Who's afraid of the Freshman 15?

You don’t worry about a ghost jumping out of your closet at night, or squirrels with pitchforks gathering to kill you in Central Park, or a giant Margherita pizza flying down from outer space and flattening Brooklyn. Why? Because these things don’t happen.

That’s the same reason that you shouldn’t worry about the Freshman 15. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat healthy and exercise while you’re at Columbia—in a moment, we’ll discuss how to do that—but it does mean that you can relax. Contrary to popular myth, you’re very unlikely to gain 15 pounds during your first year in college.

The scientific consensus on this is clear as Crystal Light. Dozens of studies have been done of college freshpersons (my preferred gender-neutral term). Pretty much every researcher has determined that, if college students gain any weight at all during those blissful nine months of Lit Hum lectures, first-time frat parties, and getting lost in Schermerhorn, such extra body weight is minimal. The average is somewhere around 2 ½ pounds. So feel free to call it the Freshperson 2 ½, although that sounds like a movie starring Will Smith and Leslie Nielsen.

In fact, it’s important that you not worry about the Freshman 15. A psychology professor in Iowa asked freshpersons at the beginning of the school year whether or not they believed the myth. At the end of the year, it turned out, the students who were concerned that they’d put on 15 pounds were more likely to have poor body image, overestimate the weight they gained, categorize themselves as overweight, and have an eating disorder. So the Freshman 15 is a bunch of bullsausage that actually correlates with bad eating habits and general unhappiness.

And chew on this: Another study showed that first-year college women’s weight gains were inversely proportional to those of their roommates. In other words, if their roommate was heavier, their own weight stayed lower than it would have if their roommate were lighter. Why? The researchers surmise that heavier roommates are more likely to diet and exercise to try to slim down, so the person they’re living with might copy the behavior. These are what social scientists call peer effects—distinguishable from beer effects, which are likely to put on the poundage.

Indeed, beer, donuts, and TV sets rather than treadmills, are all bricks on the yellow road to obesity. You already probably know the importance of eating healthy and getting exercise, so we don’t have to rehash that potato here. If you’re looking for basics on staying lean and mean in Morningside, the best (and funnest) places to start are Columbia Health’s Guide for Healthy Eating and CU Move!. My own personal stance on exercising and eating is summed up in two catchphrases: “Just Do It” and “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But here’s an extra secret tip for keeping your waist size down in the Heights. Don’t live in John Jay—rather, move to Furnald. Researchers at UMich discovered a few years ago that students who inhabit dorms with cafeterias tend to gain more weight, and those in residences closer to the university gym tend to gain less. By the same logic, they discovered, living far away but within walking distance of campus will give you more exercise. So try renting a fifth-floor walk-up on 106th or 125th. These scientists even made a cool map of their university in Ann Arbor; on the map, the big striped stars demark the most fattening student residences.

What do you do if you’re in John Jay already? Resist the temptation to go downstairs to snack when you’re bored. Pick something else fun to do—like preparing a Margherita pizza and throwing it off the Williamsburg bridge (don’t hit anything important).

Do you have your own tips for managing your weight at Columbia? Share your advice with us in the comments!

Erik Campano is a General Studies student in the class of 2015 who hopes someday to be a medical doctor working year-round in developing countries. Until then, he’s giving health advice to Columbia.


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