Student Health and Wellness Guide
College students often let their health fall by the wayside, allowing academics to overshadow good and bad health habits. Physical health and nutrition connect directly to one's mental health, effective study habits, and regular sleep patterns.
Common Health Concerns for College Students
Nutrition and exercise can seem relatively unimportant while young, but building a regimen of healthy behaviors during this time can serve you well in the long term. Work to avoid the following issues many students face as they balance coursework with other commitments and responsibilities:
- Lack of Sleep: Unfortunately, when students make time to study and socialize, they lose sleep. Pulling "all-nighters," or staying up too late, takes 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 too many of these meals to your diet robs you of nutrients necessary to keep physically strong and mentally alert.
- Stress: Throughout your academic career, anxiety will likely arise from assignments, exams, and other requirements. With the addition of a challenging work schedule and other responsibilities, the stress may reach unprecedented heights in your life. Learning how to manage stress takes practice and patience, but doing so results in a healthier approach to reaching your goals.
Do these concerns sound familiar? If you have not focused on your own health and wellness in the past, consider the advantages of doing so now. Think about how you can change your current routines and move in a more positive direction.
Mental health also represents a major concern for college students. Issues ranging from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and addiction can impact students' lives in significant and harmful ways. Fortunately, colleges and universities provide a host of support and related services; 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.
Physical health involves taking care of your body and making sure it works as intended. Maintaining your physical health includes two primary areas of focus: getting enough exercise and practicing good sleep habits. Look below to consider both the benefits of these activities and the resources available to help you.
Increased physical strength, stamina, and weight loss serve as a few of the more obvious benefits of exercise, but additional reasons make it essential to add to your regular routine.
- Reduces Stress: Physical activity can help manage stress. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reminds us that we cannot 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, but also improves other cognitive functions and general brain health.
- Improves Mood: According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise improves 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 highlights research that physical activity can help you sleep better at night and remain 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.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides physical activity guidelines for Americans designed to improve overall health. HHS recommends that adults engage in either 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week.
Choose Your Intensity Level
The Department of Health and Human Services provides the following examples:
- Moderate Intensity: Brisk walking, Water aerobics and recreational swimming, Bicycling (less than 10 MPH), Doubles tennis, Gardening or house repair, Ballroom dancing, Active yoga
- Vigorous Intensity: Jogging or running, Swimming laps, Bicycling (10 MPH or faster), Singles tennis, Jumping rope, Heavy yard work, Hiking uphill, High-intensity interval training (HIIT), Vigorous dance or exercise classes
Use your current activity level as a baseline, taking into consideration where and when you might increase your effort in terms of frequency and intensity. Make sure to monitor how you feel while you exercise — particularly your heart rate and breathing — to judge your level of fitness and activity. During moderate activities, you can talk and enjoy a conversation. During vigorous activities, you can speak fewer words before needing 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 help students interested in activities, such as hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking.
Intramural sports programs offer students the opportunity to form teams and compete at several levels of skill. The programs offered vary by school, but they typically 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 includes meeting other students. This can serve as 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 need to grow 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 face similar challenges from extended hours of studying.
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 class, try the stairs instead of the elevator. If traveling a short distance, consider riding your bike instead of driving your car.
Most American do not get enough sleep. 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." We fill our schedules these days and often sleep less.
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, which change as we get older. The recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is 8-10 hours per day, and adults should get 7-8 hours per day.
Missing a few hours of sleep occasionally does not cause long-term damage. Our work and class schedules change, for example, meaning a shift in our daily schedule and sleep patterns. However, when a lack of sleep becomes a long-term habit, the negative effects can begin to emerge.
What About Naps?
If you do not get enough sleep during the night, you may feel tempted to nap. Terms like power nap sound promising, but this is not always the case. Taking too long of a nap, for example, can leave you feeling worse than before you fell asleep. The Mayo Clinic offers these tips for taking beneficial naps:
- Do not 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 free from interruptions.
