Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Introduction. International students in the United States have nearly doubled in number over the last decade and now account for more than five percent of all college students. Upon moving to the US, many students adopt unhealthy dietary and physical activity behaviors, perhaps related to a lack of familiarity and social support. This cross-sectional study assessed the impact of social support on international college students’ dietary and physical activity behaviors.Methods. International students (n = 318) enrolled in one of five public universities in a Midwest state completed a comprehensive survey assessing self-reported eating habits, physical activity behaviors, and perceived social support, using the Social Support for Eating Habits and Exercise scales, the Starting the Conversation (STC) scale, and the International Physical Activity Questionnaire. Comparisons were made to explore the impact of perceived social support on international students’ dietary and physical activity behaviors. Results. Region of origin and family’s social support for discouraging healthy eating habits both significant predictors of poor eating habits. For every one unit increase of family social support that discouraged healthy eating habits (ranging from 5 to 25), there was a 0.14 unit increase in the STC scale (ranging from 8 to 24, wherein higher numbers represent less healthy diets). Additionally, region of origin, academic level, and friends’ social support for exercise were each significant predictors of physical activity behaviors. Friends’ support for exercise was positively associated with higher total physical activity Metabolic Equivalents of Task (MET) counts; for every one unit increase of friends’ social support for exercise (i.e., ranging from 5 to 50), there was an 81.1 METs-minutes/week increase in total physical activity MET count. Friends’ social support for exercise was a significant predictor of participants’ physical activity levels (i.e., inactive, minimally active, and health enhancing physical activity “HEPA”), with increasing support associated with higher likelihood of HEPA compared to inactivity. Discussion. Transitioning to the United States may have negative impacts on international students’ dietary and physical activity behaviors. We found that international students’ unhealthy eating habits increased when their families discouraged healthy eating habits. Additionally, we found that increased levels of friends’ social support for exercise was associated with increased physical activity MET counts and physical activity levels. As university administrators and wellness programs continue to explore interventions promoting positive health behaviors among international students, they should consider including elements that focus specifically on friendship social support as a motivating factor for increasing physical activity behaviors as well as including family members to increase social support for healthy eating habits.
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