Yale students have many priorities — finishing waves of essays, rehearsing melodies for a cappella concerts, filling out countless job applications — so finding time to sleep, exercise and eat right can often become secondary. During these four years as undergraduates, how bad of a beating are our bodies really taking? And will we pay for it later on down the road?
Though college students sometimes engage in risky behaviors that push their bodies to the limit, they are generally still healthier than the rest of the population, said David Katz, director and founder of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, which develops and tests programs to promote healthy living. This is largely because they have youth on their side. Students who attend college often come from families that are wealthier or more educated than the majority of population, he added, and these socioeconomic factors are also correlated with general health.
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But don’t celebrate yet — the health of college students is moving in the wrong direction, along with that of the rest of the population, Katz said. In recent decades, college students have not been able to avoid the national trend of increasing rates of ailments such as obesity and high cholesterol.
Over Yale’s history, student fitness has shifted from being an issue of institutional policy to one of personal choice, but undergraduate respondents to an April 12 survey conducted by the News sleep less and eat less nutritiously on average than what health experts recommend, and about 40 percent of the 1,539 respondents said they spend one hour or less engaged in aerobic exercise per week. Joseph Gordon, dean of undergraduate education, said he does not view teaching students about health as part of Yale College’s mission as a liberal arts institution, but officials at Payne Whitney Gym and Yale Health are exploring ways to increase students’ exposure to information about maintaining good health.
Many of students’ unhealthy habits have harmful effects on their daily activities. Vahid Mohsenin, director of the Yale Center for Sleep Medicine, said people should get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. Most students who seek out the center for help, he added, either complain of problems with snoring or excessive sleepiness during the day. About 49 percent of the respondents to the News survey said they get six hour of sleep or less on an average week night (Sunday night through Thursday night); the overall average response was 6.4 hours per night.
“Anything less than six [hours of sleep] will cause problems with learning,” Mohsenin said, “and mental and physical performance will decline.”
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Lack of sleep also leads to weight gain, experts said, partly because people are more likely to snack at unusual hours of the day and look to food for comfort. College students sometimes pride themselves on “pulling an all-nighter” to study for an exam, but Jennifer Haubenreiser, vice president of the American College Health Association, said students should place a greater value on the amount of sleep they get.
“Students tend to not take that very seriously, and they tend to joke about how little sleep they get,” she said.
Though Mohsenin said staying up all night is “one of the most detrimental things you can do to yourself,” Paschalis Toskas ’14 said that he finds pulling all-nighters useful for certain kinds of exams. For math or physics tests that require a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking, he said, he finds that sleep is more necessary to succeed than for exams that require more memorization, like history or biology, which lend themselves to midnight cramming.
About three-quarters of respondents said they go to bed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on an average week night. Mohsenin added that going bed especially late (around 2 a.m.) does not have terrible consequences as long as people sleep for between seven and eight hours.
But even if students do set aside enough time to get a proper amount of sleep, certain habits can still prevent them from getting a full night’s rest. Sneaking in a late-night snack before going to sleep disrupts the quality and continuity of sleep, and exercise within three hours of jumping into bed makes it harder to fall asleep, Katz said.
Toskas said he wanders out for a late-night snack when he eats toward the earlier end of Yale Dining’s dinner hours.
“It’s when I eat dinner early and have to study late [that] I need something to keep me going,” he said.
Some students who spend the moonlight hours of the week immersed in their textbooks often try to catch up on their sleep over the weekend. But experts said this strategy poses problems because it disrupts your circadian rhythms, your 24-hour biological clock.
“If on weekends you try to compensate,” Mohsenin said, “Monday morning you’re not going to be terribly functional.”
Students who attempt to escape the stressfulness of the week by hitting the party scene aren’t doing their bodies any favors either. Alcohol impairs rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, Haubenreiser said, so drinkers may not feel completely rested even if they sleep all night.
