Universities work to make fitness, good nutrition priorities on campus

Doug Gulasy
| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 10:46 a.m.

Katie Johnson lived at home while attending Harrisburg Area Community College for two years, so she didn't really feel like she was on her own until she transferred to California University of Pennsylvania for her junior year.

Once she did, she experienced what many college students dread: weight gain.

But the gain didn't truly pick up until she began graduate school.

“I think definitely in my grad school program, I've experienced what I like to call ‘The Grad School 40,'” joked Johnson, 24, a second-year graduate student majoring in clinical mental health counseling.

“I think a lot of it comes with what food is available at the cheapest price, having the opportunity to be by yourself and choose what you want, and a lot of late-night hours.”

Many are familiar with the “Freshman 15” — the weight gain students sometimes experience during their first year on campus. But college weight fluctuations aren't limited to freshmen.

“It isn't necessarily that many pounds, and it certainly isn't just females,” said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. “I think guys deal with this, too, but the issue is that most people's weight doesn't stay the same. We could have some who lose 15 (pounds) because they stop eating, and some who gain 10 because they're eating more (and) they're eating at different times.”

The Freshman 15 expression became popular in 1989 after appearing in an issue of Seventeen magazine. A 2011 study by researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan at Dearborn found that the concept actually is a myth, as freshmen gain about 3 pounds on average, which is typical for people the age group..

Though the notion Freshman 15 has been debunked, colleges and universities are becoming more cognizant of the importance of nutrition and fitness among students — and so are the students themselves.

“Students ask about it,” said Colleen Ruefle, vice president of student life and dean of students at La Roche College. “They're interested in the dietary options, for one thing. Parents are also very concerned about it, so they ask about it during orientation. They want to know about nutrition options, what their son or daughter has the opportunity to experience.”

In recent years, Bonci said, universities have taken steps to ensure better nutrition.

The University of Pennsylvania doles out higher-calorie foods in smaller portions, and Duquesne University has “action stations” where food is prepared in front of students.

Other colleges, such as La Roche, have eliminated trays.

“Most parents don't have trays at home,” Bonci said, and students can fit much less food on a plate.

Bonci said many universities are investing in fitness centers as a recruiting tool.

One is Robert Morris, where a new fitness center was scheduled to open in the new Yorktown Residence Hall this week. The university also has the Jefferson Health and Fitness Center and the RMU Island Sports Center, all of which can be used by students.

“We try to do things that are visible to the student body,” said Armand Buzzelli, RMU's director of campus recreation. “We'll do, for example, a yoga class out on the front lawn of our student center so that people can see that, get excited and join the classes.”

La Roche and Robert Morris add classes based on student demand. Buzzelli said Zumba classes are especially popular, sometimes drawing as many as 75 students.

Robert Morris began a personal training program with 10 students this fall. The students are learning about anatomy and physiology based on a curriculum designed by the American Council of Exercise. The goal is for students to receive personal training certification over the winter break, and be available to train other students in the spring.

“Should this be successful, we're going to have the same course offered in the spring so it'll be something that keeps sustaining itself through our student body,” Buzzelli said.

Though colleges are trying to help students stay healthy, the students must take advantage of what is offered.

“Once you take that responsibility for yourself, that's when you start to see the changes and stop blaming every other factor for what you've done to your own body,” said Johnson, who tries to make it to the gym for an hour a day.

Jemel Sessoms, 21, a junior broadcast journalism major at Robert Morris, said he watched his father work out, and it became part of his daily regimen. That continued once he began attending RMU.

“The main thing that I had to do was adapt to where I was going to fit in my workouts in college, and how I'm going to fit my meals in as well,” Sessoms said.

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5830 or dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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