Variability of Sleep and Relations to Body Weight Among First-Year College Students



Existing research suggests that greater sleep variability may increase risk for weight gain. College often marks a transition to a less consistent daily schedule, which may adversely impact sleep routines and further increase risk for weight gain. The current study is among the first to explore relations between nighttime sleep variability and daytime sleep (napping) and body weight among first-year college students.


Using daily diary methods, first-year college students (N = 307; 84.7% female) self-reported their sleep for seven days. Several indices were created to capture sleep variability for reported bedtime, wake time, and sleep duration, including weekday versus weekend differences (WvW), day to day differences (D2D), and overall standard deviation (SD). Napping was also assessed. Based on body mass index (BMI), individuals were categorized as underweight, healthy weight, overweight, and obese.


Across indices, students’ sleep varied over an hour on average across the week. Hierarchical regressions revealed that greater differences in wake time D2D, wake time SD, and sleep duration WvW were all associated with higher BMI, after accounting for gender, depressive symptoms, and sleep duration. Longer napping was also associated with higher BMI, using the same covariates. Finally, greater sleep variability was reported by overweight and obese than healthy weight individuals.


These findings suggest that sleep variability, particularly wake times and napping may be important modifiable sleep behaviors to investigate in future studies. More longitudinal research is needed to explore relations between multiple facets of sleep variability and weight gain, including possible mechanisms.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. 1842190. Dr. Moreno is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award number K99HD091396 and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA/ARS) under Cooperative Agreement No. 58-3092-5-001.

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Correspondence to Laura M. Nicholson.

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Nicholson, L.M., Egbert, A.H., Moreno, J.P. et al. Variability of Sleep and Relations to Body Weight Among First-Year College Students. Int.J. Behav. Med. 28, 227–237 (2021).

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  • Sleep variability
  • Intraindividual variability
  • Sleep consistency
  • Daytime sleep
  • Napping
  • Body weight
  • Freshman
  • College students