Students can be quick to let their health fall to the wayside when they start college, but staying aware of good and bad health habits will serve you well in the long-term. Physical health and nutrition are directly connected to mental health, effective study habits, and regular sleep patterns.
Nutrition and exercise can seem relatively unimportant when you are young, but it’s a great time to build a regimen of healthy behaviors. Work to avoid the following issues many students face as they balance course work with other commitments and responsibilities:
- Lack of sleep: Unfortunately, sleep is what is lost when students make time to study and socialize. Pulling “all-nighters” or staying up too late night after night will take its toll, leaving you with low levels of energy and motivation.
- Poor eating habits: While typical fast food and similar dining options seem like time and money savers, adding a lot of these meals to your diet means a lack of the nutrients you need to keep physically strong and mentally alert.
- Getting over-stressed: Throughout your time at school, you will face some anxious times, be they from exams or any number of academic requirements. Add to this a challenging work schedule and other responsibilities, and the stress may reach unprecedented heights in your life. Learning how to manage such stress takes both practice and patience, but doing so results in a healthier approach to reaching your goals.
Do these pitfalls sound familiar? If you haven’t focused on your own health and wellness in the past, it’s never too late to get started. Think about how you can change your current routines and move in a more positive direction.
Mental health is also a major concern for college students. Issues ranging from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and addiction have a huge and harmful impact on students’ lives.
Fortunately, support is available. Colleges and universities provide a host of related services, and additional resources can be found through state and local offices and independent organizations in your community. For more detailed information about concerns, support, and online materials, visit our comprehensive mental health resource for college students.
The concept of physical health is related to taking care of our bodies and making sure they work as they are intended to mechanically. Maintaining your physical health includes two primary areas of focus: getting enough exercise and practicing good sleep habits. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of these activities and resources to help you not only feel better but also study better.
Increased physical strength, stamina, and weight loss are a few of the more obvious benefits of exercise, but there are many other reasons to make it a part of your regular routine.
- Reduces stress: Physical activity is a helpful stress management strategy. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reminds us that we can’t completely avoid stress in our lives, but we can proactively reduce its effects through activities like walking, running, and yoga.
- Boosts brain function: Want to improve your memory? A study from the University of Texas at Dallas recently found that physical activity, such as using a stationary bike or treadmill, not only positively affects memory loss, but also improves other cognitive functions and general brain health.
- Improves mood: According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the benefits of exercise is improved mood, which happens when your brain releases chemicals, such as endorphins, that affect your overall feeling of well-being. Exercise can leave you happier and more confident.
- Improves quality of sleep: The National Sleep Foundation has highlighted research that physical activity can help you sleep better at night and be more alert during the day.
- Increases metabolic rate: WebMD.com recommends exercise as one of the primary ways to increase your metabolism and burn more calories, if weight loss is your goal.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides physical activity guidelines for Americans, which are designed to improve overall health. Adults will realize most of the possible benefits of being active if they are exercising at least 150 minutes each week, or 30 minutes a day. This should be a moderately intense aerobic activity, such as running, brisk walking, bicycling, playing basketball, dancing, and swimming. HHS notes that additional benefits can be gained from 300 minutes of activity.
Choose Your Intensity Level
The Department of Health and Human Services provides the following examples:
- Moderate Intensity
- Brisk walking
- Water aerobics
- Bicycling (less than 10 MPH)
- Doubles tennis
- General gardening
- Ballroom dancing
- Vigorous Intensity
- Swimming laps
- Bicycling (10 MPH or faster)
- Singles tennis
- Jumping rope
- Hiking uphill
Use your current activity level as a baseline and consider where and when you might increase your effort in terms of frequency and intensity. It’s important to monitor how you are feeling, particularly your heart rate and breathing, while you exercise to judge your level of fitness and activity. During moderate activities, you can talk and have a conversation. During vigorous activities, you can speak fewer words before having to stop and take a breath.
Use Available Resources
Take advantage of your college’s facilities. Fitness centers and gyms located on campuses usually offer low- or no-cost access to students. Look for open hours to use equipment such as weights and treadmills, as well as for scheduled fitness classes and one-on-one training sessions with an instructor. Other recreation options may also be available for students interested in activities like hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking.
Intramural sports programs offer students the opportunity to form teams and compete at a range of skill levels, from beginner to expert. The programs offered vary by school, but are likely to include sports like basketball, flag football, kick-ball and badminton.
An additional benefit of using your school’s recreation center or joining an intramural team is meeting other students. This can be a great setting for both making friends and getting fit.
Make Smart Choices
Have you heard the saying, “sitting is the new smoking“? Office employees are encouraged to be more conscious of the amount of time they spend sitting at their desks. According to several studies reported by Discovery.com, sitting is a sedentary activity, which, in excess, can lead to a number of problems ranging from cardiovascular disease to increased blood sugar levels. Students are prone to similar challenges from extended hours sitting.
