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Reality Check: Elon students’ health habits defy common perceptions

September 18, 2012

The popular image of a sleep-deprived college student devouring Ramen noodles and guzzling caffeinated drinks does not accurately describe the typical Elon University student.

In a recent poll conducted by The Pendulum, the majority of the nearly 100 Elon students who responded indicated they sleep, on average, between seven and eight hours each night and eat three meals each day. Three respondents said they drink more than three caffeinated drinks on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, Leigh-Anne Royster, director of health promotions, said college students’ health habits are a bit erratic.

“College students, for the first time, are developing habits that are not necessarily structured by parents or administration,” she said. “They are thinking for the first time about eating enough meals and going to bed at a time that makes sense.”

Students who developed a routine prior to entering college are more likely to maintain a pattern throughout their four years at the university, she said. But changing schedules each semester disrup established activity in college, according to Royster.

New experiences in college also interfere with the routine of those students who developed a standard bed time and eating habits prior to coming to Elon.

“I get a little less sleep here than at home because of work, going out later and socializing with the girls on my hall,” said freshman Mary Robins.


Students’ activity intrinsic with eating habits

New dining options also cause a discrepancy between Robins’ diets at home and at school. While she acknowledged there were healthy options on campus, she said the amount of fat on a piece of meat served in Colonnades deterred her from eating red meat on campus, limiting her protein consumption.

“I was probably more healthy at home,” she said.

Sophomore Amber Gaither expressed a similar change in eating habits. Gaither used to participate in athletics in high school, but has since stopped and recognized a decline in her health choices.

For Gaither, a typical diet consists of pasta, chicken and French fries, she said.

“In high school, I did sports, so I ate more vegetables and more healthy foods, and now that I don’t do athletics I eat very badly,” she said.

But, Gaither’s choices are not consistent with the majority of students at Elon, according to The Pendulum’s survey. A little more than 51 percent of Elon student survey respondents reported they eat a balanced meal always or most of the time, and 67 percent said they eat at least three meals each day.

“I definitely eat three meals every day, no matter what,” said junior Scott Balerno.

While junior Caroline Olney said she typically eats a balanced diet, she also said she believes she ate healthier at home.

“I think I’ve altered my eating habits because I don’t have someone making my meals for me, so they’re not as good,” Olney said.

Royster does not attribute a perceived decline in healthy habits to the dining options, but rather said she believes other lifestyle habits, such as social and academic engagement, limit students’ choices. Sophomore Lauren Klobutcher said her commitment to her sorority and Elon Volunteers! causes her to start her homework later and, as a result, get less sleep than she would like.

Two extremes concerning student involvement threaten the development of healthy habits, according to Royster. Students who do not exhibit any involvement in organizational activity tend not to exercise enough or eat well, she said. But, students overly involved do not prepare nutritious meals and typically consume more caffeine.

“Elon is doing a good job of helping students make healthy choices by posting caloric intake and ingredients at different dining locations, but students are working with so many habits that combat healthy eating,” Royster said.

She cited body image and high engagement as two factors that hinder healthy eating habits. Royster recommended students exercise 30 to 60 minutes per day, a time she indicated as an appropriate amount, and limiting student involvement so they have time to prepare nutritious food and become informed about the products they buy.

“There are a lot of options, and they’re accessible for students, but students need to take the time and be knowledgeable,” she said.


Recognizing individual needs leads to healthy practices

She also encourages students to assess their sleeping needs. While people commonly think eight hours is the necessary amount, it depends on each individual, according to Royster.

“Awareness of one’s personal bodies and personal needs is really important,” she said.

Balerno specifically designed his schedule so he could sleep later more often, allowing him to sleep more this semester than during the previous two years. While Balerno said he usually slept six hours nightly, this semester he has been able to get between eight and nine hours each night.

“I definitely don’t like early classes as much, so I chose my schedule carefully this year,” he said.

Although the change in schedule modified Balerno’s sleep patterns, sophomore Steven Cockerham identified the social atmosphere has a large influence on his sleep habits.

“If other people aren’t going to sleep, it’s social time,” Cockerham said.

Royster encouraged students to discuss their personal needs with roommates so that each individual can best prepare for the proper amount of sleep.

“You’re your best advocate about needing sleep and having a routine,” she said.

According to Royster, not getting enough sleep produced a perceived need for caffeine.

“I get less sleep, so I’m tired more often, so there’s more coffee,” Olney said.


Caffeine consumption increased since entering Elon, but not as high as perceived

Olney said her caffeine consumption has increased since she began college, and she typically has two or three caffeinated drinks each day.

In contrast, Cockerham said he only drinks soda containing caffeine once in a while. Additionally, he said when he drinks soda, he does not drink it for its caffeine content, but rather for the taste.

While a plurality, 43 percent, of survey respondents said they consume only one caffeinated drink each day, about two-thirds of the respondents indicated they were unsure of the appropriate daily amount of caffeine.

One to two caffeinated drinks are shown to be healthy, and individuals should not cut out caffeine completely, according to Royster. But in contrast to the 43 percent that consumes one drink, 15 respondents answered they consume three or more drinks on a daily basis.

When consuming caffeine, she recommended “good caffeine,” which she characterized as products that are grown, such as tea or coffee. She also suggested activities such as running, yoga and spinning that produce the same energizing effects as caffeinated beverages.

Nevertheless, one’s habits are usually constructed in response to study routine and level of engagement. The wellness office has been focused on alcohol and violence prevention in the past, but has developed programs concerning stress and peer education.

“We as administrators have to do a better job of helping students have that balance and encourage students to invest deeper instead of broader,” Royster said.


Study schedule impacts health habit development

Students should also recognize how their commitment to schoolwork influences other aspects of their daily routines, she said.

“If students are procrastinating, they are going to fall into the habit of staying up late, thinking they have to drink that Red Bull and not taking the time to prepare a meal,” Royster said.

Cockerham sometimes skips lunch if he feels he is too busy, which is not consistent with his eating habits prior to college, he said.

“The most important thing for students is they are educated about their health needs,” Royster said. “It’s the first time it’s the students’ responsibility solely.”

She advised students to devise a plan including expected times to complete a task to better organize their schedules. If more time is needed than anticipated, students should evaluate their level of focus or seek alternative resources to enhance comprehension of the material, she said.

Assessing the answer assists students with time management and the best way to complete an assignment, Royster said.

“Is it factors you can control in your life or do you need additional support from faculty members?” Royster asked.

Analyzing the various components of student lives contributes to the development of a healthy lifestyle during college, she said.

One Comment leave one →
  1. andersj permalink
    September 18, 2012 11:04 pm

    Nice work on this and an interesting story. I would have assumed that Elon students didn’t get more than six hours of sleep. In fact, the way some talk I had imagined they averaged about four! This long story would benefit greatly from the addition of subheadlines with strong verbs and specific details to help lead readers along through to the end.

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