Caffeine Intake and Its Effect on the Body
Whether part of a regular morning routine or used for an "all-nighter," many college students rely on caffeine to get them through class, homework, or time on the job. When used appropriately and in moderation, caffeine can help improve mood, alertness, and may even help prevent certain illnesses and diseases. Too much caffeine, however, can negatively impact college student health, causing physical and mental side effects including anxiety and nervousness, raised blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, nausea, and other gastrointestinal problems.
The Mayo Clinic asserts that most adults can safely take in up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day — the equivalent of about four cups of brewed coffee or two "energy shot" drinks. The source of your caffeine intake is perhaps even more important, as caffeine sources like soda, energy drinks, and sweetened coffee drinks come with the added complication of large amounts of sugar. One or two sweet caffeinated beverages alone can easily tip your sugar intake over the World Health Organization's daily recommended limit of 25 grams (for adults with a normal body mass index). Limit your consumption of highly sweetened caffeine options in favor of more benign sources like black coffee or unsweet tea.
What you eat and drink directly impacts 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 also harms the body. Finding a balance between the amount and the types of foods you should consume also varies by person, which changes according to your current state of health, genetic factors, and gender. The list below includes some of the leading issues related to poor nutritional health:
- 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 does not 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 fights 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:
- Vitamin B6: Poultry, fish, organ meats, potatoes, fruit (non-citrus)
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits and juices, red and green peppers, broccoli, tomatoes
- Vitamin E: Vegetable oils, nuts, green vegetables
- Magnesium: Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy vegetables, some milk products
- Zinc: Oysters, red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, whole grains, dairy products
Eating a diet that includes these and other important nutrients can prove challenging. Supplements that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and herbal ingredients offer a convenient option for augmenting your diet; however, students should remain vigilant. For example, if students combine these supplements with medications, or if they have a pre-existing health condition, side effects can occur. 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.
Dining Options in College
Do you get plenty of fruits and vegetables each day and avoid processed foods? These serve as two steps you can take to improve your nutrition now. Whether you eat at your school's on-campus dining hall or cook for yourself, you should follow a balanced diet.
You can usually opt for healthier fare at a dining hall. These facilities often offer a cafeteria-style experience with multiple 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 given 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 do, 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, typically provide more nutrition than, for example, iceberg lettuce. Try to limit the beige and brown options usually found in processed foods.
- Do Not Skip Meals. When in a rush, you may want to pass up on a morning meal; but this could result in low-energy levels later in the day when you need energy for you classes. WebMD.com provides suggestions for quick, nutritious options that fight fatigue.
- Skip the Fast Food Line. Dining halls almost always serve hamburgers and pizza, but you can likewise find healthier choices. Salad bars and sandwich stations allow you to increase the amount of helpful nutrients you consume and manage portion size.
Cooking for Yourself
Preparing your own meals, or at least some of them, represents 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 saves both time and money. Decide what meals you can cook during the next week, making a list of the items you need to buy at the grocery store. Choose My Plate provides a weekly meal calendar and downloadable worksheet to help you get started.
- Pack Your Lunch. Make meals in advance so you can easily grab something healthy when you get home late or need to take something with you early in the morning. If you prepare lunch ahead of time, temptations from fast food options will subside. Try making extra portions for dinner so that you can enjoy 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: This site offers tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on multiple issues, from weight management and nutrition to food safety and grocery shopping.
- 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: Here, you can review 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: From the University of Minnesota's Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing series, find out how specific types of foods, as well as vitamins and minerals, play a role in overall health and wellness, and disease prevention.
Considerations for Online Students
Online courses are convenient, but they can also make it easy for students to fall into the habit of spending too many hours sitting at a desk on a computer. What can you do to improve your health as an online student? These steps will help you 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 for work, study, family, and other commitments. Do not forget to include sleep. While sometimes necessary, constantly studying late does not serve your overall health, negatively affecting your learning efficiency.
- 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 you only walk around the neighborhood. Adding specific events to your schedule, such as a class at the gym or a walk with friends, motivates you to live a more active lifestyle.
- Stick to It! While you may need to adjust your schedule from time to time, establishing 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 working, involves some sacrifice of your leisure time. Therefore, you need to maintain social connections with others in your life who can provide you with support in reaching your goals, not to mention the occasional break from your work and study routine.
