Staying Healthy at College

September 20, 2019

Erica Coleman, FNP-C
Piedmont Internal Medicine

I have been a student most of my life, 21 years to be exact; from grade school, to high school, to undergrad, to graduate school. It is really hard to believe, but my husband says I am addicted to learning, which I guess isn’t a bad thing. Most of college (as an undergrad and grad) I had to work while in school for financial reasons. Making the choice to do that for myself, was the best thing I could have done. So it would be accurate to say I have plenty of experience and knowledge on how important it is to not only stay on track in college, but also to stay healthy in college. Those years are vulnerable as you leave home for the first time and venture out into a new experience. Nutrition, physical activity, stress management, sleep, and limiting risky behaviors are some of the tools essential to pack with you as you head off to college.

Nutrition

When I started college I was eating to survive; in other words I ate as needed. I didn’t have enough time nor enough patience, so I went with convenience. I chose all the wrong foods—fast food, because let’s face it, it’s fast, it’s affordable and it tastes good. Little did I know, those food options caused some very difficult habits and mood swings. It was not until later in life studying to become a nurse that I figured out what it meant to fuel your body. The moment I stopped snacking and eating junk was the moment I realized I could go eight hours without feeling tired, or walk up a flight of stairs without getting short of breath, or focus through a three hour lecture without feeling my blood sugar drop. When it comes to nutrition, I have a few simple tools:

  • Eat a healthy breakfast every morning. Don’t skip this meal, it’s full of opportunity to fuel your fasting body with healthy protein, necessary fats, and whole grains.
  • Eat every two to three hours. Consume three big meals and two to three high protein snacks throughout the day. Keep healthy snacks with you so that you aren’t tempted to buy that bag of chips or piece of pizza.
  • Eat mostly fruits and vegetables. These are full of healthy antioxidants and fiber to keep you fuller, and for longer.
  • Hydrate. Water is life. Keep this as your main beverage of choice. I did not realize how many calories I was getting from my Starbucks lattes (thank you James Madison University for supplying my Starbucks addiction). I never realized I was drinking two to three sugary coffees a day at 130-180 calories each. On an average 2,000 calorie diet, my liquid consumption was 1/3 of my calorie intake for the day. The thing about indulging in those drinks is that your glycemic index shoots up, and within an hour your sugar starts to drop and your body feels you need more sugar to sustain. This is how we get into trouble. So how did I make a change? I started counting my calories. Once I realized how many empty calories I was wasting, and how many days a week I was going over my average goal, I knew I had to make a change. It was not an overnight change, but calorie counting was eye opening, and it changed the way I felt about food.
  • Find a helpful tool. In today’s world of technology, there are many applications that can be used to help you track your goals. Use of these applications also help you to maintain a level of accountability. For example, downloading an app such as MyFitnessPal will enable you to type in your goals, put in what you eat, see what remains, and track the amount of water you are drinking. These applications will show where changes can be made.

Physical Activity and Exercise

Does anyone truly love to run? There are so many other things I would much prefer doing than spending time in the gym or running. Much like nutrition, I did not realize until I was older how difficult it was to get active again. Sure, when I was younger I could eat anything I wanted and not gain weight. I would occasionally go to the gym or go for a run, but it was never habitual. It was not until I found myself drowning in stress and exams that I felt I needed help. Stress drove me to become more active because I needed a safe and effective outlet. I started by using study breaks to do about 15-20 minutes of walking outside. Walking turned into jogging, and occasionally I would go for a quick run. I liked the way my mind worked and how my body felt being active, so I found other activities that I enjoyed. I enjoyed dance, so a girlfriend and I decided to try line dancing one night – we loved it and turned it into a reoccurring activity for years to come. I also discovered I had a passion for yoga, and that has since been my favorite physical activity to date. The trick is to find something that you enjoy.

As a student, you will be sitting in lectures, seminars, libraries, and working at the computer until you notice this becomes routine. You’re frequently in closed spaces and unknowingly face issues such as violation of blood circulation in extremities and oxygen starvation of important body parts, including the brain. Physical activity forces blood to move in the body, delivering oxygen to all important body parts, especially to the brain. 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 two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, and participate in muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.

Stress and Time Management

College is a stressful time. Workload increases and as a student, you are expected to manage your time between school, work, family obligations, and maintaining a social life. I decided I needed to find balance and it needed to start with time management. Time is a finite resource. No matter what, you’re always left with the same 24 hours in a day to check items off to-do lists, spend time with family and friends, and unwind. By planning ahead and using your time wisely, you’ll be able to accomplish more and enjoy added free time. By becoming aware of where my time was being spent, I found that my phone was consuming a good majority of it and was actually distracting me. I was constantly checking social media for irrelevant stories such as who was dating who and who liked my photos. To make matters worse, I would try my hardest not to work and would surf the internet or shop instead.

Ultimately, I had to use my distractions as rewards during study breaks. I would put my phone in the other room and set my alarm for 45 minutes. Once the alarm went off I could use the next 15 minutes to do whatever I wanted, like re-watching all of the Pitch Perfect movie finales. This schedule worked for me and I needed the breaks. By planning ahead, I studied better and was more efficient with my time.

Another rule of thumb is to find happiness. This has a direct effect on a person’s overall health and helps decrease the effects of stressful situations. People who surround themselves with situations or items that make them happier have up to 12 times lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Expressing feelings of stress and conversing with friends or family can also lead to a lowered levels of cortisol. The only way I was truly able to get through the grueling nursing program at Marymount University was a core group of friends that are still my closest friends today. Again, everyone has their own happiness; find yours.

Sleep is Crucial

Sleep is another area I did poorly in when first going to college. Mostly because I couldn’t tell my brain to turn off, and constantly worried about what assignments were coming up. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says adults need at least seven to eight hours of continuous sleep per night. I was getting on average four to five. Given the lack of sleep, I would get sick more often, I would have mental breakdowns, and I was not very productive in the day. I had to discipline myself by establishing a bedtime routine. During the week days that I had class, I set my bedtime to 10 pm. I would usually try to start winding down as part of the routine at 9 pm – set my coffee, wash my face, brush my teeth, take multivitamins, pray, and read. As part of my routine, I would leave my phone in its place and shut off any other electronic devices. Sometimes, I would even make a to-do list for the next day to keep my mind from wandering.

Keep your 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. When you work in bed, you subconsciously 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.

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. 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, that's why a warm bath before bedtime is so effective – your body cools off after bathing.

Risky and Concerning Behaviors

Finally, the topic on the minds of all parents and students – sex, drugs and alcohol. According to the national survey, approximately one-third of teens are experimenting with risky behaviors – many for the first time – during their first semester at college. Roughly, one-third of current college students surveyed reported drinking alcohol (37%), engaging in intimate sexual behavior (37%), or having sexual intercourse (32%) during their first semester at college. Talk to your parents, and parents talk to your students. If I could give one piece of advice this would be it. I have a great relationship with my mom, she allowed me to feel safe talking to her about things that I was experiencing or things I saw other people experiencing around me. We would have conversations about the good and the bad in every situation, and she never made me feel bad about myself. She was always uplifting. You will be around it, more than you think. Be smart, be firm in your beliefs, be careful, set your intentions daily, and find a good support system. Build self-confidence by joining clubs or study groups where you can connect with likeminded 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.