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The truth about the link between weight loss and happiness

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A normal BMI is not the only secret to good health for college students.

How much of an effect does your weight and outlook on life have on your overall health? According to one study, quite a bit – especially for college students. My own experience in college validates these results.

The study, titled “Association of positive psychological well-being and BMI with physical and mental health among college students,” was recently published in the Biomedical Journal of Scientific and Technical Research, and found that “a positive outlook and [healthy] BMI both contributed significantly to good health.” To study the effect of “positive outlook” on health, the researchers looked at college students’ perceptions of four types of psychological well-being: self-reported levels of subjective happiness, hope, gratitude, and life satisfaction. Out of those four, subjective happiness had the most impact on overall health, followed by hope. Students’ self-reported height and weight (which the researchers used to calculate their respective BMIs) came in third in terms of impact on overall health.

Interestingly, however, the study also found that “BMI was correlated with physical and overall health, but not with hope, gratitude, life satisfaction or mental health.” So, while a college student may have a healthy BMI and be physically fit, he or she may not necessarily be psychologically fit. This last finding struck me in particular, because my own college experience (and that of many of my friends and classmates) reflects these results.

Like many college students, I gained the “Freshman 15.” And while I lost the weight pretty quickly during my sophomore year thanks to a summer of dieting and exercise, I took it too far and lost too much too fast — almost bordering on eating disorder territory (although it never went quite that far, and I would never want to make light of the seriousness of a true eating disorder).

So while I definitely looked and felt much healthier physically during my sophomore year, my mental health did not necessarily benefit from my newfound healthy BMI borne of crash dieting and obsessive exercise – in fact, the opposite is true. Thankfully, I “snapped out of it” when I studied abroad during my junior year – mostly because I had realized that I didn’t want to spend my opportunity to live in Europe counting calories!

As physically healthy as I felt when I was at my lowest weight and exercising every day for an hour or more, I actually felt much more healthy overall (psychologically and physically) after returning from abroad, where I had done a lot of thinking about the kind of life I wanted to have, and gained new perspective on my faith life and future career aspirations.

So what does all this tell us?

Yes, maintaining a healthy BMI and being physically fit are still very important for overall health. But those things are not necessarily the “magic bullet” for a complete, holistic picture of health: it is just as important to cultivate a positive outlook on life, and to take care of our psychological health, too. This can be a notoriously difficult balance to strike for over-worked, over-tired, and over-stressed college students (and adults who graduated many years ago), who may not exercise at all, or exercise too much, and may not take the time to cultivate good psychological health amidst the high-pressure university environment.

So what is the solution? According to one of the study’s researchers Weiyun Chen, associate professor of health and fitness at the U-M School of Kinesiology, universities need to take a more holistic approach to the health of their students, and offer “wellness programs and centers that dynamically integrate body, mind and spirit into a seamless unit.”

But we don’t all need an intense fitness plan or a wellness center at our university, at our workplace, or in our neighborhoods to practice good physical and mental health habits. Something as simple as taking a break from our screens to stretch, grab a coffee with a co-worker (bonus points if you have to walk a ways for it!), or visit the park with another mom friend and her kids are all great ways to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.  

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