cooking, and I have always tried to eat well, but it’s very difficult, when I have an assignment due, to justify spending hours preparing a well-balanced meal when I can just grab a quick microwave pasta. I’ve never been a highly physically active person, but once starting university it became impossible to find time to even go for a walk. Physical activity, of course, is linked with not only weight maintenance, but also general good health.

Gaining weight was only the start of my health-related problems caused by going back to university. A few months ago I started to experience severe pain in my upper right arm and shoulder. I suffer chronic upper back and neck pain from an old automobile accident injury, so I’m used to living with a fairly high degree of pain, but this was something new. For a long time I could not figure out why my arm ached all the time. This suddenly increased when I started my new job where I was required to be always at the computer ready to respond to incoming calls. One day I was sitting at my computer typing up an essay and I let my arm rest on my mouse for a bit. All at once I felt the pain run up my arm and realized the connection – the pain was a direct result of the angle of my arm resting on my mouse and the arm of my chair. A better chair, proper computer desk, and gel mouse pad could fix these things, but these expenses generally take second place when you are a single mother needing to buy food for your children.

Headaches are a common problem for many AU students as well, caused by stress, worry, long hours in front of a computer screen, and a variety of other study-related factors. Stress from overload weakens the body in general and makes a person more susceptible to illness. AU students don’t always get the same type of break campus-based students do to recuperate. Rather than spring and summer breaks, reading week, etc., we tend to work straight through – keeping hour holiday plans on hold until we are finished our degrees. Because many of us are working on our degrees for far more than three or four years, this situation can go on for a very long time.

Most AU students also maintain hectic schedules that leave little time for sleep. Campus based students experience this as well during periods such as final exam time. But for us at AU, it tends to be a more daily experience. The reality is that we are squeezing out study time from other areas of our lives, and sleep is generally the first thing we sacrifice when we need extra time. Lack of sleep and proper rest has a cumulative effect that sneaks up on you.

This can have serious consequences. For a while earlier this year I was finding myself falling asleep in front of my computer, in the middle of an essay, suddenly too tired to go on. I would doze off three and four times in a day, then get up and try to keep working on the assignment, wondering why I could not remain awake. I would try and read, but the words would blur and I would have to go lie down for a few minutes – minutes that stretched into several hours. Eventually I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to go to a doctor (another thing most AU students likely have no time for), and discovered that my iron levels were dangerously low – were I in hospital they would have been insisting on a blood transfusion. This was a wake-up call (pun intended) and I started to pay more attention to my health, took my vitamins, closed my books occasionally to make a salad or a full-fledged meal, and tried to get some fresh air and the occasional walk.

But it takes time and effort to watch your health, and I became lax once again as soon as my course completion dates loomed closer. I started studying for hours non-stop and not eating or sleeping properly. Now I’m paying the price. I’ve been down with some horrible flu/cold bug for almost 10 days and in spite of being on antibiotics, it’s not going away quickly. Still I’m doggedly reading my course text books and trying to write my term papers (taking breaks to hack my lungs out every so often).

Alcohol has been cited by some sources as a causal factor in the Freshman 15 weight gain due to the propensity of university students to “party.” Some AU students may also experience health problems due to alcohol, but not because we have time to party. Alcohol can be used as a stress-reliever…how many of us have walked out of a particularly difficult exam and said, “man I need a beer…NOW!” Consumption of caffeine and increased use of tobacco are other stress relievers that can cause health problems for students.

Health problems are of particular concern to female students. AU has a female enrolment of around 65%. Women traditionally neglect their own needs in favour of those of their families to a far greater extent than men do. Women tend to have to make greater sacrifices to achieve a degree than men do as well. But we should not have to sacrifice our health. Many of us have spouses who are helpful and pick up the slack. Others, like myself, do not. We drive ourselves to the edge and often get sick in the process. But it is counterproductive. I think about the lost study time I’ve experienced in the last ten days, and wonder if I could have avoided it by taking an hour a day to get away from my computer, take a walk, prepare a healthy meal, or take a break to go do an activity I enjoy.

Athabasca University students have a heavy load, and we need to take extra care that we are not neglecting our health. So now I’m going to try to avoid the nagging voice inside telling me to go back to my studies, and instead take the evening off to enjoy a proper meal with my family!

Freshman 15:

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.