An unlimited meal plan and beer pong-filled weekends can certainly contribute to weight gain in college. But excess food and alcohol might not be the only reason so many first-year students put on the pounds: Irregular and poor sleep patterns may also be a culprit.
A study in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that bad sleeping habits can contribute to the fabled "Freshman 15" (though previous studies have clarified it's more like the "Freshman Five"). Researchers asked 132 freshman at Brown University to keep sleep diaries and tracked their weight for nine weeks. Over the course of the study, more than half of the students gained close to six pounds.
Their sleep records revealed the students' average bed time was 1:30 a.m., and they slept for an average of seven hours and 15 minutes each night. The diaries showed that they woke up at different times every morning; this was particularly true of male students, whose wake times varied by an average of two hours and 37 minutes.
The succinct takeaway is this: College freshmen have bad sleeping habits that have previously been associated with weight gain.
First, the students didn't get enough sleep each night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends eight to 10 hours of sleep for teens per night; a study published in the journal PLOS One found that teens who don't get enough sleep are more likely to crave dessert foods. This could mean that the students gained weight because they weren't catching enough Z's.
The students' late bed times could also be a contributing factor: A study published this month in the journal Sleep highlighted a link between late bedtimes and increased body mass.
And while most students probably seize the opportunity to sleep in on days their classes don't start until noon, fluctuating wake times could be harmful. Experts say waking up around the same time every day, even on weekends, sets the body up for success by keeping our internal clocks regulated. One recent study showed women who woke up at the same time every morning had lower body fat compared to those whose wake times varied.
College kids are known to be sleep deprived: More than 70 percent of them don't get enough shuteye, according to a 2014 study. But it's not all their fault. Previous research has found new factors like having a roommate, living in a loud dorm and having a ton schoolwork gets in the way of a good night's sleep.
The findings from the Brown sleep diaries are mere correlations; no conclusions can be made about student weight gain and sleep habits from the students' self-tracking alone. While more decisive research is necessary, this new data certainly provides insight into the poor health habits young adults can develop when they live on their own for the first time. Instilling more regulated sleep habits in kids before they go off to college may be one way to help them take care of themselves when they do leave the nest.
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