Exercise, The Student Obesity Epidemic and You…

Increased intake of high calorie food and a more sedentary lifestyle has increased obesity rates globally.1  University students are not exempt from these trends and have also become a prevalent part of the obesity epidemic.1, 2 Worldwide, almost a quarter of uni students are obese or overweight.1 One Australian study found almost 1/3 of first year university students were obese or overweight, with men being twice as likely than women to be in this category.1

The factors associated with obesity in university students are diverse. They include (but are not limited to) being male, lacking social support, higher socio-economic status, poor mental health and a history of childhood abuse (verbal, physical and sexual).1 Entering university typically exposes students to new environments, relationships and financial responsibilities2  and, many first year university students experience increased stress as a result. This stress can impact upon health behaviour choicesincluding diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption and smoking.

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During the first year of university women are more likely to experience stress compared to men (57% v 47%).2 However men are more likely to make unhealthy food choices compared to women.2 These include increased intake of alcohol, cereal and highly processed foods as well as decreased fruit and vegetable intake.Importantly, somewhere between 20-50% of university students don’t meet the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines.1, 2

Physical inactivity is the second greatest cause of cancer in Australia.3 The World Health Organisation has estimated that at least 80% of all heart disease, stroke, and diabetes cases as well as 40% off all cancers are preventable.4 Low cardio respiratory fitness is thought to have contributed to more deaths than obesity, smoking and diabetes combined!5

The causes of chronic disease are complex and typically include biomedical and environmental factors. However, lifestyle change is essential to changing these statistics.4 Recommended lifestyle changes include reducing smoking and drinking, improving nutritional choices and increasing physical activity.4

Physical activity is critical to an individual’s health, whether they lose weight or not.3 Exercise has been shown to lower the risk of developing depression, heart disease, cancer and diabetes but can also help treat these conditions when they do develop.3 Studies show that exercise can be as effective as therapy and medication in treating mild-moderate depression.6 Exercise has also been shown to reduce the duration of hospital stays and recurrence rates, as well as the frequency and severity of treatment-related side effects in cancer treatment.7

Furthermore, exercise has been shown make changes to your brain and body that enhance your ability to retain the information that you study. These improvements to your memory and thinking can occur through both direct and indirect means.8 Firstly, engaging in aerobic exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus (an area critical for verbal memory and learning).8 Many studies have also surmised that people who exercise have a bigger prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (areas important for thinking and memory).8

The benefits of exercise directly impact your body by reducing insulin resistance, reducing inflammation, and stimulating the release of growth factors.8 Growth factors are chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.8 Exercise also increases the connections between the nerve cells in your brain.8 This improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.8 Indirectly, exercise improves your mood and sleep as well as reducing stress and anxiety.8 Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment which impact upon your ability to study.8

In conclusion exercise is beneficial in decreasing your risk of developing disease, improving your mental health and improving your ability to learn. In combination with good dietary choices, weight goals can be achieved and can set you up for a healthier, happier life.

Want to know more about the benefits of exercise? Need help overcoming obstacles to regular exercise?

Why not see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, the experts in using exercise to improve your health and performance.

  1. Peltzer, K., Pengpid, S., Samuels, T. A., Ozcan, N. K., Mantilla, C., Rahamefy, O. H., Wong, M. L., and Gasparishvili, A. (2014). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 11(7):7425-7441.
  2. Papier, K., Ahmed, F., Lee, P., and Wiseman, J. Stress and dietary behaviour among first year university students in Australia: Gender differences. (2015). Nutrition 31(2): 324-330.
  3. Exercise is Medicine Australia.
  4. World Health Organisation. Chronic diseases and health promotion. https://www.who.int/chp/chronic_disease_report/part1/en/index11.html
  5. Blair, S. N. (2009) Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 43(1):1-2.
  6. Depression and exercise. (2014) Exercise is medicine. http://exerciseismedicine.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2014-Depression-FULL.pdf
  7. Exercise and cancer. Exercise is Medicine. http://exerciseismedicine.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/EIM-fact-sheet_General-Cancer_Professional_FINAL2.pdf
  8. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. Regular Exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills.

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