This chapter focused primarily on health conditions prevalent in contemporary, industrialized societies that are due, in part, to the mismatch between our evolved biology and modern environments. These are the built environment and the social environment, which together form the obesogenic environment in which unhealthy behaviors are encouraged. This chapter will close by examining each of these in a college context.
Consider your campus from an evolutionary perspective. To what degree does the built environment lend itself to physical activity as part of daily life? Is your campus constructed in ways that promote driving at the expense of walking or biking? If driving is necessary, is parking available close to the buildings or do you need to walk a fair distance from the parking lot to your destination? Do the buildings have stairs or ramps or is it necessary to take the elevator? Is it possible to negotiate safely around campus on foot or by bike in all weather? After dark? How about the classrooms and computer labs? Do they have standing or treadmill desks? Does your class schedule encourage walking from building to building between classes, or are most courses in your major scheduled in the same location? Most college majors also lack a physical education requirement, leaving it up to students to incorporate exercise into already-challenging schedules (Figure 16.13).
Sociocultural factors that contribute to obesity include food advertising, ubiquitous fast-food and junk food options, and social pressure to consume, all of which are present on college campuses. Although nutrition on campuses has improved in recent years, many students find eating healthy in the dining halls and dorms challenging (Plotnikoff et al. 2015), and students who live off campus fare even worse (Small et al. 2013). There are also parties and other social events, a normal part of college life, that involve unhealthy food and encourage behaviors like alcohol consumption and smoking. Give some thought to the social atmosphere on your campus and the ways it may contribute to obesity. My own freshman orientation involved a succession of pizza parties, ice cream socials, and barbecues, followed by late-night runs to the nearest fast-food outlet. The purpose of these events was to encourage people to make friends and feel comfortable living away from home, but the foods served were unhealthy, and there was social pressure to join in and be part of the group. Such activities set students up for the “freshman fifteen” and then some. They also reinforce the idea that being social involves eating (and sometimes drinking and/or smoking).
Sedentarism and inactivity are also built into the academics of college life. Digital technology is a significant contributor to obesity. Students use laptops and cell phones to take notes, complete their work outside of class, and access social media. There are also video games, virtual reality headsets, and streaming television and movies for entertainment. The built environment of college already necessitates that students sit in class for hours each day, then sit at computers to complete work outside of class. The social environment enabled by digital technology encourages sitting around for entertainment. It is telling that we call it “binge watching” when we spend hours watching our favorite shows. Doing so often involves eating, as well as multiple exposures to food advertising embedded in the shows themselves. In these ways, college contributes to the development of obesity-causing behaviors that can have negative health ramifications long after college is over (Small et al. 2013).
In the U.S., the greatest increase in obesity is among young adults aged 18–29 years, a significant percentage of whom are college students (Plotnikoff et al. 2015). Analyses of college students’ behavior across semesters shows consumption of fruits and vegetables drops over time, as does the amount of physical activity, while consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and fast-food goes up, leading to weight gain at nearly six times the rate of the general public (Small et al. 2013). In response, many colleges and universities have instituted programs to encourage healthier eating and more physical activity among students (Plotnikoff et al. 2015). It is important to emphasize that neither changes in diet or exercise are effective on their own.. A 2022 study of over 340,000 British participants demonstrated that physical activity and diet quality did not individually have an impact on cardiovascular disease or cancers (Ding et al. 2022). That is, hitting the gym won’t counteract the consequences of consuming high-calorie, fatty foods, and eating kale all day can’t cancel out sedentary habits.
Just as no one fad diet is going to prove healthier than another, no one type of exercise is better than another. Anything that raises your heart rate and that you enjoy doing for at least an hour each day will work. Take advantage of opportunities to build exercise into everyday life. Take the stairs, park as far away from buildings as possible, ride a bike or walk instead of driving, and take walks between classes instead of sitting down and checking your phone. As far as diets go, eating a few less unhealthy calories each day, one less soda, no sugar in your coffee, or letting that last slice of pizza go to someone else, make a difference in the long run. Little changes add up to bigger ones. We cannot change our biology, but we can certainly change our habits.