College is a demanding time. You’re facing the challenges of school, work, family obligations, and a social life.
If you don’t have them already, now is the time to establish solid health and wellness practices that will carry on well after graduation. Proper nutrition, physical fitness, stress relief, and quality sleep are essential to thrive. Use this guide to keep your mind and body healthy now, with wellness practices that can offer a lifetime of value.
The Chicago Tribune reports that over 4 years, the average college student gains 10 pounds. The percentage of students in the study who became overweight or obese at some point during college rose from 23% to 41%, an increase of 78%.
The following can contribute to weight gain:
- Eating on the go
- Not looking at ingredients and serving sizes
- Choosing eating out over cooking
- Nibbling during late-night study sessions
Use these tips to stay properly fueled without overdoing your calorie intake.
Avoid Liquid Calories
Just a few caloric culprits of weight gain include:
- Sweetened iced teas
- Fruit juices
Substituting calorie-laden drinks with water or even diet sodas is one of the easiest ways to cut calories. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists easy ways to slash calories on your favorite drinks and still stay satisfied.
Use Portion Control
Did you know that most meals you order at a restaurant will exceed average calorie requirements? A study reported in Science Daily found 92% of both large-chain and non-chain restaurants serve meals that exceed recommended calorie requirements for a single meal.
To avoid this pitfall, try:
- Cooking at home more often
- Using the serving sizes recommended by the American Heart Association
- Avoiding appetizers and desserts at restaurants
- Splitting an entree with a dining companion
If you know you'll be eating out, strategize beforehand. Look at the menu and have an idea of what you'll order. If you are going to partake in an appetizer, only have a small portion, and take part of your main meal to go.
Focus on Fruits and Veggies
ChooseMyPlate.gov recommends that at least half of your plate at every meal should be filled with fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables are beneficial because they:
- Contain filling fiber
- Have heart-boosting and cancer-fighting antioxidants
- Are lower calorie than other food groups
The rest of your meal should be one-quarter healthy protein and up to one-quarter whole grains.
Document Your Diet
Mindless eating, without tracking how much you're eating or how often, can lead to unexpected weight gain. A snack while studying and a couple sodas at night all add up. To gain a clear perspective on your eating habits:
- Track everything you eat for a week. You can do this by hand in a journal, or with an app like MyFitnessPal or Fitbit.
- Look for unhealthy patterns and opportunities for easy changes. For example, starting a meal with a salad can make you fuller quicker, so you don't overdo it with seconds on the entrée and side dishes.
- Swap soda for water a few times a week and note the results. Doing so could eliminate a couple pounds every month.
2. Exercise and Fitness
Sedentary behavior is linked to health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. According to the CDC, you should aim to:
- Get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise every week.
- Participate in muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.
Typically, vigorous exercise leads to more health benefits.
In addition to carving out regular fitness time into your schedule, here are some easy ways to incorporate exercise into your routine.
Commute by Walking or Biking
If you live close enough to school or work, ride your bike or walk. As you navigate your daily schedule, walk if you can. Exercise has mood-boosting benefits like the release of endorphins, which is a great way to begin your day.
Make Study Breaks Exercise Breaks
Taking breaks as you're studying or doing school work actually helps you be more productive. A study by the Draugiem Group found the most productive people focus on their task for 52 minutes, then take a break for about 17 minutes. Use this type of guideline whenever you're working on a project. Use your break to do healthy activities like:
- Take a walk.
- Do some quick exercises like lifting free weights.
- Climb a few flights of stairs.
You'll be energized to get back to work and have burned some calories in the process.
Find a Fun Workout
Not everyone loves running, and some people dislike the weight room. But that doesn't mean you should completely neglect aerobic and anaerobic exercises. The key to creating a sustainable healthy habit is to choose something you enjoy. Maybe it's:
- Playing Frisbee golf on a team
- Joining a nonprofit that builds houses for the homeless
- Taking a dance or yoga class
Choosing activities you enjoy makes them easier to become a part of your regular routine.
Track Your Progress
Just like tracking what you eat can help you to create healthier behaviors, tracking your fitness can alert you to just how much—or how little—you exercise. A pedometer is a good place to start, since walking at least 10,000 steps a day is linked with a decreased risk of heart disease. A fitness app can also give you more insight into how many calories you're burning with the exercises you're doing.
3. Stress Management
Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of negative effects, including illness, headaches, insomnia, and decreased productivity. Over the long term, stress can contribute to a number of health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
Stress is normal, but living with it constantly should not be. Here’s how to help combat it:
Acknowledge the Warning Signs
Stress may start in your head, but it quickly spills into your body. Just a few of the physical warning signs that you are stressed include:
- Upset stomach
- Rapid heartbeat
- Loss of appetite or craving for certain foods
Look at the American Psychological Association's (APA) list of stress indicators for a full list and pay attention to the warning signs. As you learn to be aware of what it feels like to be stressed, you can take the next step to cope.
