With her freshman year at college just around the corner, 18-year-old Ariel Scharf of Arlington, Va. has a lot going on.
But amid the preparations for moving in at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., she is adding one more item to her priority list -- she has started an exercise regimen.
"I'm 5-foot-1 and 108 pounds," she said. "I'm tiny, so any weight gain is really obvious."
Scharf said she hopes to carry this routine into her first year of college in order to avoid the dreaded "freshman 15" -- the extra 15 pounds new college students are said to pack on in their first couple of semesters on campus.
Now, new research suggests that the proximity of a freshman's dorm to dining facilities may play a part in at least some of this weight gain.
The article, co-authored by Kandice Kapinos of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Olga Yakusheva of the Department of Economics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc., was published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"We know that there are other factors that influence weight gain -- such as genetics and social environment -- so we were not even expecting the physical environment effects to be close to five pounds," Kapinos said in a press statement.
The study examined the weight gain of 388 freshmen at Marquette University. The students were assigned randomly to seven different dormitories. Four of these dorms had onsite dining halls, and they were varying distances to the two campus gymnasiums open to the students.
Drawing information from the students' self-reports on how many meals they ate each day, how many times per week they exercised and how much weight they gained or lost, the researchers found that female students in dorms with dining halls weighed almost two pounds more and exercised nearly one and a half fewer times per week than those living in dorms without dining halls.
"This is the first time that 18-year-olds are on their own and really independently making their own food choices," said Lisa Cimperman, a registered dietitian at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "If there's not a conscious effort made to eat a healthy diet, I think it's really easy to eat a poor diet in college, unfortunately."
Curiously, though, the findings did not appear to apply to male students.
This and other aspects of the research puzzled some diet and exercise experts, who noted that a different research approach may be needed in order to validate the findings of the study.
Freshman Weight Gain Patterns Have Some Experts Perplexed
"All of this is self-reported, so it depends on a lot of honesty here," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "It is not uncommon that weight might be reported incorrectly."
Wayne Westcott, Senior Fitness Executive for the YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, agreed the concept that simple proximity to a cafeteria could influence weight gain for entering students was, in a way, confusing.
"They have been in high school, have lived at home, and had their 'cafeteria' right there," he said. "I don't quite understand the mechanism of that aspect."
Westcott said it may be more important that the further students lived from a gym, the less they exercised.
"This definitely would correlate with what we have known in the fitness industry," he said. "Something like 80 percent of the people who go to a fitness facility live within a fairly short radius of that center. So that part of the study makes a lot of sense for me."
Ayoob said the research suggests that students living on campus near a cafeteria may do well to be wary of paying too many visits to the dining hall tables.
"This sort of underscores that people tend to do what's easiest -- they eat more if that's easiest, but they also exercise more if that's what's easiest," Ayoob said. "That's probably just human nature."
Dining Halls May Be for Socializing as Well
One aspect that may help explain the weight gain in female students living closer to cafeterias could be the social aspect of eating.
Scharf, for one, said grabbing a bite and sharing conversation already go hand-in-hand for her social group.
"I've noticed myself that if my friends and I are hanging out, we will eat," Scharf said. "That's one way to keep your hands busy."
Scharf added that the location of her dorm puts her a three- to five-minute walk away from the cafeteria, while the gym is a five- to eight-minute walk away -- which means that meeting friends at the gym rather than the cafeteria may require a little extra effort.
This pattern may also help to explain the gender gap seen in the study, Westcott said.
"I think perhaps that women are a little more socially oriented at college, and one social thing they engage in might be, 'Let's go get a snack,'" Westcott said. "Men may not tend to do that as much."
Avoiding the 'Freshman 15' May Be Lesson in 'Moderation 101'
Regardless of the reasons, health experts said, being aware of the impact of on-campus dining on weight is half the battle when it comes to staving off the freshman 15.
"Freshmen need to make [eating on campus] a quality-oriented experience rather than a quantity-oriented experience," Westcott said.
Remaining aware of weight on a regular basis, Ayoob said, may also help students stay within their healthy range.
"Fifteen pounds in five months is a lot of weight to gain," he said. "It might not be a bad idea for freshmen to check their weight every couple of weeks.
"You can avoid the freshman 15 if you don't let it get past the freshman five without taking action."