With statistics showing a steady rise in American obesity every year, many college students are left wondering if gaining weight is inevitably in their future.
Graduate student Rachel Scherr says it doesn’t have to be a concern if students form good habits now.
Scherr, a teaching assistant for Nutrition 10, recently joined her fellow TAs in introducing “active office hours” to all NUT 10 students. Instead of seeing the TAs in a normal office, members of the class can now ask questions and get tips for exams while bumping up their heart rate in various physical activities.
“The TAs are always coming up with different ways that we can apply the course material to life,” Scherr said. “We hope that this will both help us get to know our students better and allow them to see how easy an active lifestyle can be.”
Active office hours were first introduced earlier this year during Summer Sessions. So far, activities have included 30-minute spin classes at the ARC and jogs around the arboretum, said Mary Henderson, another NUT 10 TA.
“We feel like this is a fun way to incorporate being active while still learning,” she said. “We try to hold something every other week. So far there has been a very good turnout … students seem to really like the idea.”
Henderson and Scherr said that they hope to eventually add more options such as boot camp classes and DC outings, where students can learn better food choices.
Though many students complain that hefty course-loads leave them little time or energy for working out, Henderson said students can easily fit exercise into their day.
“Incorporate exercise into your social life,” she said. “Join an IM team or grab a buddy and do something active together. Also, ride your bike everywhere instead of taking the bus.”
Scherr emphasizes the fact that exercise shouldn’t be a chore.
“The point is to do things that you enjoy so that you continue to do them,” she said. “The whole idea behind health is that it should never be difficult.”
While good lifestyle habits can make a difference for many, obesity is not always merely a matter of self-control, says Alexandra Kazaks, a former UC Davis post-doctorate. Kazaks recently co-authored a book on obesity with UC Davis nutrition professor Dr. Judith Stern.
“Obesity has a lot of physiological and biochemical underpinnings … for many, it is not simply a lack of willpower,” Kazaks said. “Some people will never be obese and for others it can happen very easily.”
However, lifestyle does play a substantial role, she said.
“Of course, everything works together,” Kazaks said. “You have the genetic predisposition, the hormonal aspect and also the environment.”
The modern world has seen a dramatic increase in obesity due to what Kazaks calls an “obesogenic environment.”
“Unless you are living in a [developing country], it is easy to get lots of calorie-dense food,” she said. “We also live in places where it is safer and more convenient to drive than to walk … our bodies are made to work hard physically, but unfortunately the modern lifestyle interferes with this.”
Kazaks also points out that there are biological reasons why people have trouble keeping the weight off once they have lost it.
“When you lose weight, fat cells become smaller, but the body wants to maintain the fat cell content,” she said. “The mechanism is meant to ward off starvation but since most of us are not starving, this works against us. Once a person has been obese, it is easier for their bodies to return to that state.”
Kazaks agrees with Scherr and Henderson that weight loss should be a realistic and gradual process.
“If losing weight is really stressful, a person will just want to quit and go back to being happy,” Kazaks said. “You have to take it slowly.”
Students also have to watch the attitude that they have towards their bodies, said Katie Cougevan, a psychologist and the coordinator of the Eating Disorder Program at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
Cougevan said that a person’s approach to weight loss can often cross the line between a healthy awareness and a dangerous compulsion.
“If you are driven to be overly aware [of your body] because of an emphasis you are placing on perfection, or because you value a ‘thin ideal,’ that would indicate an unhealthy attitude,” she said. “Also, if you notice that you tend to use a high amount of negative descriptors or self-depreciating language [when talking about your body], it’s a red flag.”
A negative opinion of one’s body can often lead to various eating disorders as well as exercise addiction, Cougevan said.
“Exercise is great for stress relief, but it becomes unhealthy if it is a way that someone solely manages anxiety without any other coping mechanisms,” she said. “As with anything, balance is key.”
Cougevan emphasized that students who have struggled with an eating disorder either in the present or the past should seek out professional help.
“As with any addiction, someone can overcome disordered eating completely, but the signals and brain chemistry that can lead them down that path again will always remain,” she said. “On average, it takes seven years to recover from an eating disorder, even with professional help. The sooner someone can seek treatment, the easier it becomes to reset patterns.”
For more information students can visit CAPS, located on the second floor of North Hall.
ERICA LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.