“It’s terrible—neck pain, shoulders, my eyes get tired, pretty much everything you can think of,” Masahiro L. Kusunoki ’17 said, describing the physical pain he has been dealing with since his freshman year at Harvard.
Long hours of working over his computer and carrying heavy books in his backpack has strained multiple parts of Kusunoki’s body, though he has no diagnosed chronic condition. During his freshman year, Kusunoki said, he experienced insomnia and often slept only three hours a night—a condition he said only started when he arrived at Harvard.
While Kusunoki’s experience may not be representative of the entire student body, it sheds light on the physical cost that can come with studying at an institution like Harvard.
Although much attention has been paid to stress-related mental health, the University has also made great efforts in recent years to bolster physical wellness resources. But while students applaud the changes, they continue to struggle to fit them into a life filled less with sleepless nights and more with a constant buzz of anxiety—an indicator, student activists say, of the need for a broader cultural shift spearheaded by the student body itself.
SLEEP AND EXERCISE
According to the 2014 Harvard University Health Services Health Assessment—a comprehensive survey with more than 2,000 student respondents administered last spring—64 percent of respondents rated their overall physical health as “very good or “excellent” and 70 percent indicated that a physical health issue has never or almost never had a negative impact on their academic performance.
However, Director of Harvard University Health Services Paul J. Barreira said that students’ perceptions may not accurately reflect their physical wellness. This may be indicated by lifestyle habits such as sleeping, eating, or exercise—all of which can positively or negatively affect the health status of the students, Barreira said.
The survey results showed that 10 percent of respondents reported getting less than six hours of sleep on a school night, while two-thirds indicated they sleep for six to seven hours. Although Harvard students may be getting more sleep than the popular campus image of “Lamonsters”—students who toil away all night in Harvard’s only 24-hour library—suggests, they may still be regularly sleeping less than scientists suggest is optimal.
“Sleep deprivation” for the college age group has been defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as getting less than seven hours of sleep. By this standard, more than 70 percent of respondents would be categorized as “sleep-deprived”—a condition that can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, scientists have found.
“I know students say ‘I’m healthy,’ but they are also getting only seven or less hours of sleep,” Bareirra said. “If [UHS] were going to name one general health concern, we would say sleep deprivation.”
The survey also reveals that students may not be balancing other aspects of their physical health at Harvard, such as exercise. Only 30 percent of respondents met the national guidelines for recommended weekly physical exertion, though Barreira said the data suggested that Harvard students’ level of physical activity is not dramatically different from that of the college age group nationally.
Barreira added that students who structure their lives so as to maintain healthy habits generally report less stress or are better able to cope with their stress—another dimension of student life with implications for physical wellness that administrators said they are monitoring.
“Oftentimes there are threads between [mental health and physical health],” said Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, whose office conducted an assessment of student stress last year.
According to a study conducted by the Freshman Dean’s Office, 86 percent of last year’s freshman reported significant stress from academic challenges. Sixty-seven percent reported challenges related to time management, and an increasing number said they experienced stress from extracurricular activities. Other reported causes of stress included searching for summer opportunities and social relationships.
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