Look for ways to add physical activity to your day, even in small amounts. Take a periodic break from your desk and go for a walk. On your way to work or to class, try the stairs instead of the elevator. If you are traveling a short distance, consider riding your bike instead of driving your car.
Are you getting enough sleep? If you are like most Americans, probably not. A survey conducted by The Better Sleep Council found that 82% of respondents would “find one extra hour of sleep at night somewhat or extremely valuable.” Our schedules are full these days and we often sleep less and work more.
Unfortunately, a lack of sleep causes a host of issues from decreased energy and productivity to increased levels of stress and health problems. WebMD.com presents the following effects of excessive sleepiness:
- Accidents at work and behind the wheel
- Slowed cognitive processes, such as concentration and critical thinking
- Increased risk for illness, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression
- Increased effects of aging
- Memory loss
- Weight gain
- Impaired judgment
How much sleep do you need?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides guidelines about how much sleep we need, and they change as we get older. The recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is 9-10 hours per day, and adults should get 7-8 hours per day.
It’s not unusual to occasionally miss a few hours of sleep. Our work and class schedules change, for example, meaning a shift in our daily schedule and sleep patterns. When a lack of sleep becomes a long-term habit, the negative effects can begin to emerge.
What about naps?
If you don’t get enough sleep during the night, it may be tempting to take a nap. Terms like power nap sound promising, but this isn’t always the case. A nap that is too long, for example, can leave you feeling worse than before you fell asleep. The Mayo Clinic offers these tips for taking beneficial naps:
- Don’t sleep for longer than 30 minutes.
- Try napping in the mid-afternoon. Napping too late in the day can disrupt your ability to fall asleep later that night.
- Find a comfortable place to nap that is free from interruptions.
What you eat and drink has a direct impact on your overall wellness and physical health. As with exercise and sleep, you can take steps to improve your level of nutrition by providing your body with the balance of materials it needs to grow and prevent illness. Start your own good health initiative now by becoming more aware of the effects of poor nutrition and changing your eating habits.
Effects of Poor Nutrition
The term poor nutrition can mean many things. Not eating enough or eating too much can negatively affect your health. Eating a diet that includes the right number of calories, but not the nutrients your body needs is also harmful. Finding a balance of the amount and types of foods you should consume also varies by person and can be affected by your current state of health, genetic factors, and gender. Here are a few of the leading issues related to poor nutrition in general:
- Impaired mental function: Skipping meals or eating a very low-calorie diet can adversely affect your concentration and alertness, potentially impacting your ability to work and study.
- Sickness and disease: A poor diet can result in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other nutrition-related conditions such as high blood pressure.
- Lack of energy: Your body needs fuel to get you through your busy day. A diet that doesn’t include healthy nutrients can leave you feeling lethargic and fatigued.
Nutrition and Your Immune System
One of the benefits of good nutrition is the prevention of illness through a strengthened immune system. What you eat and drink affects how efficiently your body is able to fight off disease and infection. Illnesses, like colds and the flu, can run rampant on college campuses and in tight living conditions, such as residence halls and shared apartments. Harvard University’s Health Publications recommends giving your immune system the best possible chance to keep you healthy with a diet that includes these nutrients:
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, breads and other grains
- Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, liver, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, mangoes, black-eyed peas, dairy products
- Vitamin B6: Poultry, fish, organ meats, potatoes, fruit (non-citrus)
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits and juices, red and green peppers, broccoli, baked potatoes, tomatoes
- Vitamin D: Fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, milk
- Vitamin E: Vegetable oils, nuts, green vegetables
- Zinc: Oysters, red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, whole grains, dairy products
Eating a diet that includes these and other important nutrients can be challenging. Supplements that contain a range of vitamins, minerals, and herbal ingredients offer a convenient option for augmenting your diet, however there are concerns. There can be side effects if, for example, they are combined with medications or you have pre-existing health problems. The Federal Drug Administration provides more information about dietary supplements and suggests checking with your doctor or healthcare provider before adding them to your diet.
Are you getting plenty of fruits and vegetables each day? Are you avoiding processed foods? These are just two of the steps you can take to improve your nutrition now. Whether you eat at your school’s on-campus dining hall or cook for yourself, it’s important to follow a balanced diet.
Dining Hall Options
In addition to a growing number of fast food options on campus, you can usually opt for healthier fare at a dining hall. These facilities often offer a cafeteria-style experience with a wide range of items to choose from during the day. Take advantage of the fact that you can completely customize your meals and snacks in the dining hall using these tips to make smart choices:
- Drink plenty of water. When you have the option, choose water over soft drinks. The old rule of thumb that you need to drink eight glasses per day is a good place to start, but the Mayo Clinic recommends modifying this based on the amount of exercise you are doing, the weather conditions, and your health status.
