The Relationship between Body Image and Lifestyle Choices in College Students.

Author:McGaughey, Morgan

The college years bring with them a lifestyle different than any other phase of life; college students are mainly on their own for the first time but also often do not have the same adult responsibilities as college graduates who have transitioned into the "real world." Stereotypical college-student life consists of too little sleep, cheap junk food, and caffeine to get them through the day. Students may try new forms of extracurricular activities, hobbies, and forms of exercise. The college years can also be a time of significant emotional, mental, and even spiritual growth. These young adults are away from their parents--the people that shaped and influenced their actions throughout their childhood. Students must make their own faith decisions. They decide whether to get up every Sunday to go to church, and they are exposed to a variety of spiritual backgrounds and beliefs unlike their own, often for the first time. All these things and more influence the growth and formation of college students' identity. They are continually forming their identity and finding their niche, and one of the most crucial aspects of students' mental states is their body image perception.

According to several independent studies, body dissatisfaction correlates with a host of problems for college students, including social physique anxiety, (1) unhealthy methods of weight management, (2) risky sexual behaviors, (3) and worsened academic performance. (4) Due to the harmful implications that negative body perceptions have for students, it is important to find and study the causes of body dissatisfaction to uncover ways to help students overcome and prevent these issues. Many college students' lifestyle choices, including their sleeping habits, nutrition, and exercise habits, as well as other factors, such as religiosity and demographics, may have negative effects on their body image perceptions. This paper attempts to examine the relationships between body image in college students and those lifestyle factors

Sleeping Habits

College students are stereotypically notorious for their sleeping habits. Several studies examine the importance of sleep for all people's wellbeing, including undergraduate students, who are undoubtedly going through one of the most stressful times in their lives. One such study examines sleep disturbance (which can include over- and under-sleeping) in relation to undergraduate students' depression, anxiety, and general functioning. (5) All the studies' participants showed symptoms of depression, but the students experiencing sleep disturbance had worsened anxiety and showed poorer mental and physical functioning than those without sleep disturbance. Obviously, these issues can grow to be detrimental to an undergraduate student's success in college if their sleep quality becomes poor enough. The results of a study conducted by Lilac Lev Ari and Shmuel Shulman emphasized the role of sleep in helping students successfully transition into college. (6) These findings could then lead to the assumption that disturbances in sleep have negative effects on mental health. This is supported by studies such as the one focusing upon Lebanese undergraduate students, which indicated a strong correlation between sleep disorders and anxiety, including the way students view themselves. (7) One could presume that poor sleep habits and sleep quality could negatively affect the body image perception component of mental health. Many factors affect the overall sleep quality of students, including their average bedtime, average number of hours and minutes slept each night, typical minutes it takes to fall asleep, and usual wake-up time. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) measures each of these elements--among others--hence it was utilized by a 2011 study to examine the sleep quality of undergraduate students. (8) A score of greater than 5 on the PSQI McGaughey: The Relationship between Body Image and Lifestyle Choices in College Students indicates poor perceived sleep quality, which was found to be positively correlated with mental health issues in the participants.


Students are also known to struggle with meeting their nutrition needs. For instance, many students skip breakfast or eat unhealthy snacks instead of meals, and these kinds of choices may indeed be causing lower levels of body satisfaction. Positive body image perceptions in college students have been clearly related to healthy nutrition. (9) Liat Korn, Ester Gonen, Yael Shaked, and Moria Golan found strong correlations in their study between students' healthy nutrition and positive body image. (10) Similarly, poor nutrition, such as what is seen in people with eating disorders, is highly correlated to negative body image perceptions. (11) In a study conducted by Walid El Ansari, Emily Dibba, and Christiane Stock, nutrition was found to be an important factor in the students' body image concern level for both genders. (12) Females with higher-calorie diets were more likely to have a moderate body image concern, while males with higher-calorie diets were less likely to have a marked (the highest level of concern in this study) body image concern. Measuring students' caloric intakes seems to be a simple and fairly effective way to find their perceived nutritional status. Measuring their frequency of consumption of high calorie food groups is also a useful indicator.

Exercise habits

Physical exercise may be one of the most highly correlated variables to positive body perceptions. One study found that college students' participation in physical exercise played a role in their positive body image perceptions even more than healthy nutrition. (13) Proper exercise seems to lead to higher body satisfaction. In their 2001 study, Pamela Williams and Thomas Cash found that students that participated in a circuit weight training program both were physically stronger and had significantly improved body image perceptions after they completed the weight-training program. (14) One study used the American Heart Association's guidelines for physical activity as their scale with which to compare students' exercise habits; they found that for the female students in their sample, their level of physical activity was significantly associated with moderate body image concern. (15)


Several studies indicate that spirituality and religiosity positively affect body image perceptions. (16) Kaili Zhang reported that students that described themselves as "spiritual" reported body dissatisfaction less often than those that described themselves as "free thinkers" (in this study meaning they had no religion). (17) In the 2007 study conducted by Boyatzis, Kline, and Backof, most of the participants were affiliated with Christianity, which seemed to affect their body image perceptions in a positive way. This study also found that the participants reported higher levels of body satisfaction after reading a set of spiritual affirmations on body image. (18)


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