Erin Barbour-Tuck has advanced a 26-year-long study on weight gain in young adults. (Photo: Dave Stobbe)

Dreaded “freshman five” weight gain not a myth

A unique University of Saskatchewan study shows that the “freshman five” — the pounds students are thought to gain within their first year of university — is not a myth, but a real phenomenon.

Kinesiology PhD candidate Erin Barbour-Tuck and her supervisor Adam Baxter-Jones have developed a model that predicts that males between ages 18 to 28 gain between two and 17 pounds as young adults, while females gain between four and 26 pounds. The phenomenon happens even if a student’s weight was normal as a teenager.  

“The period when people leave home is associated with an increased risk of gaining weight, potentially because young adults start making lifestyle choices for themselves,” said kinesiology professor Baxter-Jones. “Students need to be aware of their eating habits and physical activity choices to ensure that they keep normal weights.”     

The researchers found that young adults in their study who have gained the most weight had a higher fat mass as children and teenagers, as well as lower physical activity in emerging adulthood. The project is the latest part of a 26-year-long study that has been conducted on the same people, who are now in their late 30s. The next step of this research will look into the causes. 

While the body needs a certain amount of fat for healthy functioning, non-essential fat mass is the “storage” that is not needed for survival. Along with lean body mass (muscles, bones, organs and body water), fat mass determines a person’s weight and directly influences cardiovascular health.

Barbour-Tuck found that almost 70 per cent of 130 participants in her study had a total body fat percentage that deemed them overweight in young adulthood, but their body mass index (BMI) as children and teenagers was normal that’s because BMI doesn’t compare the fat percentage in the body to lean mass.

The researchers’ results, published in the journal Obesity and the American Journal of Human Biology, also show that a lower childhood fat mass and ongoing physical activity can help reduce fat mass gains as young adults by approximately 15 to 20 pounds.

“Teaching kids and teenagers how to make healthy lifestyle choices is important,” said Barbour-Tuck. “Kids do what parents do, so leading by example and showing them how to include physical activity and healthy eating in an adult’s lifestyle is crucial for later quality of life.”

She adds the U of S provides young adults with many opportunities to be healthy. Through their tuition fees, all students have unlimited access to the Physical Activity Complex (PAC), which offers gym equipment, a swimming pool, a climbing wall and free fitness classes that range from Zumba to spin.

The research is funded by Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), the Dairy Farmers of Canada, and the federal agency Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).   

Federica Giannelli is a graduate student intern in the University of Saskatchewan research profile and impact unit. This content runs through a partnership with The StarPhoenix.

This article first ran as part of the 2018 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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