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A New Challenge for College Students: The Freshman 8, Not 15!

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As the lazy days of summer wind down, we know that for some students and parents an entirely new experience is about to occur: College! This is an exciting, scary and in some cases difficult time for both students and parents. Most of us have heard about the "Freshman 15": where the average freshmen seems to gain about 15 pounds during the first year of college, usually due to poor eating habits, too much partying and too little sleep. But I want to introduce something new that might reduce the risk of the Freshman 15, and increase the chances of an overall successful college experience.

It's called the Freshman 8. This is the approximately eight hours of sleep I want all freshman to get each night during their first year, to help keep them healthy, attentive and focused. Before you groan, here's why.

The Truth about College Students and Sleep

College and sleep. Not two words that we would often put together in the same phrase. College is meant to be, and should be, an experience. Classes, papers, the library, football games, parties. A dorm room is where you put all that cool new stuff your mom bought you on that shopping trip, right? There is a bed there, but... It has long been thought that sleep and college don't really mix well, but there is now research to show exactly what that means. In a 2001 study the researchers found that only 11 percent of college students slept well consistently and 73 percent experienced occasional sleep problems. In a 2007 survey by the American College Health Association it was discovered that 40% percent of students feel well-rested only 2 days a week. With these numbers in mind, it's just not reality to think that college students can or will just "make it up on the weekends." Sleep deprivation, especially among college students, is at epidemic levels. So what to do?

There are several issues that I hear from my patients about sleep and their college experience:

  1. New environment (a dorm room and a roommate)
  2. New freedom ( there is no one there "reminding" them to get some rest)
  3. New influences (social gatherings, communal living, late night partying, up late studying)

So let's first talk about this new sleep environment. What does the typical freshman find in a dorm room? The room is likely smaller than the room they left at home. The beds are generally twin extra long, which may be an adjustment. The room temperature may or may not be within their control, and the amount of sunlight (the thing that helps re-set their circadian clock each day) may be significantly different from what they are used to. Now add in another factor: the roommate.

In many cases having a roommate is like getting married, if you have never shared a room. While you will not likely share the same bed there are many influences that a roommate can have on a person's sleep:

  • Two people may not share the same bedtime or wake time
  • One person may like to sleep with the light on or with music
  • The new roomie may have a test and want to study all night
  • Someone may snore
  • Someone may have a "guest" spending the night
In any successful partnership, communication is key. Roommates need to talk to each other. Find out who likes to sleep when, where and how. Lay some ground rules, make some compromises. Buy some earplugs, consider an eye mask, a good set of headphones and some soothing sleep music.

College is often one of the first instances in which an 18 year-old has ever spent any real time on his or her own and becomes responsible for his or her own schedule. New friends, new places. Living in a group. New social opportunities, fraternities, sororities, athletics, clubs, special interest groups. Staying up all night, not just because you can (aka party), but because you might need to (aka studying). College is a breeding ground for bad sleep habits. And an increase in the use of caffeine and energy drinks is often a result of these new sleep habits. Be careful -- try to listen to your body (and your head). Everyone's sleep needs are different. Your new friend may require much less sleep than you do to function tomorrow.

So back to the new sleep challenge: Let's change the unhealthy Freshmen 15 to a healthy Freshmen 8!

But it's more than just avoiding the Freshman 15 -- although many of us may remember during the first year of college, students have a tendency to eat more fast food and high-calorie cafeteria meals. This coupled with a decrease in physical activities can lead to weight gain. Now add sleep deprivation into the mix and you can almost guarantee that additional weight will pile on.

Sleep deprivation leads to poor concentration, inability to focus, decreased coordination... in college terms, lower grades and potentially less-than-peak athletic performance. Not necessarily the way you want to start, spend or end your college career.

Sleep 101 -- Easy Assignment

Here's a quick and easy tip to use if you are a college freshman (or any student), or that you can share with a student: an easy way to calculate what time you should try to get to bed to hit that target Freshman 8. Let's call it the first assignment in Sleep 101.

Look at your class schedule and pick the earliest class that you have. Next count backwards 9.5 hours to calculate your bedtime. Here is an example: If you sign up for an 8:15 a.m. class you should be getting ready for bed at 10:45 p.m. This gives you 45 minutes to get things done (last-minute emails, status updates, personal hygiene and a warning to the roommate), about eight hours for sleep, and about 45 minutes to get ready, eat and make it to your first class. Adjust on either side of the eight hours if you need more time for the before sleep and before class activities.

Next blog: The sleep and GPA connection..... and what you can do about it.

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