Projects & Research

Project 5: Commuting Behaviors, Obesity Risk, and the Built Environment

Principal Investigator: Dr. Shari McMahan and Vanessa Moczulski

Specific Aims

The purpose of this study is to evaluate commuting behaviors among college students and obesity status. In addition, it will address students’ prior behaviors and experiences in high school as predictors of current health behaviors. California is known to be heavily reliant on automobile usage and many Universities are considered “commuter” campuses. This means that many students drive long distances to attend school.  Commuting to campus may have direct or indirect consequences on student’s weight, physical activity or inactivity and overall health status. Little has been done to address this issue of commuting college students. Historically students lived in close proximity of their University, making cars unnecessary. With the rise of suburban development and the outward spread of homes, living choices within close proximity to campus are becoming limited. This is particularly notable at California State University, Fullerton, where out of 33, 413 students currently enrolled for the Spring semester ‘05, only 800 live on campus. During spring semester 22,223 student parking permits were sold. A website run by California State University, Fullerton states “the Cal State Fullerton campus itself has an efficient urban layout of facilities developed to serve a predominantly commuting public. The university’s modern buildings were planned so that no student needs more than 10 minutes to go from one class to another…the campus is surrounded with landscaped parking areas.”  This statement highlights the automobile mentality which has influenced urban design and has shaped our current landscape.

Students who must drive long distances may have few opportunities to cook and eat balanced meals. Fast food is an easy option for those who lack time to prepare a meal. Fast food is also a readily available commodity for commuters with California having 75.1 square miles per fast food restaurant and 16,300 residents per fast food restaurant (Maddoc 2004).  Students typically spend $484.00-$640.00 per academic year on fast food (Knutson, 2000). Because of time demands students may also eat during their commute, which may result in unknown overeating. If students eat caloric dense meals offered at fast food establishments and combined with lack of exercise they may be at greater risk for overweight or obesity.

Specifically, this project aims to:

  1. Identify commuting behaviors in college students. Questions to be addressed include: how much time is spent commuting to and from school, work, and home locations. If students were to spend their time in another matter, what would they most likely be doing?
  2. Identify nutritional habits of college students. Do students eat while commuting? What proportion of student meals are spent outside the home? Do they make healthy food selection choices?
  3. Identify ethnic, sex, and socioeconomic differences between students. Do students that have lower SES walk more? Do students that live at home eat better, have better lifestyle habits?
  4. Identify previous behavior patterns as predictors of current behaviors. Do students that participated in high school sports keep up their activity of interest? What factors are most likely to predict a healthy exercise and nutrition pattern among college students? Do perceived parental values influence a student’s behavior?


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