Weekend indulgences aside, respondents on average also fell short in their everyday nutrition choices.
Over 50 percent of students polled said they eat three servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day or less, which falls far short of the recommended number 10, according to Haubenreiser. However, Mike Jones ’12 said he thinks Yale Dining could offer more appealing choices to encourage students to eat better.
“Students want to eat food that appeals to their stomachs as well as their sensibility,” he said. “If dining halls made a greater effort to provide more robust salad bars with quality ingredients or fruits that were fresh and appetizing, I am confident that students would eat more fruits and vegetables.”
Rafi Taherian, Yale Dining executive director, said nutrition influences how Yale Dining plans menus, purchases ingredients, and presents dishes. Students eat “lots” of fruits and vegetables, he said, and recent changes to the salad bars have increased the amount of produce students consume.
CAN WE RECOVER?
College places people in a unique set of circumstances — thousands of peers live within a few blocks, unlimited meal plans abound, and students can set their own schedules. What often results is a routine, or an absence of routine, to which people will never return once they graduate. On the whole, Katz said, four years of somewhat unhealthy tendencies will not have any drastic consequences.
“In terms of not getting enough sleep or occasionally drinking to much, those are things you can recover from,” Katz said, “but it may be that you are setting up a pattern for the rest of your life.”
Katz and other health experts said certain poor choices in college puts students at higher risk of illness down the road.
A person who consistently sleeps less than six hours per night doubles their risk of developing diabetes, Mohsenin said. Low amounts of sleep precipitate abnormal levels of hormones and a resistance to insulin. Even when subjects are forced to limit their sleep for only a couple of weeks, he said, they begin to show “pre-diabetic” reactions and gain weight. But people can also get too much sleep. He said people who sleep for more than 10 hours per night have three-times greater risk of getting diabetes than those who sleep about eight hours per night, adding that such heavy sleepers often have other health problems that also contribute to diabetes.
Alcohol abuse in college can also haunt students later in their lives. Haubenreiser said that in recent years, doctors have come to realize that the brain does not finish developing until around age 25, while previously, scholars had thought the process ended earlier. She said excessive drinking during students’ college years can hinder the brain’s development.
Experts also noted that people often determine their lifestyle choices early in life, so some habits cemented in college can be hard to break.
“College is a great time … to build a foundation for health in the rest of your life,” Katz said. “You have to invest in that now. The sooner you do it, the greater the dividend.”
FROM ROPE CLIMBING TO PILATES
Yale’s strategies for building this “foundation for health” has changed significantly over its history. Yale’s first true champion of physical fitness was Walter Camp 1882, who is known as the “father of American football,” said Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61. Camp was a champion football player while at Yale. After graduating, he effectively became Yale’s director of athletics, he said.
“If you go to the Yale Bowl, there’s this great big gate, the Walter Camp gate, because he was a hero who believed in physical fitness,” he said. “He’s one of the reasons Yale was almost unbeatable for some years in football. The team went through real physical fitness training.”
During World War I, Camp took charge of fitness for the entire Yale community, said Smith. Faculty and students alike would come out to do calisthenics with him, since many felt that being physically fit was an obligation they owed their country.
The craze over physical fitness was sparked in part by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, said Gordon. Many Ivy League graduates were victims of the tragedy, and their parents were unnerved to think that their children had graduated from such prestigious universities but still could not swim, which contributed to the adoption of swimming tests across the country. He added that knowing how to swim would probably not have helped in the frigid Atlantic waters.
This period of emphasizing physical fitness was followed by the establishment of Yale’s residential colleges in 1933. Edward H. Harkness 1897, the major donor to the project, insisted that each college should be accompanied by a vigorous intramural athletic program, which Smith called a “very important” step in the development of Yale’s athletic programs.
When Smith was an undergraduate student at Yale in the 1950s, he said the athletic atmosphere was different from the way it exists today. For one thing, freshmen had body-building obligations and had to pass a test in calisthenics, which included climbing a rope, doing push-ups, and swimming lengths in the pool. Students were also encouraged to play a sport.
