At college, there are a lot of things to distract you from balanced meals and regular sleep habits.
So it might seem comedic for us to include a chapter that advises, among other things, to get a full 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night, to eat healthful foods, to exercise regularly, and to limit stress. Those recommendations seem to apply to another world. College students, after all, regularly get by on only four hours of sleep. Sodium, sugar, and caffeine are considered essential nutrients, and a whole pizza counts as a little late night snack.
Nevertheless, it's worth reviewing the recommendations that mortals live by. (Or should live by, anyway.) The importance of healthy habits cannot be overstated. And, after all, this is a new phase in your life—a perfect time to establish new, healthy habits. When you have a healthy base, it's easy to recover from the occasional very late night or overindulgence.
In this chapter, we'll discuss the importance of
- sleep, including its benefits to mind and body
- healthful eating habits
- exercise, and why you should make it a regular part of your day
- sexual health
- other aspects of physical and mental health
We'll also outline the flip side of health, including
- poor diets and eating disorders
You've heard the recommendations on this one: 7 – 8 hours a night. But why? Why not 7 – 8 hours in little snippets throughout the 24-hour cycle? Or why not 14 hours one night a week and 4 the others?
The answer is sleep quality. People need to have consecutive hours of sleep so they can go through the necessary sleep cycles. While you sleep your body and brain are busy releasing hormones, restoring energy, and doing other work that will make you smarter, stronger, and more alert the next day.
Good sleep improves learning, perfor- mance, mood, and health. There are countless studies to support the importance of sleep—and that detail the negative effects for those who don't get enough or whose sleep isn't of high quality.
To maintain good sleep habits:
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Erratic sleep patterns can lead to insomnia and other problems.
Nap. Research shows that short naps can actually make you more alert and enhance your performance.
Plan. When you plan well, you can avoid all-nighters. Studying all night won't help you absorb information anyway, so you might as well study efficiently during your alert hours and enjoy your sleep.
Avoid showers, baths, and exercise the hour before bedtime. They are stimulating and make it difficult to get to sleep. Caffeine, alcohol, and some medications also inhibit sleep.
Exercise. Do exercise, but don't do vigorous exercise in the three hours before bedtime as it will keep you awake.
Make your room sleep-friendly. Get the temperature right, minimize light and noise, and make your bed comfortable (and not just an extension of your desk).
You probably have more freedom than ever and less structure in your days. This combination can wreak havoc on your diet. It's no wonder that many first-year college students succumb to the proverbial Freshman Fifteen. The Freshman Fifteen is actually a myth, but most students do gain weight their first year. Men gain an average of 6 pounds and women gain an average of 4 1⁄2 pounds.
Now, very few people intend to gain weight their first year of college. It just happens, sneaking up ninja-like. The best way to avoid such weight gain is to be aware of your diet and to know the basic facts of good nutrition. You've heard it before, but let's review and make some simple, manageable goals that even the most harried college student can follow reasonably:
There's a lot more to know about nutrition, of course, but these goals can help you start some basic good eating habits. For more information, check into your school's health centers and gyms. You will discover seminars, classes, and support for healthy eating. Also, check out these online resources: www.mypyramid.gov and www.nutrition.gov.
Avoiding the so-called Freshman Fifteen is one issue, but of course it is minor compared to the eating disorders some students develop (or continue) in college. For some vulnerable students, what begins as a diet and fitness plan turns into anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, or over-exercising. Eating disorders are serious and, unfortunately, common at college, where triggers like pressure, stress, and anxiety are part of daily life.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
Eating disorders are more than just a problem with food. Food is used to feel in control of other feelings that may seem overwhelming. For example, starving is a way for people with anorexia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease tension, anger, and anxiety. Purging and other behaviors to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease stress and anxiety.
￼￼Every college has resources to help students who develop an eating disorder or who want to help a friend whom they think might have an eating disorder. Hotlines, support groups, seminars, counseling, and medical intervention are available at many colleges. If you suspect you have an eating disorder or are prone to developing one, it is important that you seek professional help immediately. Also, be a good friend: If someone you know seems to be struggling with an eating disorder, discuss your concerns with a counselor at your college. He or she will have resources and advice that can help you get your friend help.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Associa- tion's minimum recommendation for healthy adults who wish to maintain their health and weight is simple: Get at least 3 – 5 cardio workouts each week and at least two strength training workouts.
You don't need a gym, though of course on campus you probably have several available to you. You don't even need to do the full workout at once. It seems like the easiest thing to do, yet we all know how quickly exercise can slip to the bottom of the priority list.
If you need motivation, here are some reasons to follow the recommendations.
- increases energy
- helps you get a better night's sleep
- reduces stress
- increases self-confidence
- reduces your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes
- makes you look and feel great
- is fun!
Here are some ways to make exercise a regular part of your life in college:
Schedule time to exercise. If it's a priority—and it should be—it needs to be on your calendar and as fixed as an appointment you would make with another person.
Develop a realistic exercise plan that you can follow. It's better to work out half an hour a day six days a week for a semester than to work out three hours each day for a week, then give it up.
Join an intramural sports team. Have fun, meet people, and stay in shape.
