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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Control over their life choices is part of the college experience for students. But that authority is not without cost: Schedules are jammed and in flux; exercise, homework, and friends all compete for time. Parents aren't around to clean up, nag about homework and grades, or cook nutritious meals.
Faced with overwhelming choices, college students often end up gaining extra pounds. Moreover, at a time when obesity among Americans is a national epidemic, the college generation often is overlooked.
"People don't look at this age cohort as closely," said Dr. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting communities' health and preventing disease. "Since you certainly can find a lot of data showing that kids today under 18, under 19 are becoming more and more obese, they're moving on to college -- this is a trend that's been going on for 20 years -- and clearly admission to college doesn't suddenly eliminate those rates of obesity."
The percent of overweight and obese American college students increased from 27.4 percent in fall, 2006, to 29.2 percent in fall, 2011, according to the American College Health Association.
A 2007 study on college students and obesity published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that obesity rates increased rapidly during the duration of the study. The researchers wrote: "Students entering college may be making independent decisions about their diet, activity, and television viewing behaviors for the first time. New environmental and social factors may emerge during this time period to have a greater influence on their behavior."
College students can struggle with control. The tough decisions about nutrition and exercise can send them on a roller-coaster ride with their health.
"There are a lot of choices to be made; it's a totally different environment," said Emily Schmitt, the University of Maryland fitness programs coordinator. "You have to find the time, it's not built-in for exercising, and you're selecting your own food, which may be totally different than the meals you're used to from home."
Researcher Terry T. Huang, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, found that slightly more than two-thirds of 736 college students studied ate fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, which is the recommendation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His findings appeared in a 2003 study published in the Journal of American College Health.
Mr. Huang also found that students, on average, reported two days of aerobic exercise in the past week. The recommendation for weekly exercise is moderate intensity cardio, or aerobic exercise, for at least 30 minutes on five or more days per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.
While these findings paint a bleak picture for the health of college students, not everyone is at risk. Some, in fact, take advantage of their new freedom to make major health improvements.
University of Maryland senior Jon Butta, for example, lost 70 pounds between his first semester in spring, 2009, and fall, 2010. The 6-foot-7-inch, fire protection engineering major maintains his healthy weight of 260 pounds today. He is determined to defy his family legacy of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
"I knew that obesity was becoming a huge epidemic in America and I just didn't want to become a statistic," said Mr. Butta, from Baltimore County, Maryland. "At the same time I felt like I wouldn't do or couldn't do things that my friends would do. I wanted to be as normal as someone who is 6 feet, 7 inches could be."
Mr. Butta is completing for the third time the 90-day, DVD, at-home workout series P90X that targets different muscles every day. He also tries to select nutritious options from the campus diner. His favorite, for example, is a whole-wheat tortilla wrap packed with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, and yellow mustard, or sometimes hot sauce.
"There was that point during that first semester I was here when it really wasn't a chore anymore, it was a daily routine to go and workout," Mr. Butta said. "I was just like, 'This is really something I want to keep up for the rest of my life,' where I feel weird if I didn't work out that day."
Other college demons include stress, late nights, alcohol, and easy access to fast food.
John Kylis, a senior kinesiology major and personal trainer at the Eppley Recreation Center on the University of Maryland campus, frequently sees students who sacrifice their health to the college culture.
"Everyone's heard about the 'freshman 15,'" and I've seen it firsthand being on the cheerleading team here. When a lot of freshman girls come in," he said, "It's a huge party scene and you just start drinking and when you move out of your parents' house your parents aren't overlooking what you're doing, what you're eating."
Dr. Levi said college is an opportunity to develop healthy habits.
"Much more importantly, this is the first time that these students are going to be on their own. This is a real opportunity to build lifelong habits around eating and physical activity. The pressures around studying and being in a new social environment can make it hard to adopt healthy practices in both areas."
Proper motivation and an understanding of balance and moderation can help students leave college with healthier life habits.
"Thinking about a healthy lifestyle when you're young doesn't seem like it's a really big deal, but it's going to be a big deal later on," said Cheri Merrihew, a Weight Watchers leader in Columbia, Md.