6% of the Canadian population currently attends some form of post-secondary education. This is an important portion of the adult population and the general population. However, university students are seldom included in studies of the adult population – simply by virtue of being too busy and not directly asked.
Being in school, and particularly post-secondary education, generally consists of large portions of sedentary time. The nature of the higher education system lends itself to countless hours in classes and libraries, creating this sedentary culture. Additionally, the years they spend as young adults and living alone for the first time are critical for developing lifelong habits and healthy behaviours. These reasons make university and college students an interesting and important group in which to analyze sedentary behaviour.
An American study analyzed the behaviours of ninety-four 18-24-year-old college students – measuring anthropometrics, physical activity/sedentary behaviour habits and strength. They found that though most students were meeting the physical activity guidelines there was still a distressingly high prevalence of sedentary behaviour. 49-69% of students demonstrated levels of sedentary time that were known to be associated with negative physiological effects and an independent increase in morbidity and mortality. In other words, regardless of physical activity levels this kind of excessive sitting time has been shown to cause negative effects.
The study also found some gender disparities in their participants, noting that females spent more time sitting and were more likely to develop obesity and cancer than males. The reasons for this could be behavioural (males tend to exercise more in general for any study population) or physiological (males tend to have lower percent body fat than females). This being said, both groups saw an increase in mortality risk from prolonged sedentary time.
It was particularly interesting that despite spending 6-8 hours seated per day, students still largely managed to obtain adequate physical activity – the researchers referred to this as an “active couch potato” lifestyle. The university setting offers abundant opportunities to participate in physical activity, this likely being the reason so many students met the physical activity guidelines.
These results show a need to pay more attention to the habits of students in post-secondary education. Though they are seldom included in studies and can be neglected because they are generally active, they pose new questions to sedentary behaviour research. The researchers suggest increasing the number of standing-desks available, finding ways to break up prolonged sitting, and above all promoting education and awareness of the dangers of sedentary time in the university and college population.
Though these results are intriguing, more research is needed to fully understand the risks, benefits and implications of this active couch potato lifestyle.
About the author: Katie MacAskill is a summer student at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity research group (HALO). She will be entering her fourth year of Honours Kinesiology at McMaster University in fall 2019, where she is also a member of the varsity swimming team.