Practice Stress-Relieving Techniques
Attempting to power through tasks while in a state of stress will make you less productive. Not dealing with your stress will require more time to finish what you're doing, and the results are more likely to be filled with errors or not as high quality. Even taking a 5-minute break to alleviate stress is wise. This infographic from Purdue University Global has some excellent tips for coping with stress, including:
- Take a quick, brisk walk.
- Do deep breathing exercises or close your eyes and meditate.
- Talk with a friend.
- Do an activity you enjoy.
Taking any of these actions gives your brain a break from whatever is stressing you out and recharges you. You can go back to what you were doing in a more relaxed state of mind.
Prioritize Your Happiness
Happiness levels have a direct effect on overall health and help decrease the effects of stressful situations. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, happy people have up to 12 times lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Talk It Out
Expressing feelings of stress is an effective way to release them. Conversing with friends and family can be beneficial, but talking with a professional therapist can also help in the following ways:
- You get to talk with an unbiased party.
- A therapist has professional, research-based coping skills to recommend.
- Therapy involves monitoring progress for constant improvement.
According to the APA, most people get some benefit from psychotherapy after a few sessions.
4. Sleep and Rest
Adults need proper rest for their minds and bodies to function optimally. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says adults need at least 7 to 8 hours of continuous sleep per night.
In addition to a good pillow, proper nutrition, and regular exercise—all of which improve sleep—these tips may help:
Relax Before Bedtime
Avoid being kept up by the busyness of your waking life. About an hour before bedtime, aim to:
- Shut off all electronic devices.
- Make a to-do list for tomorrow, so you have a plan and don't need to worry as you sleep.
- Take deep breaths.
- Inhale a relaxing scent like lavender.
- Do gentle yoga poses or stretches.
- Take a bath.
Invest in Comfortable Bedding
A pillow that is too stiff or a mattress that is too soft may not seem like a big deal, but it can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. The Better Sleep Council recommends replacing bedding if:
- You wake up with aches and pains.
- You've had better sleep elsewhere.
- Your mattress is more than 7 years old.
- Your bed is too small or squeaks when you move.
A quiet, comfortable bed enables sound sleep. Considering how important sleep is to overall energy levels, investing in a mattress you love is a smart idea.
Cool It Down
The temperature of your room can also affect how you sleep. It's better to turn it down a couple notches than to keep it toasty; the ideal room temperature for sleeping is between 60 and 67 degrees, according to Sleep.org. That's why a warm bath before bedtime is so effective—your body cools off after bathing.
In addition, be sure to:
- Remove extra blankets and sheets when you're ready to sleep.
- Use a fan for air circulation (and ambient noise if that's helpful).
- Take off clothing layers to help stay cooler.
If your roommate or family doesn’t like it as cool as you do, use a fan and sheets made from a material like silk to get more comfortable.
Make Bed a Sleep-Only Zone
If you have a small living area, it's inevitable that you're going to study in the same room where you sleep. However, designate your bed for sleeping only. Here’s why:
- When you work in bed, you associate that area with work instead of sleep
- Working before bed and looking at a screen reduces melatonin, which helps create a sound night's sleep.
- Having a mental association between work and a bed can increase anxiety or stress that prevents sleep.
Aim to do school work as far away from your bed as possible. If that requires heading to another location like the library, do so—it can be helpful in making your sleep more restful.
Support Your Body, Support Your Mind
Proper nutrition, exercise, stress management, and sleep are just four essential components of optimal college student wellness. Stay safe and healthy in these ways, too:
Avoid Excessive Alcohol and Drug Use
Eliminate intake of these substances if they are interfering with daily functioning or achieving your goals. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help you find local assistance.
Get Regular Health Screenings
Health screenings prevent worsening of illnesses, and they're also important to detect other ailments.
Take vitamins or immune system boosters to help ward off colds. Wash your hands regularly.
Do What Makes You Happy
A strong support circle can help you be healthier mentally and physically, reports Mayo Clinic. Build self-confidence by joining clubs or study groups where you can connect with peers. Participate in hobbies and social activities that let you have fun and meet new people.
College can be an exciting time, but it can also be challenging. Take care of your mind and body to make college a more fulfilling experience.
Want to attend a college that cares about the well-being of its students? Visit the Purdue University Global Student Experience page to learn more about how we support students.
College Health and Wellness Resources
Exercise and Fitness
Sleep and Rest