In the early 1960s, Smith said, Yale began to resemble the university students know today.
Yale now has a policy of providing resources for students and letting them decide how or if they wish to use them, said Forrest Temple, senior associate athletic director of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The gym currently offers classes such as Pilates and yoga — which Payne Whitney Director Duke Diaz said are the most popular — as well as self-defense and dance courses.
In residential colleges, peer health educators make themselves available throughout the year and hold various events. At freshmen orientation, they give a presentation that focuses on sex education, sexual violence and stress management, but does not examine other elements of health, said Caitlyn Stockus, a health educator at Yale Health.
CREATING A CULTURE
Haubenreiser, who is also director of health promotion at Montana State University, said a change in culture needs to occur on many college campuses, like the one she is trying to engineer at Montana State. Simply educating students about which choices they should make is not effective, she said, so universities need to have policies that encourage an environment conducive to physical activity, regular sleep patterns, and healthy diets. She said all components of health are “interconnected,” so taking measures such as banning smoking or building a new fitness center have effects that extend beyond their immediate outcomes by improving the culture on campus.
“Students are more prone to act from an emotional center than [a logical one], which is how we learned ‘just say no’ is never going to work,” she said.
Experts said that in general people know what healthy habits are, but they have a difficult time implementing them in their hectic lives.
Deane Lamont, a professor of kinesiology, the study of human movement, at St. Mary’s College of California, where he completed a study of exercise habits of the student body, said some college administrators across the country view developing healthy habits in students as part of their liberal arts commitment to develop the “whole person.”
Gordon, who joined the Yale College Dean’s Office in 1988, said he agreed that health contributes to the formation of a well-rounded individual, but he does not see the development of health as part of Yale’s liberal arts mission.
“Fitness is an important part of a person’s education, and you have to be able to take care of your body as well as your mind,” he said, “but I don’t think a swim test will make a big difference.”
Jones, a junior economics major who said he exercises at Payne Whitney regularly, said students should take more advantage of the resources Yale provides. About 23 percent of survey respondents said they do not spend any time doing aerobic exercise during an average week, though about 18 percent said they engage in aerobic exercise for six or more hours per week.
“Yale’s health culture is certainly underdeveloped, and to the extent that it exists, it is distorted and unproductive. To start, any college campus will face an uphill battle in creating a holistically sound health culture, given the influences of alcohol, drugs, and many sleepless nights. That said, I believe Yale students suffer disproportionately from these distortions because the school attracts extremely driven and intense people.”
On the other hand, Nnamdi Iregbulem ’13 said Yale students “go overboard” with their concern for healthy eating and exercise.
Diaz and Stockus said they are exploring new ways to incorporate health education into life at Yale. This year Diaz organized a nutrition seminar, which about five students attended, and he hopes to continue to offer such sessions next year and that more students will attend. Students will also be able to enroll in spin classes at Payne Whitney next fall, Diaz said, and a new personal training program is about to begin. Diaz said he tries to gauge what is becoming popular in the fitness industry and make those activities available to students.
Stockus also began a new workshop this year, which is designed to help people quit smoking, though only two students participated. Next year Stockus will begin a program called Wellness Wednesdays, she said, in which Yale Health experts will talk with undergraduates about topics such as nutrition, dermatology and stress management one Wednesday out of each month.
Though these administrators are creating new programs, students will ultimately determine whether they want to use them. At Yale, time is scarce, and time spent on one activity is time lost on another. If faced with the trade-off between a run on the treadmill or looking over class notes one last time, or between a full night’s rest and one last stop at another fraternity, which would you choose? Encouraging Yalies to become more healthy and fit may require more than just physical training.
Nikita Lalwani contributed reporting.
Correction: April 18, 2011
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Deane Lamont.