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Physically Fit

Promoting physical activity to female college students could lead to a lifetime of good health.

Wanda Williams
Wanda Williams

Colleges and universities must offer a greater variety of exercise programs in order to help female students develop healthier lifestyles and prevent future health problems, according to new research by a Rutgers University–Camden nursing professor.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40 percent of Americans (approximately 93 million people) are obese. The CDC suggests that the leading causes of obesity-related conditions—heart disease and stroke—are preventable. In a survey of female Rutgers–Camden students, Wanda Williams, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, asked 23 questions based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults.

Twenty-three percent of the students surveyed said they never engage in any regular physical activity during leisure time or downtime. Twenty-six percent said they do so for one day a week. Twenty percent said two days a week, and 30 percent reported exercising three or more days per week. The most common reasons the students gave for why they don’t exercise are that they don’t have time, they need to study, and they just don’t feel motivated to do physical activity.

Dancing, swimming, Zumba class, hiking, and walking were the top forms of physical activity enjoyed by the respondents to the survey. Simply having a gym on campus isn’t enough to draw in students, says Williams. She believes students would be more interested in exercising if there were a variety of offerings, such as dance and Zumba classes or a walking club—activities that are fun and provide opportunities to socialize.

“Girls are active in elementary school, playing with friends on the playground. But by the time they get to middle school, unless the girl is involved in sports they are no longer physically active,” says Williams. “By the time they get to high school, they are completely out of it unless they are on a team, playing sports such as basketball or tennis.”
Williams found in previous studies that one reason why girls are no longer active around middle school is because that’s when they become more concerned about their appearance. She cites such common excuses as “I am not going to mess up my hair,” and “I don’t want to get all sweaty.”

Survey participants suggested ways in which universities could promote more physical activity among students. The suggestions included offering physical activity courses and credits, and incentives such as scholarships or discounted health insurance for time spent engaging in physical activity.

Participating in at least moderate physical activity is important, says Williams, because it could help start a pattern of healthy living.

CDC statistics show that the U.S. maternal mortality rate is the highest among industrialized countries. More than 700 women die each year in the United States from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth.

“Something as simple as maintaining a walking routine prior to being pregnant and during your pregnancy can help ensure a healthier pregnancy,” says Williams. “You don’t have to pay a lot of money; you don’t have to go to a gym. You can just put on some music and go walking for 30 minutes to an hour every day.”

Williams and her co-authors acknowledge limitations to the 2017 study. They used a sampling of female students at the 7,350-student Rutgers–Camden campus, so they say that their findings may not be generalized to other college populations of the same 18-to-24-year-old age range.

For now, the researchers say they hope the results of this study can inform larger and more rigorous studies about college women in the future.

The article, “Promoting Physical Activity Among Female College Students: Identifying Possible Racial Differences,” is available in the American Journal of Health Studies. Williams co-authored the article with Danielle Sienko and Jesse Chittams of the University of Pennsylvania.