When I first walked through the door of my teeny-tiny dorm room, my first thought was “freedom!” ¡ª my second thought was “I’m hungry,” and so began my induction into the wild world of trying to live healthy during college. While everyone discusses the dangers of the freshman 15, weight gain isn’t the only health issue college students find themselves faced with. Sleep, alcohol, stress, and exercise ¡ª these issues all play a huge role in a young woman’s health, and while I came to learn the importance of taking good care of myself, there are some things I wish I had known from my very first day on campus. These 10 lessons are ones that I have continued to live by, even though I’ve left campus for the next chapter. Armed with these bits of knowledge, know that a healthier life is always possible.
1. Keep Healthy Snacks Handy
When I first moved into my dormitory, my living situation was a shock. Without a stove or refrigerator at my disposal, I was stumped ¡ª where could I keep the study snacks I enjoyed at home (pickles, anyone?). I watched my roommate stock her shelves with chips, candy bars, and other not-so-healthy snacks, but I had never been a big junk food eater. So I spent night after night listening to my stomach growl, refusing to cave in to my roommate’s offer of sour cream and onion chips. Later, I came to realize that healthy snacks were more of an option than I had believed, I began to stock my drawers with protein-packed nuts, fiber-rich fruits (like apples), and store-bought snacks that had ingredient lists that I could actually understand (including a few too many bars of my favorite dark chocolate). Once I was armed with healthy snacks I could actually enjoy, I was happy to sit in bed and nosh away; satisfied, but on my terms.
2. Make the Most of Your Free Time
Picking classes every semester always felt like putting together a crazy-complicated jigsaw puzzle ¡ª it was hard to get everything to fit, and sometimes there were awkward spaces I just couldn’t manage to figure out. When I was stuck on campus with an hour or two to kill between lectures, I found myself surfing the Internet on my laptop or taking a nap to kill time. That is, until one day I discovered that I could squeeze my workouts into the funny spaces in my schedule. Suddenly I was using the time for a productive and healthy, habit and I entered my next class feeling invigorated and ready to learn instead of antsy or tired.
3. Learn to Listen to Your Appetite
Walking into my college cafeteria felt like entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; I was dumbfounded by the limitless (and bottomless) choices in front of me. I could start my meal with pizza, move on to a plate of curry or a piping-hot grilled cheese, and finish with a brownie and bowl of cereal. Those first few months I spent many an evening nursing a stomachache from my overindulging. But eventually I learned my lesson: just because the food was available, didn’t mean I had to eat it. The trick that saved me then and has continued to help me stay healthy through many a potluck and party is to start with a healthy salad or piece of fruit. Moderation is a challenge, but this trick helped me slow down and think before biting off more than I could chew, literally.
4. Don’t Rely on All-Nighters
I need to admit something ¡ª I never pulled an all-nighter in college. Though these study sessions may seem like a rite of passage, for me, I always found that a night of solid studying followed by a good (albeit short) night of sleep kept me mentally prepared for whatever exams were coming my way. While some friends spent their nights fighting to stay awake and their days groggy and sleep deprived, I realized that for me it would never be an acceptable way to succeed. Instead of spending a whole night eating junk food and mindlessly reading textbooks, set a time limit and once you’ve reached it, go to bed. The sleep will help your memory and keep you energized for your test.
5. Skip Soda
As someone with an unreasonably active sweet tooth, an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola used to seem like the perfect midday pick-me-up ¡ª an ideal combination of caffeine and sugar that pushed me through my afternoon classes. But what I didn’t think about was the fact that come evening time, I was cranky, and once I tried to sleep, I would toss and turn. Not only is kicking a soda habit for your waistline (even diet soda is a no-go), it’s also extremely important for your health. Sure, when I was cooped up, a dorm vending machine seemed convenient, but I came to realize that kicking my soda habit (I switched to sparkling water instead) helped me leave my mood swings behind.
6. Find the Exercise That Moves You
Splitting time between friends, class, school, and work meant that the things at the bottom of my to-do list never seemed to get done. Finding a workout I looked forward to doing meant that I actually made my sweat sessions a priority. Scheduling in a half hour morning run became an important part of my college routine that helped me feel refreshed and at peace in the middle of my busy weeks. No matter how much you have to do, loving your workouts will help you learn to make them a part of your routine.
7. Let Loose ¡ª in Moderation
In college, students can sometimes treat drinking like it’s a sport, spending nights and weekends downing drink after drink without giving thought to the hangovers, calories, or other consequences. The secret to balancing work and play was as simple as moderation. By keeping an eye on the number of drinks I would enjoy, I knew I could wake up the next day sans hangover, and even better ¡ª I never did anything I woke up regretting. There’s nothing wrong with letting loose with your friends, but learning how to imbibe without going over-the-top is a skill that every college student should master.
8. Be Flexible
You don’t have to be a devoted yogi to reap the benefits of Downward Dog and Shavasana. For me, yoga became not only a great way to loosen up my body after a full day of sitting and studying, but it also became an important activity for clearing my mind. Especially when I had a test coming up, it was easy for me to get stressed out and on edge, but just one yoga class could completely change my mood. An hour of reflective thinking and movement transformed me from a total mess to someone surprisingly serene.
9. Never Skip Your Meals
My life as a college student often involved waking up a mere 10 minutes before class, rolling out of bed, and running to my lecture hall (sometimes dressed in head-to-toe sweats), but one thing I learned was that skipping meals because I was too busy or stuck on campus just wasn’t an option. Missing out on a meal would affect my energy and mood; plus, it can lead to weight gain. Getting in the habit of putting together food the day before meant that I could walk out the door prepared for the day ahead.
10. Walk It Off
No matter the distance or weather, it’s always better to head to class on foot (or by bicycle). It’s amazing how many steps I would rack up running from class to class, zigzagging across campus. I would even spend time between classes taking strolls to help clear my mind and prepare me for my next long lecture. Though walking may seem mundane, it’s the easiest exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime.
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