Choose to move. Walk or bike to class instead of taking the bus or driving. Walk up stairs instead of taking the elevator. Choose dancing or bowling rather than watching a movie. Play football instead of watching football on TV.
Enroll in a PE class. This option is extra- motivating (you can't not show up to a class, right?) and will give you a chance to try new activities.
Take advantage of your college's resources. You have access to more activities, trips, gyms, trainers, and organized sports than you'll ever have in your life. It's as if you have a $15,000 gym membership—and you get to take academic classes, too!
Of course, one aspect of your personal health is your relationships with others. UMHB supports sexual abstinence as the only foolproof way to avoid unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 3 in 10 females in the U.S. get pregnant at least once by age 20, and an unplanned pregnancy increases the risk of a student dropping out of college. In addition, 1 in 5 people in the United States has a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and two thirds of STIs occur in people under 25. What’s more, many people who have an STI do not know they have it, so they unknowingly pass it on to others. The Health Center on campus has additional information, websites, and resources for students who are considering becoming sexually active. You owe it to yourself to be safe and well-informed.
Stress can be a positive. It can motivate and encourage creativity, for instance. On the other hand, if not managed well, stress can cause mental, physical, and emotional strain. Left unchecked, high stress can lead to health problems such as anxiety, depression, weight gain, headaches, and high blood pressure. Stress is inevitable, but there are strategies you can adopt to minimize its impact. Here are some:
1) Recognize the signs of stress, which may include
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
- Problems sleeping
- Muscle tightness or spasms
- Frustration, nervousness, irritability, and mood swings
- Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Loss of concentration
- ￼A feeling of being overwhelmed
2) Know the common stressors of college life:
- Exams and assignments
- Time demands and scheduling conflicts
- Uncertainty about the future
3) Get a handle on stress:
Practice good organization and time management. Planning well will help you avoid situations that lead to stress, such as forgotten appointments, overdue assignments, and lost items.
Shift your perspective. What will this stressful event feel like a week from now? Next year? In 5 years?
Break overwhelming projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Instead of cleaning your entire room in one day, for example, set the goal to clean out the closet one day, and the rest of the living space the following day.
Stay healthy. (See the sections on diet and exercise earlier in this chapter.)
Take a break. When you're feeling overwhelmed, take time to think about it and do other things.
Be good to yourself. Don't beat yourself up over things. Make sure you reflect on the things you do right and focus on how you can use that self-knowledge in the future.
Play. Take time to have fun. It will release stress and give you perspective on the things that are causing your anxiety.
Get help if you need it. Just because stress is common doesn't mean it's too trivial to discuss with a counselor. If it's negatively affecting you, seek profes- sional advice.
The stressful, often erratic college lifestyle, combined with close contact with many other people, can make college students especially prone to illness. Some, like colds, are a mere inconvenience. Others, such as hepatitis and meningitis, can be life threatening.
Reduce your risk of illness by taking the following measures:
Visit your family physician before leaving for college for a complete physical.
Make sure your immunizations are up to date.
Cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands often.
Don't share eating and drinking utensils or toothbrushes and hairbrushes.
Handle food with care. If you're not sure how long that yogurt's been sitting out, err on the safe side and toss it. For food safety guidelines, including storage times for refrigerated food, go to www.foodsafety.gov.
Don't overuse antibiotics. Use antibiotics only when necessary and only when prescribed to you. If you are prescribed antibiotics, finish the entire course of the drug to ensure that the illness has been truly cured.
See a doctor or physician's assistant when necessary. Ignoring symptoms won't make them go away and it won't make the underlying condition any easier or cheaper to treat.
Practice safe sex. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are very common among college populations. Abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid an STD
Over 30% of college students report they have felt "so depressed it was difficult to function" at some point in the school year. (Source: The ACHA-NCHAII, Spring 2013.) College students are particularly vulnerable to depression because of all the life-altering changes they are going through. First-year college students may be living away from home for the first time, dealing with the stress of everyday life on their own, and facing academic and personal challenges that are new to them.
Depression can be triggered by an event like the loss of a loved one, serious physical illness or injury, a failed relationship, or a series of bad grades. Often, depression is inherited and individuals with a family history of depression may be more likely to suffer from depression themselves. Sometimes depression isn't attributable to any particular cause, but is brought on by a combination of circumstances.
The good news is that depression is a treatable illness. If you are experienc- ing any of the following symptoms, you should seek help from your college physician or counselor:
• Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
• Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
• Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling slowed down
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
• Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
• Appetite changes and/or weight loss or weight gain
• Thoughts of death or suicide
• Restlessness, irritability
• Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
Healthy Living Exercises
- Keep track of your sleep for a week. How much sleep do you average per night? Is it high quality sleep? Do you feel well-rested after a night's sleep?
- Tour your campus's athletic and exercise facilities. What are their hours of operation? What kinds of classes are available?
- Visit your college's counseling center and health center. What kinds of resources are available in each center? What are their hours? How does one go about making an appointment?
- If a friend exhibited signs of a possible eating disorder, what steps would you take to get him or her help? Discuss with a group.
- If a friend exhibited signs of depression, what steps would you take to get him or her help? Discuss with a group.