A study conducted by the University of Vermont in 2016 found that the “Freshman 15” is actually a myth. In reality, most students gain about 10 pounds throughout all four years, with one-third of that weight gained in the first year.
But weight gain is just one-way students find their health compromised in their college career. Being away from home for the first time—facing the pressures of collegiate class loads and the welcomed distractions that come with freedom—often means exercise, nutrition, and mental health are sacrificed, even among the most studious of students.
We talked with Dr. Tiffany Nguyen, a pediatrician and certified Lifestyle Medicine doctor at Texas Children’s Pediatrics. She has great advice for how students can work healthy habits into their busy lives, whether they’re headed to college for their first year or their fourth. Here’s what she shared with the team here at Fully:
Easily integrate workouts into your everyday routine
Most students have varying class schedules, like Monday/Wednesday/Friday vs. Tuesday/Thursday classes. Combine that with study time and social schedules, and working out may be a low priority. What’s most helpful is to find ways to incorporate activity into your daily routines. For instance:
- Get a step counter/Fitbit—a great thing to ask for the holidays or your birthday—and then set some easy step goals (10,000 steps a day is standard) and find ways to meet it. For instance, try taking the stairs to a third-floor classroom, give yourself extra time and go the long way to your next class, or park farther away from campus.
- Download a 7-minute workout app - and use it! These can offer great study breaks.
- Stow a couple of 5-10 lb. dumbbells in your dorm. They don’t take up much space, and you can reach for them to do a few reps every 20 minutes or so during study sessions
- Also some resistance bands can help with strength training.
- Join a team/intramural sport. Not only will you get some great exercise, you’ll likely make some new friends. Activities that are group-oriented, fun and/or built into a routine are easier to maintain.
Don’t overload your backpack.
All that hard work to build fitness into your routine is wasted if you’re overloading your body. Ditch the messenger or cross-body bag when you’ve got a lot of textbooks to carry and opt instead for a quality backpack with padded straps. And wear both straps so the weight of your pack is evenly distributed.
A key technique: load the heaviest items in your backpack toward your back, with lighter items farther out. Consider cleaning out your bag regularly and limiting your load to just the essentials. That extra few minutes could mean the difference between having or avoiding long-term back pain.
Study habits should support the mind AND body.
The hardest part of studying is getting started. Often at the start of study time — really the first 15 minutes — is the hardest. It can be difficult in a dorm room with so many distractions, from your roommate, dirty laundry, dirty dishes and more. Your mind wanders, and as you start to read, you feel sleepy.
Transforming your study space into a positive and productive environment can make the difference between effective and wasted study time:
- Start with a clear, simple workspace — an uncluttered desktop, container for pens/pencils/highlighter, notepads neatly stacked, etc.
- Set some ground rules with your roommate as to when it’s time for studying, cleaning, and having guests.
- Consider alternating between standing for the first 15-20 minutes of study to get started, perhaps with the aid of a height-adjustable desk. Then transition to sitting for the next 20-30 minutes. You can create a pattern like this that helps create natural breaks that also keep you alert.
- Buy a chair that supports good posture and enables movement. Like your adjustable height desk, an active sitting chair can provide the freedom of movement your body desires.
Don’t fight that cat nap
- A 10-15 minute nap is a great way to rest the mind and body. Set an alarm and allow yourself that break. Studies show that frequent napping actually helps you retain more of your studies. This is especially useful to avoid cram-sessions where you’re overly tired and retaining less and less information.
- Try placing a yoga mat next to your bed so you can stretch and do some yoga poses. If that mat also doubles as an area rug, it’s more cost effective too.
Change your scenery
- Go to the library for a change in scenery or more quiet time. You can still incorporate some of these techniques.
Eat like a pro
Avoiding weight gain is just one reason to eat well. When you eat well, you also help your body build muscle and your brain focus better. But in reality, between dining halls and a general lack of cooking skills, getting a healthy diet going is tough.
Start with the big rule of thumb: The less processed food the better: The three main things to think about are decreasing sugar intake, decreasing bad (saturated/trans) fats, and increasing fruit and vegetable intake.
When you’re dependent on the campus cafeterias and a meal plan, it can be extra challenging to make healthy choices. Check out Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen app, which focuses on plant-based nutrition. The app allows you to tally up your protein, vitamins, fiber, hydration, etc. to make sure you’re getting enough of each. That way you can adjust your cafeteria choices based on nutrition you’re missing for the day, instead of cravings.
- Snack Bars: Choose fruit and nut bars that do not have added sugars.
- Popcorn: Start with plain popcorn, and add seasoning, or spray with olive oil and sprinkle in some cayenne or rosemary.
