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Creating healthy habits in college

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Healthy Habits in College | Texas Children's Hospital
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According to a 2016 study conducted by the University of Vermont, the “freshman 15” is actually a myth. In reality, most students gain around 10 pounds throughout all four years of college, with one-third of that weight gained in the first year. 

But weight gain is just one example of how young adults find their health compromised in college. When you mix being away from home for the first time with academic pressure from course loads and welcomed distractions that come with freedom, healthy habits supporting exercise, nutrition and mental health are often sacrificed. 

If you’re a student (or parent) looking for ways to work healthy habits into a busy college lifestyle, here’s some advice. 

Try integrating workouts into your daily routine.

Most students have varying course schedules, such as Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday classes. Combine this with study time and social schedules, and working out might end up being a low priority. It’s helpful if you can find ways to incorporate activity into your daily routine. For instance:

  • Get a step counter or Fitbit. This is a great thing to ask for during the holidays or your birthday. Set some easy goals – 10,000 steps each day is standard – and find ways to meet them. Try taking the stairs to a third-floor classroom or give yourself extra time to take the long way to class. You can even park further away from campus. 
  • Download a seven-minute workout app – and use it!
  • Stow a couple of 5-10 pound dumbbells in your room. These 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.
  • You can purchase resistance bands, which can help with strength training. 
  • Join a community/intramural sports team. 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.

If you’re overloading your body, all of the hard work adding fitness into your routine is wasted. If you’re carrying a lot of textbooks, ditch the messenger or cross-body bag and opt for a quality backpack with padded straps. Wear both straps so the weight of your pack is evenly distributed. 

Key technique: Load the heaviest items in your backpack toward your back and the lighter items farther out. Consider cleaning out your bag regularly to limit your load to just the essentials. These few extra minutes could help you avoid long-term back pain. 

Study habits should support the mind and body.

The hardest part of studying is getting started – usually the first 15 minutes, to be specific. It can be difficult to study in a dorm room with so many distractions: your roommate, dirty laundry, dishes in the sink and much more. Your mind starts to wander, and you start to feel sleepy as you begin reading. 

Transforming your study space into a positive, productive environment can help shift wasted study time into something effective. For instance:

  • Start with a clear, simple workspace – an uncluttered desktop, containers for office supplies, stacked notepads, etc. 
  • Set some ground rules with your roommate when it comes to scheduling time for studying, cleaning or entertaining guests. 
  • Consider alternating between sitting and standing for the first 15-20 minutes of study time, 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 to help create natural breaks that can keep you alert.
  • Buy a chair that supports good posture and enables movement. Like an adjustable height desk, an active sitting chair can provide the freedom of movement your body desires. 

Don’t fight that catnap. 

Set an alarm and allow yourself a break! In fact, 10-15 minute naps are a great way to rest the mind and body. Studies show that frequent napping actually helps you retain more information. This is especially useful in avoiding cram-sessions where you’re exhausted, resulting in poor memory retention. 

Try placing a yoga mat next to your bed so you can stretch and do some yoga poses. If the mat doubles as an area rug, it’s more cost-effective!

Change your scenery

Go to the library for a change in scenery or more quiet time. You can still incorporate some of these techniques in different settings.

Eat like a pro. 

Avoiding weight gain is just one reason to eat well. When you eat well, you’re also helping your body build muscle and your brain focus better. In reality, between dining halls and lack of cooking skills, starting up a healthy diet can be tough. 

Start with this big rule of thumb: The less processed food, the better. The three main actions to consider are decreasing sugar intake, decreasing bad (saturated/trans) fats and increasing fruit/vegetable consumption. 

If you’re dependent on dining halls or meal plans, making healthier choices can be even more challenging. 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 and much more to help ensure you’re getting enough of everything. This way, you can adjust your dining hall choices based on nutrition you’re missing for the day, instead of cravings. 

Snack healthy. 

Consider these tips:

  • Choose fruit and nut bars with no added sugars. 
  • Start with plain popcorn and add seasoning, spray with olive oil and/or sprinkle in some cayenne or rosemary. 
  • Bite-sized pieces of dark chocolate 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 grab and store. 
  • You can get a lot of your daily nutrition from a smoothie! Nutrient-dense frozen fruits such as pineapple and berries are less expensive than fresh fruit, and available year-round. Pop them in a blender with some water/ice, a banana, and spinach or baby kale. Then add some peanut butter powder or plant-based protein powder. Voila! Now you have a great smoothie for a fraction of the cost of something similar from a chain store. 
  • Pita chips and hummus are easy, healthy snack options. To make it even healthier and filling, try adding small sweet peppers or cucumber slices to the mix.
  • You can sprinkle chia seeds into oatmeal, salads and smoothies, which will give you some omega 3s, fiber and vitamins. 

Hydrate!

Try to get at least 64 ounces of water each day, possibly more depending on your weight and workout routine. 

Also, manage your caffeine intake. Coffee is typically the go-to drink, so be careful with sugar and fat content from cream. Consider green tea or guayusa tea instead – these options have less caffeine and are richer in antioxidants.

Learn how to cook

Consider these tips:

  • Online cooking classes (i.e. Rouxbe) make for a great gift and can help you lock down basic knife and food preparation skills. Check out Forks Over Knives for grocery list planning and food preparation ideas. 
  • Update a classic, staple recipe – like pasta with tomato sauce. Try choosing 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 ever heartier option, sauté some onions and peppers with chickpeas (or other protein source) and add it all to the sauce.
  • Don’t skip breakfast! For a quick and easy breakfast, prepare overnight oats or use containers of stored oats so you can just add hot water. 

Sleep!

Nothing can ruin your health more than sleep deprivation. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night helps you reset and repair your body, improves memory, replenishes energy and will boost your mood. To set yourself up for successful sleeping, consider these tips: 

  • Create a sleep ritual. Start with decreasing blue light (smart phones, laptops, TV) before bed. 
  • Try aromatherapy. A little bit of lavender or chamomile essences can 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 caffeine serving.
  • Say “no” to nicotine. In addition to its many other negative effects, nicotine can make it more difficult to fall asleep and causes frequent wakefulness throughout the night. 

Manage your stress and watch for warning signs. 

Understanding and taking care of your body involves good nutrition and exercise, as we’ve discussed. It also involves taking care of your mind. Be aware of your thoughts. Negativity and “fault-finding” mentalities can depress your mood and bring physical stress and muscle tension. 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. Try these:

  • Deepak Chopra’s “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.” In college, students typically have a set career focus in mind. Some don’t, and many change their minds. This is OK. Chopra’s book is a classic, and it might help you clarify your motivation. 
  • Breathing exercises can calm you down in stressful situations or help your brain turn off for sleep. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique is a great place to start. 

Knowing the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression can help you recognize when college it taking a toll on your mental health. It can also help you identify other friends who might need some help. Look for:

  • Restlessness or feeling “on edge”
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Depressed mood for most of the day, feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Markedly decreased interest for most or all activities 
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Loss of energy
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or self-harm

For more information, check out lifestylefacts.org, which offers evidence-based information on health topics.

Find the recreation and health centers.

For a good workout, find your campus recreation or fitness center. To stay on top of your health, don’t stop until you find a health center. Learn more about the signs of serious illnesses, and make sure these vaccinations are up to date:

  • Meningococcal vaccine
  • Human papillomavirus vaccine
  • Tetanus booster
  • Flu vaccine (annual)

Get involved. 

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 campus clubs and meet people from different backgrounds. You might learn new perspectives and find out just how much you have in common with others. 

This blog originally appeared on Fully.com.