Entry into college marks a pivotal transition during one’s lifespan and represents the first step towards independence. Development of new social networks, academic pressures and expanded autonomy related to time and finances beget challenges, capable of rendering an immense impact on a student’s physical and emotional health. As a result, many college students report feeling overwhelmed, depressed or anxious due to their many responsibilities which sometimes lead to negative coping strategies such as alcohol consumption or drug misuse and abuse, both of which are linked to poor academic performance and higher rates of drop out. (4,20,26,27)
In addition to psychological pressures, college students exhibit lifestyle habits that can negatively influence other contributors of long-term health. In fact, the most significant decline in physical activity occurs during the transition from high school to college (18) and a large majority of college students fail to accumulate the recommended amount of physical activity necessary to achieve and maintain improved health benefits. (8,11,23) Consequently, obesity rates have increased dramatically in the last twenty years and over 30 percent of college students are now considered overweight or obese. (9) Obesity, which is defined by the Center for Disease Control as being more than 20 percent above normal weight or having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30, has been linked to cancer, cardiometabolic disease, and many other chronic health conditions. (3,8) While chronic diseases are generally associated with older adults, they are becoming more common among young adult populations. (11)
Physical activity has long been extolled as a lifestyle modification that can mitigate or delay the onset of hypokinetic conditions and diseases, including types of cancer, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, and osteoarthritis while improving quality of life. Research has also shown that the regular inclusion of physical activity is linked to better academic achievement, reduced stress, and improved psychological wellbeing (2, 25). In spite of these clear benefits, research indicates that higher education is not effective at encouraging students to become physically active adults (17).
In response to the needs of students, higher education institutions would be befitted to implement evidence-driven health promotion programs and improve existing initiatives aimed to increase student awareness of healthy weight management goals and the importance of physical activity as a means of energy balance, stress reduction and better overall health.
Colleges seeking to increase student engagement in physical activity should consider the following strategies which emphasize social and environmental contexts, two key determinants of physical activity. (21)
Introduce activity-based physical education courses into the freshman curriculum.
Self-efficacy has been shown to be a strong predictor of future activity among youth and adults. Impaired movement skills or poor performance can shatter a student’s confidence and in turn, discourage participation in physical activity. (1,19,22,23) Developing motor skill competence may be an effective countermeasure to promote engagement in physical activity. (23) Offering physical education courses that teach fundamental skills for a variety of activities could be a viable strategy to engage students and help them gain the confidence to adopt a lifelong pattern of active living. A wide-variety of options should be availed to allow students to self-select courses of greatest interest and enjoyment. In addition, helping students to create more personalized and structured physical activity plans that include feasible goals and realistic outcomes may be more likely to result in long-term adherence. (5)
Belief in the physical and emotional benefits of physical activity is also a predictor of commitment and program adherence. Students who exercise regularly have been shown to perceive significantly more benefits than non-exercisers. (12,24) Therefore, courses should also clearly communicate how physical activity is important to overall well-being and prevention of disease.
Create an “active campus” environment
Attempts to motivate student engagement in an environment that limits opportunities to be active or poses barriers is not likely to be very effective.
Updating and adding new exercise equipment and programs and renovating fields, walkways, and recreation centers will be more likely to encourage utilization (26). If recreation facilities are outdated, perceived as being inaccessible due to location or scheduled operating hours, or lack the amenities to comfortably accommodate the student population, they may ultimately discourage student usage and even be viewed as a deterrent to prospective students (16,26,29).
Administrators should also consider convenience and accessibility when constructing the campus landscape. Placing recreation facilities central to living and dining areas may influence students to exercise more while also serving as an ideal spot to congregate and socialize (26).
Promote social interaction through group or partner-based activities.
Research demonstrates positive correlations between social support and exercise adherence. Social interaction is also one of the most commonly cited reasons for student engagement in exercise. (7,13) Therefore, promoting physical activity programs that encourage greater socialization and a supportive peer network may be an effective strategy to influence positive behavior change.
Implementing group physical activity programs of non-competitive nature such as dance or other movement-based activities may help students develop interpersonal relationships, which comprise a vital dimension of health and well-being (21).
Wellness leaders may also consider employing more experienced students to serve as peer-mentors and exercise leaders for those less accustomed to physical activity. These types of partnerships and exercise groups have the potential to facilitate motivation and cohesiveness and in turn, increase both frequency and time spent engaging in physical activity. (13-15)
The college years are highly influential in shaping adult behaviors, particularly regarding physical activity, and other lifestyle habits. (10) Therefore, enabling students to take control of their health and embrace more active living can enhance both their academic and personal lives and college campuses may represent the last chance for shaping the behaviors of a large segment of the adult population and influencing a lasting lifestyle change.
Higher education institutions offer a plethora of resources ranging from recreation and exercise to nutrition and physical education. As such, administrators must properly leverage and “connect” these resources to form and avail programs that target the needs of students and capitalize on this opportune time to affect the long-term health of millions of emerging adults.
Victor Tringali is the founder and Managing Partner of Healthy Human Capital LLC, a firm which offers consultative services to organizations in the realms of health promotion and wellness programming, and educational workshops related to fitness, wellness, and nutrition. Mr. Tringali previously served as the Executive Director of Wellness at Drexel University, where he innovated a nationally acclaimed wellness initiative aimed at improving the health and productivity among faculty, staff and students. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Health and Physical Activity at the University of Pittsburgh.
Joseph Giandonato presently serves as a health and wellbeing advisor for Healthy Human Capital LLC, which he cofounded with Mr. Tringali in 2015. Giandonato most recently served as the Manager of Health Promotion and Wellness at Drexel University, where he assisted with the design and facilitation of their campus wide wellness initiative all the while overseeing revenue generating and participation driven programming and services at their state of the art recreation center.
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