- Dark chocolate: Bite-sized pieces can curb a sweet tooth craving while adding a boost of caffeine and antioxidants.
- Eat your fruit wisely: Fresh berries and grapes should be eaten first; apples, oranges, pears and bananas are easy staples to store and grab.
- Get Smooth: You can get a lot of your daily nutrition from a smoothie! Nutrient-dense frozen fruit like pineapple and berries are less expensive than fresh and available year round. You can pop them in a blender with some water or ice, spinach or baby kale, and a banana; add some peanut butter powder or plant-based protein powder and voila! A great smoothie at a fraction of the cost at a chain, and time-saving as well.
- Pita chips and hummus are easy, healthy snacks; to make it even healthier and more filling, try adding some easy snacking sweet peppers and mini cucumbers to the mix.
- Sprinkle in the chia seeds, which you can add to oatmeal/salads/smoothies, easy way to get in some omega 3s, fiber, vitamins.
- Water: Get at least 64 oz per day, more depending on your weight and if you do a strenuous workout.
- Manage the caffeine: Coffee is usually the go-to (be careful with sugar and fat content as you add the cream and sugar). Consider green tea and guayusa tea instead, which have less caffeine and are high in antioxidants.
Learn how to cook
- Online cooking classes: They make a great gift (Rouxbe.com is a great resource) and can help you get some basic knife skills and food prep/lists; check out Forks Over Knives website for grocery list/planning and food prep ideas.
- Update a classic: A staple college food is pasta with tomato sauce. Try choosing a brown rice pasta or even edamame noodles in place of wheat noodles. For the sauce, look for a low-sodium jarred option at the store. If you want an even heartier option, sauté some onions and peppers with chickpeas or other protein of choice and add it to the sauce.
- Don’t skip breakfast: For a quick and easy breakfast, prepare “overnight oats” or have available some containers of oatmeal so you can just add hot water (just make sure you check the sugar content).
Nothing can ruin your health more than missing sleep. Getting seven to nine hours a night helps you reset and repair your body, improves memory, replenishes energy stores and improves mood. To set yourself up for sleep success:
- Create a sleep ritual: Start with decreasing blue light (cell phone, TV, computer).
- Try aromatherapy: A little bit of lavender and chamomile essences help calm the mind and body after a long day.
- Limit alcohol: One serving of alcohol can interrupt two hours of sleep.
- Limit caffeine: It may take up to seven hours to metabolize just 50 percent of a serving of caffeine.
- Say no to nicotine: In addition to its many other negative effects, nicotine may make it harder to fall asleep and causes disruptive sleep and frequent wakefulness through the night.
Manage your stress, and watch for signs you might need help
Understanding your body and taking care of it involves good nutrition and exercise. It also means taking care of your mind. Be aware of your thoughts; negative thoughts and a “fault-finding” mentality can depress your mood and cause physical stress/muscle tension. A lack of sleep, junk food and alcohol will dull your mental sharpness. Consider meditation for a few minutes throughout the day to relax your mind and body.
- Deepak Chopra book-the 7 spiritual laws of success: Often students entering college have a set major in mind. Some do not, and some often change their minds. That’s great. This book is a classic that may help clarify your motivation.
- Breathing exercises can calm you down in a stressful situation, or help your brain turn off for sleep. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique is an awesome place to start.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression can help you realize when your collegiate life is taking its toll. It can also help you recognize when your fellow students might need some help. Here are the things to look for:
- Restlessness/feeling on edge
- Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance
- A depressed mood for most of the day-to-day; feeling sad or hopeless
- Markedly decreased interest for most or all activities
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Loss of energy
- Recurrent thoughts of death
For more information, check out lifestylefacts.org—it offers evidence-based information on health topics.
Find the health center
For a good workout, find the fitness center. But to stay really on top of your health, don’t stop until you also find your way to the health center, know the signs of a more serious illness and get vaccinated.
- Alcohol consumption: Here are seven tips for preventing a hangover.
- Recommended vaccines
- Meningococcal vaccine
- Human papilloma vaccine
- Tetanus booster
- Annual flu vaccine
Community involvement expands your horizons, helps you learn more, and gets you out of your comfort zone. Consider volunteering to tutor at-risk students or build homes through Habitat for Humanity. Join different clubs and meet people from different backgrounds. You may learn new perspectives and find how much you have in common with others.
About Dr. Tiffany Nguyen
Tiffany Nguyen, DO, FAAP, is board certified in Pediatrics and Lifestyle Medicine. She has practiced medicine at Texas Children’s Pediatrics in Houston, TX, since 2003. She went to medical school at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine and did her residency at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. She is an avid foodie, loves hiking, is a mom to two kids, plays the flute and is a “reformed one-shoulder backpack wearer.”