Psychologist says roommates affect eating, exercise, sleeping habits

Ari Davis
Roommates Mary Harrast and Bekki Brau prepare dinner together. Roommates can influence each other’s eating, exercising and sleeping habits, according to a BYU psychology professor. (Ari Davis)

Roommates can influence each other’s health in a number of ways, including diet, exercise and sleep, according to a BYU psychology professor Wendy Birmingham. Living with one or more other people can cause students to pick up — or drop — habits in students’ daily lifestyles.

Recent BYU graduate Rachel Aylworth said her less-than-healthy college diet was often influenced by her roommates.

“Depending on who I grocery shopped with, I would feel pressured to buy different foods,” she said. “With one roommate I bought a lot of not-so-healthy foods.”

Birmingham said putting several people from different backgrounds in the same household can easily lead to changed habits. She said what roommates buy, how they prepare their food, and the type of food available can have effects on a person’s eating habits.

“If you’re a person who doesn’t normally eat sweets, but your roommate does and there are always sweets around, you might find yourself more inclined to be eating things that you normally didn’t eat,” Birmingham said.

Birmingham said the effects can be positive or negative. If someone’s eating habits are not healthy, that person might be influenced by a roommate to eat healthier.

“You could go both ways,” she said.

BYU undergraduate Natalie Andrus also said she feels strongly influenced by her roommates when it comes to making food choices.

“I feel self-conscious when I grocery shop with my roommates because I want to eat what they eat,” she said. “If they put something in their, cart I’ll grab something like it.”

Exercise habits are another aspect of someone’s life that can change because of a roommate. Birmingham said seeing a roommate run every morning might influence someone to work out more often.

Birmingham said people sometimes change their actions because of how important social relationships are to them.

Ari Davis
Living with a healthy eater can encourage roommates to change their eating habits, but the process can also work the opposite way, according to experts. (Ari Davis)

“We’re always trying to present ourselves in the best possible light,” she said. “We want people to like us.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that people always choose healthy behaviors. Someone who normally eats a balanced diet and exercises frequently could be influenced by a roommate who eats frozen pizza and watches Netflix, Birmingham said, because the first person could feel obligated to create or keep a friendship.

“We want to look good in front of people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean performing healthy behaviors in front of other people,” Birmingham said. “That might just mean being friendly, going along with them, and looking like the kind of person that gets along with people.”

Birmingham said the choice to change health habits ultimately depends on what face people want to put forward. If individuals want to present themselves as a healthy person, they may choose to work out daily and eat a balanced diet. But if they want to be considered a fun, carefree person, they may choose to go out and buy donuts late at night.

“It all depends on what we want people to think about us,” she said.

Another aspect of health that can change because of roommates is sleep habits. Aylworth said her sleeping habits were often negatively affected by a roommate.

“During my freshman year, my roommate would still be awake when I got home late at night,” she said. “And she would want to talk for another few hours which kept me awake.”

Aylworth routinely worked early mornings while her roommate was able to sleep in longer. She said it was difficult to approach her roommate about the problem.

“I feel like at BYU, people are more afraid of hurting people’s feelings because they feel like they have to be Christlike,” she said.

Aylworth said she felt like she needed to listen to her roommate vent about school and life because it was the right thing to do. She said it’s great that the LDS Church teaches charity towards others, but she believes it is also important to care about personal health and needs.

Andrus said she had a similar dilemma.

“Some people just want to talk until 2 a.m. or watch a late movie,” she said. “But I understand why they do it, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Andrus said sleep schedules can be a big problem without a clear solution. Depending on how many roommates live in a dorm or apartment, there can be up to six different schedules working on top of each other.

“You’re living in the same place but you’re not living the same life,” Andrus said.

A 2013 study by Psychology Reports showed that for 76 college students in the Midwest, disturbances in the room after going to bed was the No. 1 reason for not getting enough sleep. All study participants lived in two-bed dorm-style rooms.

The study suggested that college students living with roommates figure out what their optimal sleep environment is and create that environment the best they can. This can include wearing a sleeping mask or earplugs or designating quiet times for all roommates to follow.

One important way to combat negative influences from roommates is to communicate with them. If they are loud at night, students can address the problem politely but firmly. If students are unhappy with their eating habits around roommates, they can shop alone or suggest healthier options when eating out.

For more information on healthy living and eating, visit the Mayo Clinic’s website.

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