Take Study Breaks
Online students do not get the chance to walk from building to building to get to their classes. While convenient, it takes away from the physical benefits associated with activity. Online students should instead make sure to add short breaks to get up from their desk and move around. Forbes recommends adding some activity to your routine every 30 minutes. This could amount to nothing more than adding a few stretches to improve circulation and oxygen flow within the body and brain.
Try Something New
Those with a laptop should consider switching to a standing desk or working at a counter. A treadmill desk serves as another option that encourages physical activity while you work. These tips to make your office workspace more ergonomic 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 to develop better habits. But in the end, 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.
Make sure to seek advice from health professionals if you need answers to any questions about either your health or the choices you need to make to improve it. Also research how your college or university can assist you with health and wellness efforts through student health services, nutritional experts, and fitness centers.
Online Health and Wellness Classes and Resources
Free Online Health Classes
- Food for Thought: From EdX and McGill University, this course teaches you about the main nutritional components of a healthy diet and how to evaluate food-related claims in the media.
- Superfoods: Myths and Truths: EIT Food and the University of Turin developed this course for anyone curious about superfoods. Examine so-called superfoods through lenses of diet, psychology, and health.
- Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance: Monash University offers this course to anyone looking to explore this popular trend. Discover the research behind mindfulness and how you can use it in your everyday life.
- Sit Less, Get Active: This short course, developed by the University of Edinburgh for Coursera, helps you to develop and incorporate effective, achievable physical activity goals into your daily life.
- Science of Exercise: Ideal for the fitness beginner, this course from the University of Colorado Boulder explores physiological responses to exercise and how behaviors, choices, and environments impact health and fitness training.
Online Fitness Resources
- Tara Stiles Yoga: Tara Stiles, American model-turned-yoga instructor, offers up hundreds of free yoga routines on YouTube, with options ideal for beginners, gurus, and everyone in between.
- Fitness Blender: Husband and wife duo, Daniel and Kelly, offer easy-to-follow workouts on YouTube. Their 350+ uploads vary in difficulty, fitness level, and exercise focus.
- ExRx.Net: ExRx stands for Exercise Prescription. This website features free resources for exercise enthusiasts and fitness professionals, including exercise libraries, fitness calculators, and a forum.
- Couch to 5k: This exercise program turns so-called "couch potatoes" into 5k runners in 9 weeks. Find a variety of resources on the website, or simply download the app and get moving.
- BodyBuilding.com: Not just for muscular gym rats, BodyBuilding.com boasts an extensive collection of free articles, workout plans, and resources for dieting, weight loss, and muscle building.
- Fitness Girls of Instagram: Add some daily inspiration to your social media feed by following an Instagram fitness pro. This article from Harper's Bazaar shares 21 top accounts.
- Noom App: Affectionately called "Weight Watchers for millennials," Noom allows users to log and track meals, exercise, and fitness goals. Optional paid subscriptions provide additional features like personal coaching.
- FitStar Yoga App: Ideal for beginners who want to give yoga a try, the free version of FitStar Yoga provides users with one full-length session and several freestyle sessions per week.
- Seconds Interval Timer App: College students looking to simplify interval training need look no further than the Seconds app, featuring fully customizable exercises and a giant, fullscreen timer.
- Zombies, Run! App: If music does not amp you up for a run, maybe being chased by zombies will. This immersive audio adventure turns you into a hero and every run into a mission.
- Nutrition Data: Nutrition Data consolidates information from the USDA into databases. Access an arsenal of dietary tools including food comparisons, nutritional target maps, and daily needs calculators.
- Madeleine Shaw: Madeleine Shaw's YouTube channel features videos with tips and advice for stress relief, diet, health, and lifestyle — perfect for planning a healthy grocery haul or relaxing before an exam.
- What's Up? App: Though not a substitute for professional student healthcare, this app can help users cope with anxiety, depression, anger, or stress, utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance commitment therapy techniques.
- American Psychology Association: Self-help resources from the American Psychological Association include articles and fact sheets on managing stress, navigating relationships, and exploring options for mental healthcare for college students.