Credit card debt, stress and key health risk behaviors among college students

Melissa C. Nelson, Katherine Lust, Mary Story, Ed Ehlinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Purpose. To examine cross-sectional associations between credit card debt, stress, and health risk behaviors among college students, focusing particularly on weight-related behaviors. Design. Random-sample, mailed survey. Subjects/Setting. Undergraduate and graduate students (n = 3206) attending a large public university. Measures. Self-reported health indicators (e.g., weight, height, physical activity, diet, weight control, stress, credit card debt). Results. More than 23% of students reported credit card debt ≥ $1000. Using Poisson regression to predict relative risks (RR) of health behaviors, debt of at least $1000 was associated with nearly every risk indicator tested, including overweight/obesity, insufficient physical activity, excess television viewing, infrequent breakfast consumption, fast food consumption, unhealthy weight control, body dissatisfaction, binge drinking, substance use, and violence. For example, adjusted RR [ARR] ranged from 1.09 (95% Confidence interval [CI]: 1.02-1.17) for insufficient vigorous activity to 2.17 (CI: 0.68-2.82) for using drugs other than marijuana in the past 30 days. Poor stress management was also a robust indicator of health risk. Conclusion. University student lifestyles may be characterized by a variety of coexisting risk factors. These findings indicate that both debt and stress were associated with wide-ranging adverse health indicators. Intervention strategies targeting at-risk student populations need to be tailored to work within the context of the many challenges of college life, which may serve as barriers to healthy lifestyles. Increased health promotion efforts targeting stress, financial management, and weight-related health behaviors may be needed to enhance wellness among young adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)400-407
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Health Promotion
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2008


  • College health
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Obesity
  • Prevention research
  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Stress (psychological)


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