Takeaways, alcohol, late nights, television… the stereotypical student lifestyle is hardly a template for healthy living. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the phenomenon known in the US as “Freshman 15” – referring to the 15 pounds freshers supposedly gain in their first year at university – poses as much of a health risk to British students as it does to their American counterparts.
Like many students who move away from home for the first time, Peter Croft-Baker, 25, found it difficult to eat healthily at university. He arrived at the University of Leeds weighing 12st 7 lbs; by the start of his third year, he was 16st.
“It was just the way of life I adopted while I was at uni,” he explains. “I would say I overindulged in everything – most of it relating to alcohol, which ended up with the consumption of a pizza and garlic bread at the end of most evenings. All this having had dinner as well.”
A lack of exercise contributed to his weight gain, despite his studying media and sport. “I was pretty lazy. I gave up sport after the first year, and I would lie in bed until midday. It was probably about six months after I graduated when I started to go running again. I lost three stone, and looked my normal self again.”
Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe, a chartered counselling psychologist at Teesside University, says that for many students, underlying psychological reasons are to blame for their putting on weight. “Issues with food and binge-eating can be triggered when a student comes to university,” she says. “Research shows the increased stress and anxiety of studying at university, and the major life changes associated with university, can lead students to use different coping strategies. Food can be seen as a way of coping with stress and other negative emotions.”
Davis-McCabe says that exam stress, problems within relationships or within families, can all cause unhealthy eating patterns. “In counselling, we can work with the student to challenge the negative coping strategies. This leads to more positive ways of coping, and the student feeling more in control.”
Teesside’s counsellors work alongside the university’s health and well-being team, which offers practical support for students who want to take up a sport. “We find this dual approach quite successful,” she says. “There are lots of activities students can get involved in.”
Davis-McCabe advises students who are concerned about their weight to seek support through Student Services. “It’s about not letting anxiety and stress get out of control,” she says.
For many students struggling to live within a limited budget, a lack of money may be seen as a barrier to leading a healthy lifestyle. But although super-foods and gym membership may be beyond the typical student loan, healthy foods and exercise need not be.
Dr Elisabeth Weichselbaum, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, says: “There are many ways to have a healthy diet without spending too much. Planning your meals ahead can help you reduce food waste, and sticking to a list when shopping helps you avoid buying things you don’t need. Also, cooking bigger amounts is generally cheaper. So it’s better to cook bigger batches and put the rest in the freezer, or take turns with your housemates when cooking dinner.”
Cooking larger portions to freeze or share with friends also cuts the time spent in the kitchen, which is useful when essay deadlines loom. “Another common misconception is that preparing a meal is time-consuming – so, many stick to takeaways and ready meals,” Weichselbaum says. “But a stir-fry can be prepared in less than 20 minutes.”
Similarly, regular exercise need not be costly or time-consuming, says Matt Roberts, a personal trainer. “The key thing is using parks or playing fields nearby, where you can get a complete workout. You don’t need equipment, just your own body weight,” he says. “The fundamentals are to exercise three to four times a week, between half an hour and an hour each time. You need to get your heart and lungs working hard.”
Roberts suggests jogging, walking quickly or cycling to improve fitness, and sit-ups, squats and press-ups to strengthen key muscles. “Alternatively, join a student sports team; they tend to be free or very cheap. There are a lot of options. You need to plan it into your weekly routine: plan your work, going out with your mates and your workout.”
Nicholas Herrmann, 21, who is studying philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says one of the reasons he chose UEA was its new sports park. “I noticed some of my older brother’s friends coming back from uni having put on a lot of weight, and I thought, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me’. The gym was only three minutes from our accommodation, so I started going every day. My flatmate did, too.”
By taking advantage of the gym’s student rates, Herrmann exercises more at university than he did at home. “I’m stronger than when I arrived at uni,” he says. “It inspired me to keep going in my second year, even though I lived further away, because I was in the habit.
“We’d wait until 8.30pm to go, because then the gym was off-peak, stay until around 9.30pm, then go home, shower, and go out. We did the student thing by the book, but we’d go to the gym first so we wouldn’t feel guilty about it.”