Research suggests that health behaviors such as regular physical activity and balanced eating play a central role in emotion regulation and emotional well-being. Other research shows that these same health behaviors also improve cognitive and academic performance. However, these two separate lines of research have rarely been combined. With the study described in this research proposal we plan to assess health behaviors, emotions, and academic performance simultaneously and repeatedly over one academic year in the same sample of younger adults, using field research, laboratory experiments, and biological markers.
An academic year varies considerably in the amount of stressors and perceived stress. Next to common hassles such as having a work deadline or having an argument with a significant other, there are stressors such as important examinations. Importantly, adherence to health behaviors declines during stressful times: Individuals under stress typically engage in less physical activity and increase their food intake, particularly the consumption of foods high in calories and palatability. Consequently, this proposal further aims to test the idea that stress is an important factor that can influence the link between health behaviors, emotion, and cognitive performance.
Young adults are an important target group concerning research on health behaviors because unhealthy behaviors often develop early in life and are difficult to tackle once they become habits. In addition, first-year university students are particularly suited to research on the link between health behaviors, affect, and cognitive performance across periods of relatively high and low stress: First-year university students are regularly engaged in cognitively demanding activities and experience similar stressors throughout the academic year, including clearly defined instruction, examination, and vacation periods. Consequently, this target group allows comparing individual differences in the links between health behaviors, emotion, and cognitive performance in the face of similar external stressors in a real-world setting.
The results of this study can contribute to a better understanding of how stress moderates one’s ability to maintain physical activity and healthy eating behaviors. This has important consequences for emotional well-being and academic performance. In addition, more than 40% of young adults enter university-level education in Switzerland, suggesting such a study is relevant to a specific but substantial portion of the younger population. Specifically, our results have the potential to directly inform policy makers about crucial targets for health-promotion and stress-prevention programs that can help reduce negative impact of unhealthy behaviors in a student population.