- Look for colors. From red peppers to purple eggplant, fresh vegetables come in an array of bright colors. Darker greens, like those found in spinach and broccoli, are generally more nutritious than iceberg lettuce, for example. Today’s Dietician shares examples that encourage a rainbow approach to eating, and discourage the beige and brown options usually found in processed foods.
- Don’t skip meals. When you are in a rush, it’s tempting to pass on a morning meal, but this could result in low-energy levels later in the day when you need to be alert in your classes. WebMD.com provides suggestions for quick, nutritious options that fight fatigue.
- Skip the fast food line. Even if it’s faster. Hamburgers and pizza are almost always available in the dining hall, but they aren’t the healthiest choices you’ll find. Salad bars and sandwich stations allow you to not only increase amounts of helpful nutrients, but also manage portion size.
Cooking for Yourself
Preparing your own meals, or at least some of them, is another way to improve your overall nutrition. You can eat well, even on a budget, with these suggestions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate initiative:
- Make a shopping list. Planning ahead will save both time and money. Decide what meals you will cook during the next week, then make a list of the items you’ll need to buy at the grocery store. Choose My Plate provides a downloadable worksheet to help you get started.
- Shop smart. Read labels and compare prices. Flash-frozen veggies, for example, are nearly as nutritious as fresh and may be less expensive. You may be able to buy some items, such as meats and poultry, cheaper in bulk and freeze what you don’t use for future meals. Beans and peas are also good low-cost protein options.
- Pack your lunch. Make meals in advance, so that you can easily grab something healthy when you get home late or need to take something with you early in the morning. If you have lunch ready to go, you’ll be less tempted to rely on fast food offerings. Try making extra portions for dinner so that you’ll have leftovers the following day, cutting down on preparation time.
For more information about proper nutrition, review these recommended resources:
- Choose My Plate: Plan healthy meal and snack choices with this tool and guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Health.gov: These resources from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services feature health news, interactive tools, and dietary guidelines.
- It’s About Eating Right: Tips on a range of issues from weight management and nutrition to food safety and grocery shopping from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Nutrition.gov: Another collection of resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this site offers advice on reading food labels, taking supplements, and more.
- Nutrition for Everyone: Helpful guidelines on food groups, water intake, fats and carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and other nutrition topics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- What Specific Foods Do: Find out how specific types of foods, as well as vitamins and minerals, play a role in overall health and wellness, and disease prevention. This is part of the Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing series from the University of Minnesota.
Considerations for Online Students
Online courses are convenient, but it can be easy to fall into the habit of spending too many hours sitting at a desk and working at your computer. What can you do to improve your health as an online student? There are several steps you can take to be more active and prevent issues related to a sedentary lifestyle.
Create a Schedule
- Set your hours. Try to stick to a daily schedule that includes time blocked for work, study, family, and other commitments. Don’t forget to include sleep. Studying late at night is certainly possible with online classes, but it’s not a healthy practice night after night.
- Eat regularly. Your body needs the fuel required to get you through the day. Plan ahead for meals and eat at regular times. Skipping meals or relying on snacks can lead to unhealthy habits that sap your energy levels and impact brain function.
- Exercise. Make time for physical activity, even if it is just a walk around the neighborhood. Adding specific events, such as a class at the gym or a walk with friends, to your schedule is good motivation to be more active on a regular basis.
- Stick to it! While you may have to adjust your schedule from time to time, having a plan gives you a place to start. Set up a calendar that makes sense to you then do your best to stay on schedule.
Find Social Support
Make time for social outings with friends and family. Online learning, especially if undertaken while you are also working, will involve some sacrifice of your leisure time. So it’s important to maintain social connections with others in your life who can provide you with support in reaching your goals and the occasional break from your work and study routine.
Take Study Breaks
Online students don’t have to walk from building to building to get to their classes. This is convenient, but not necessarily a benefit in terms of physical health and wellness. When you’ve scheduled several consecutive hours of work or study, be sure to add short breaks to get up from your desk and move around. Forbes recommends adding some activity to your routine every 30 minutes. This could be as simple as doing a few stretches to improve circulation and oxygen flow within the body and brain.
Try Something New
It may be time to shake up your regular routine and activities. If you have a laptop, consider switching to a standing desk or working at a counter occasionally. A treadmill desk is another option that encourages physical activity while you work. These alternatives are gaining traction in offices and may benefit online students as well.
How you take care of yourself directly impacts your overall health and wellness. Staying healthy is a combination of all the factors presented here and more. It takes time and practice to improve your health and develop better habits, but the effort is worth it. Exercise, sleep, and a proper diet can actually make your college experience easier overall, providing the energy and nutritional support you need to reach your goals.
Be sure to seek advice from health professionals if you have any questions about your health and the choices you are making to improve it. Also find out how your college or university is ready to assist you with your health and wellness efforts through student health services, nutritional experts, and fitness centers.