Freshman female students who live with heavier roommates may stay leaner their first year of college and avoid the tendency to delve into unhealthy lifestyle patterns, suggests the findings of new research.
Often coined the “Freshman 15,” statistics suggest that many freshman females gain weight — about 15 pounds — during their first year but at a much lower rate than the mythical number suggests.
Presented this summer at annual meeting of the American Society of Health Economists, the study revealed that those who live with heavier roommates — weighing more than average for their respective height and build — gained only a half a pound compared to the average of 2.5 to six pounds per year for the population at large.
“This finding seems counterintuitive, but there are some good explanations for why it may be happening,” said Kandice Kapinos, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
According to Kapinos, a labor and health economist, the freshman females weighing more than average may model behaviors for roommates that encourage them stay leaner. Specifically, a heavier female is more likely than an average-weight woman to diet, exercise more frequently, use weight-loss supplements and purchase college meal plans that limit access to food.
“It’s not really the weight of your roommate that’s important, but the behaviors your roommate engages in,” Kapinos said. “These behaviors are what may really be ‘contagious.'”
Researchers assessed 144 female college students randomly assigned to share a living situation during their freshman year. A baseline weight and height were obtained at the start of the fall semester, and participants were asked about weight management behaviors.
Conducted alongside Marquette University economist Olga Yakusheva, Kapinos said the study is unique in that it is the first to assess college weight gain using a naturalized occurrence of randomized roommate assignments found on most college campuses in the United States.
“Previous studies have suggested that having an obese spouse, friend or sibling increases one’s likelihood of becoming obese,” Kapinos said. “But these relationships are obviously not random. People pick their friends and spouses, and they often select people who are similar to themselves. And even though we don’t pick our siblings, we share a genetic inheritance and an early environment that may influence adult weight.”
Researchers noted that peer influence on weight gain and weight management is an important topic due to the marked increase in obesity prevalent in young adults over the last several decades. An increase of 96 percent was recorded from 1988 to 2006, representing the largest percentage increase for all age groups.
Previous studies have revealed that the location of dining halls on a campus may play a role in weight gain. Freshmen assigned to dormitories with onsite dining halls gained more weight than those who had to venture outside of their dorms for food.
Plans are underway by the researchers to further this study analyzing a larger sample of students at a public university to see if roommate weight patterns persist. Environmental influences, such as race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, will also be analyzed.
“Our hope is that this line of research will have practical implications for university administrators and more generally for public health efforts aimed at reducing obesity,” Kapinos said.
Source: University of Michigan