Adam Maki seems to be doing everything right when it comes to his health.

The 19-year-old from Marshfield, Wis., is an avid mountain biker, having ridden the Marji Gesick in the Upper Peninsula, billed as the hardest single-day race in America. Since beginning his freshman year at the University of Minnesota Duluth, the self-proclaimed “fitness junkie” has spent a lot of time in the weight room, he said.

Yet, he’s not totally satisfied. He has spent less time in endurance training, Maki said, and he’s feeling the loss.

And then there’s his eating habits.

“They’ve gotten worse,” Maki said, unambiguously. “Dining center food does not facilitate health eating that much.”

UMD Psychology Department graduate student Erika Damsgard (right) checks the height of Adam Maki, a UMD freshman from Marshfield, Wis., Wednesday for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
UMD Psychology Department graduate student Erika Damsgard (right) checks the height of Adam Maki, a UMD freshman from Marshfield, Wis., Wednesday for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Although it appears unlikely to occur in his case, Maki could be talking about the formula for the fabled “freshman 15” — the weight students are said to gain during their first academic year in college.

The freshman 15 is a myth, say Rick and Lara LaCaille, a husband-and-wife team on the Psychology Department faculty at UMD. But it’s a myth of exaggeration, not fabrication. Research has established that the typical freshman does gain weight during that first year of school, but the average is 3 to 5 pounds, not 15.

Rick and Lara LaCaille, on the psychology faculty at UMD, are leading graduate students on a study about the "freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Rick and Lara LaCaille, on the psychology faculty at UMD, are leading graduate students on a study about the "freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

But 3 to 5 pounds is a concern, Lara LaCaille said. It’s more than the 1 to 2 pounds the average American adult gains annually. Moreover, bad habits established early in a college career can last a lifetime. And over a lifetime, that gradual weight increase can lead to serious problems.

“It doesn’t happen overnight for most people,” Rick LaCaille said. “It’s a cookie here, a cookie there, a pound here, a pound there. Over a decade, it adds up.”

The LaCailles, on the UMD faculty since 2005, established the Healthy Living and Learning Lab, which they describe as researching the intersection of psychology and health. They’re in the midst of a project to discover why freshman weight gain happens. They hope the research will lead to methods that will help future freshmen avoid the weight gain trap.

They’re being helped by six graduate and four undergraduate students in their program. Their subjects: freshmen at UMD. Of the 2,045 freshmen enrolled at UMD this year, nearly 300 of them agreed to participate in the study. That means checking in three times during the academic year, filling out a survey and being weighed and measured.

It’s a longitudinal study, meaning data are collected at various points in time. The LaCailles hope to follow this group of students through four years of school, although so far, they have funding only for the first year.

Existing research suggests that changes in diet and physical activity don’t entirely explain the weight gain, the LaCailles say.

So they’re looking at the social context, such as how relationships might influence individuals, Rick LaCaille said. They’re trying to understand the impact of the sudden choices that freshmen experience.

They’re also looking at weight loss and cycling — fluctuations in weight levels.

UMD Psychology Department graduate student Erika Damsgard (right) checks the height of Nicole Wysocki, a UMD freshman from Mosinee, Wis., Wednesday for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
UMD Psychology Department graduate student Erika Damsgard (right) checks the height of Nicole Wysocki, a UMD freshman from Mosinee, Wis., Wednesday for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Although they know some students will drop out of the research program over time, they hoped to get at least 250 back for the end-of-first-semester check-in, Lara LaCaille said.

There was an incentive: Students who came the second time were rewarded with a $25 Amazon gift card.

One day last week, three of the graduate students were running the check-in in a small Bohannon Hall room. Erika Damsgard, a second-year student from Stillwater, Minn., asked students to remove their shoes and socks and then to take a deep breath as she recorded their heights. They’d move over to Katelyn Melcher, a second-year student from Ankeny, Iowa, who recorded their weights. Elaine Marshall, a first-year student from Portland, Ore., served as traffic cop, greeting students, asking them to fill out survey forms and guiding them through the process.

It’s helpful to have a team of three to coordinate the flow, Lara LaCaille said, because at times there has been a line of as many as 20 students waiting to check in.

On this occasion, though, the students came individually or in small clusters, not a big group, and the graduates had time to chat during a lull. Their freshman years in school were not that long ago.

Marshall entered school at the University of Montana aware of the “freshman 15,” she said, but her social life helped her avoid unhealthy habits.

“I would join clubs or work out with a roommate or something,” Marshall said. “So I found it to be, rather than something that was just a way to not gain 15 pounds, it was a way to enjoy my time in college.”

But the newfound freedom was a challenge for Damsgard, who attended UMD.

“I know I had terrible eating habits in freshman year because I just wanted to eat everything that my parents didn’t let me have,” she said.

Melcher experienced freshman 15 upside down. She had undergone double jaw surgery shortly before beginning her undergrad career at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and had lost weight as a result.

“I was focusing on basically gaining 15 pounds,” said Melcher, a distance runner whose races have included Grandma’s Marathon. “So I did gain it.”

Still, Melcher understands the danger posed by ready access to unhealthy choices. UNI provided fresh, locally sourced options, she said. “But it is so easy when you have access to — like, I love french fries. It’s one of my favorite foods, and to have that every day, it’s so easy.”

University of Minnesota Duluth freshman Jacqueline Nelson of Mankato, Minn. checks in at the UMD Psychology Department for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
University of Minnesota Duluth freshman Jacqueline Nelson of Mankato, Minn. checks in at the UMD Psychology Department for a study about the "Freshman 15," tracking first-year-in-college weight gain and trying to figure out the reasons for it. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The topic of food choices was on the mind of more than one of the freshmen who came through that afternoon.

“I definitely haven’t been eating as healthily as I used to,” said Jacqueline Nelson, 19, of Mankato, Minn.

Nelson, who did a lot of cooking at home, misses that opportunity, she said.

“A lot of the food here is very easy to grab, but it's not the healthiest option,” Nelson said.

But Noah Hanson, 19, of Bloomington, Minn., doesn’t share that concern.

“My roommates are pretty big gym guys,” he said. “So I’ve been working out every single day. Right after, we go over to the (dining center) and have some stir fry.”

Hanson isn’t concerned about weight gain or changed habits in any event, he said. His only reason for participating was to score the gift card.

Like Hanson, Nelson said she never has had weight issues. But she’s curious, she said, about what the study will reveal about her and about the group as a whole.

The graduate students said many of the students share that curiosity.

“I’ve heard so many students who are really cognizant of trying to watch what they eat and make sure that they’re getting physical activity,” Melcher said. “They know that can be problematic for college students.”

Maki is among the curious.

“I just thought it'd be interesting to see how your body is affected by actually going to school and how it changes, living in a dorm and eating dorm food,” he said.