Open Access Research article

Prevalence of health-risk behaviours among Canadian post-secondary students: descriptive results from the National College Health Assessment

Matthew YW Kwan1*, Guy EJ Faulkner2, Kelly P Arbour-Nicitopoulos2 and John Cairney1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University, 175 Longwood Road South Suite 201a, Hamilton, ON, L8P 0A1, Canada

2 Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:548  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-548

Published: 6 June 2013



It is important to understand health-risk behaviours among young adults, as modifications in this can enhance and lessen the risk of chronic illness later in life. The purpose of the current study was to determine the prevalence of a broad range of health-risk behaviours among post-secondary students from across Canada, and to determine whether institutional variability exists in the prevalence of these behaviours.


Data were collected from 8,182 undergraduate students enrolled in one of eight Canadian post-secondary institutions during the fall or spring of 2009, using the National College Health Assessment (NCHA). The NCHA consists of 60 questions, assessing student health status and engagement in various health behaviours.


Findings show relatively low prevalence in smoking (13.1%) marijuana (17.5%) or other illicit drug use (3.5%), and risky sexual behaviour (12%). Binge drinking, however, was much higher, with nearly 60% of students consuming more than 5 alcoholic drinks in a single occasion during the past 15 days. Similarly, prevalence rates for physical inactivity (72.2%), inadequate sleep (75.6%) and low fruit and vegetable intake (88.0%) were all high among the student population. Results also found that students in smaller institutions exhibited higher rates of inactivity, binge drinking, and marijuana and illicit drug use compared to institutions having a larger student body.


Overall, findings point to the need for more concentrated health promotion campaigns, specifically targeting sleep, fruit and vegetables intake, and greater participation in physical activity. Given evidence of some institutional variability, future efforts are warranted in exploring how best to increase institutional commitment for collecting surveillance data on Canadian post-secondary students.

Multiple health behaviours; University students; University health