The information collected in this study underline some critical issues regarding undergraduates’ lifestyle, especially if compared with data from the Italian general population. The percentage of non-smoker students was higher than that reported by the Italian Institute of Statistics for individuals aged 20–24 years in 2016 (66.6 vs 63.5%) . Instead, the percentage of those who did not report any alcohol consumption in our investigation was lower than that reported for consumption between meals by the Italian population of the same age class (13.1 vs 26.8%) . However, these values are consistent with the low percentage of smokers and with the high percentage of alcohol users registered among the Italian graduates , which suggests the association between these lifestyles and the educational level.
Regarding to the other lifestyles analyzed, although a normal weight was reported by the majority of the sample, it should be noted that the percentage of overweight/obese students was greater than that of the general population (21.4 vs 17.4%) and almost double than that recently reported by Teleman et al. in a sample of students from universities of Center and North Italy (11.2%) [15, 16]. In general, the largest proportion of the students reported a weight perception which matches to their declared weight condition, even if misperceptions were registered in part of normal and underweight students. Considering that females showed lower proportions of overweight/obese respect to males, and that they expressed an higher desire to lose weight, it is possible that most of these misperceptions were sustained by female students. This is in line with other investigations, which reported gender discrepancies in self-reported and desired weight [17,18,19].
More than 62% of participants were insufficiently active. This value is consistent with the levels of insufficient PA registered in the Italian population, which increases from 57 to 61.7 to 68.1% among individuals aged 18–19, 20–24 and 25–34 years respectively, confirming the reduction of PA/sport practice experienced since the beginning of the adult age and highlighting the necessity of promoting PA in this period of life . In addition, in our study undergraduates reported more than 2 h per day spent in screen-based sedentary activities. Insufficient PA levels and high levels of inactivity among undergraduates, even in coexistence with normal weight, are in line with other surveys [12,13,14]. The regression analysis showed that male gender was associated to unhealthy nutritional status and inactive lifestyle, while attending the Neapolitan university seems to be associated with higher BMI and screen time but not with insufficient PA. However, it should be considered that being employed resulted positively associated to low levels of PA, which suggests that working students encounter greater difficulties in finding free time for recreational or structured activities to meet WHO recommendations: the reason why Neapolitan students, who were largely workers, showed good levels of PA is probably related with the fact that a great amount of them studied and were employed in the field of PA and sport (data not reported) [20, 21].
The regression analysis confirmed also the gender differences regarding BMI and PA levels reported in previous studies [13, 15], while no significant associations were found between age and lifestyles, probably due to the narrow age range considered.
In 2015, Lupi et al. published the results of a survey aimed to assess dietary habits, sport practice and body weight perception in a sample of undergraduates attending medical and scientific courses at a university in northern Italy . Their findings testified the difficulties that students, especially those living away from home, encounter in adopting healthy lifestyles. In our investigation, the condition of student living alone in the city of the university did not result determinant for unhealthy behaviors adoption, and belonging to life science degree courses appeared protective towards unhealthy behaviors. However, it should be considered that our sample was wider, had a different geographical origin and included also students attending other degree courses than those regarding life sciences. It is possible that these differences played a role in determining these different findings.
This study has some limitations. First of all, in order to increase the number of participants, we chose to submit a questionnaire short and quick to fill in; however, this implied the exclusion of some questions regarding, for example, the socio-economic status or the parents’ educational level.
In addition, information regarding weight and height, so as weekly PA levels, were referred by participants and not objectively measured by the investigators. Therefore, it is possible that self-reported measurements were not always accurate and this might have affected the comparison between perceived and actual weight.
At last, the study may have been affected by selection biases. It was aimed at exploring lifestyles of the university students, who represent a specific population group and are not representative of the whole population of young adults in southern Italy. Moreover, the response rate was very low; this is probably due to the scarce students’ compliance to accept an online invitation. However, it should be noted that the minimum sample size needed to investigate the selected variables was achieved and the proportions of students from life science and other degree courses reflected the one of the whole undergraduate populations of the two enrolled Universities (about 25 and 75% respectively).
Further investigations based on different collecting methods and including people not only attending Universities are needed to complete the lifestyle picture of young adults in this geographical area.