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Published on June 05, 2020

Keeping Fit at College

youg man with bike

When young adults head to college, they are given freedom — some for the first time — to make decisions for themselves.

What to eat, when to go to bed, when to study, how to spend their time, and dozens of other daily choices.

As parents, we can prepare our children for college by helping them understand how keeping fit — physically, emotionally, and mentally — is key to their success.

“College students find themselves worn down, lacking energy, and more susceptible to illness if they don’t make time to take care of themselves,” says Colleen Pacem, ARNP, a family nurse practitioner with EvergreenHealth’s Primary Care Kenmore practice. “Parents should be talking with their college student about eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep.”

Make a plan

The best formula for success in all three areas is a plan, Colleen says.

“College students are surrounded by temptations and have more freedom than ever before,” she says. “The best way to learn and maintain self-control is to have a plan about how you’re going to do it. Encourage them to think in advance about what they’ll eat, how often they’ll exercise, and limits on time.”

Colleen believes planning gives students a path to follow and goals to reach. She views it as a “living” document, though. Parents should encourage students not to set goals too high when first starting out.

“If your child hasn’t really exercised regularly before, it’s best to start small — 10 minutes a day — so they’ll be more likely to stick with it. They can increase that time as they build momentum,” she says.

Below are ideas parents can share with college students to help them stay fit in every aspect of life. (See our Eating Well at College article for ideas on eating well in college).

Physically fit

Between classes, exams and a social life (of course!), many students feel they can't find time to keep up on personal health and wellness until an illness catches hold and stops them in their tracks.

Rebounding from illness, however, is often more difficult than taking steps to avoid it in the first place.

Most colleges and universities have recreational centers or gyms — and students can usually take advantage of them for free. Many offer fitness classes, as well.

If the gym isn’t your child’s thing, Colleen suggests using open spaces to play ultimate Frisbee or run or walk around an area on or near your child’s campus.

“Whatever they do, it needs to be fun for them, or they probably won’t stick with it,” she says.

Colleen also suggests finding something they can do with a friend. “The reality is that we are less likely to skip out on something if we know someone else is counting on us to show up. Encourage students to use that accountability to get moving and get in a routine.”

Other ideas:

  • Walk to class. Walking gives them a chance to stretch their legs, burn calories, and get some fresh air.
  • Take vitamins. If your child is going to college in this region, Colleen recommends Vitamin D because people often don’t get enough of it naturally when the amount of daily sunlight is low. She advises vegans to take vitamin B12 to help prevent anemia, nerve damage, and other issues.
  • Get a flu shot. Sometimes getting a flu shot is the best thing your college student can do to avoid getting sick. Colleen recommends getting one in September or October before the flu season is in full swing. The shot lasts for nine to 12 months.
  • Keep immunizations up to date. In particular, Colleen recommends vaccinating against meningococcal disease, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in teens. Many colleges now require the vaccine.

Mentally fit

One of the surest ways to stay mentally fit is to get plenty of sleep.

Unfortunately, sleep is an area where college students often falter.

“In college, many adopt a later to bed, later to rise sleep pattern, but this often affects quality sleep. There’s truth to the adage that the best sleep happens before midnight,” says Colleen. “College students really need six to nine hours a night. They should try to limit crazy sleep hours.”

Sleep habits, Colleen says, can directly affect grades. Studies have found that college freshmen who kept night-owl hours had lower GPAs than early birds.

“The importance of sleep cannot be overstated,” Colleen says. “And lack of it not only affects grades but also mental, emotional, and physical health.”

If necessary, students should take short naps (an hour or less), as long as they aren’t too close to bedtime. She also recommends sticking to a schedule and avoiding all-nighters.

Emotionally fit

With all the changes, pressures, and responsibilities, college students are in a high-risk group for depression, Colleen says.

She offers these tips to help college students keep emotionally fit and balanced:

  • Learn time management skills. Time is one of the major stress factors that college students face today. There’s no one to tell them to get assignments in, leave for work on time, and so on. Students need to learn how to plan their days, prioritize activities, and limit distractions.
  • Be realistic. Goals should be set carefully. Help your children understand that they can only do so much.
  • Ask for help. If you suspect your child is experiencing depression or feeling overstressed, encourage them to talk to someone—if not you, then a counselor, advisor, friend, or doctor. There are usually many campus resources as well.
  • Make connections. It will be important for students to keep in touch with family and friends from home. It’s also important, though, that they find something — clubs, study groups, intramural sports, for example — that helps them make connections and build new friendships.

How to Eat Healthy at College

When freshmen head off to college campuses, many of them will be making food decisions on their own, maybe for first time.

To help you help them make that transition, we have gathered some tips for you to share with your children so they can eat well away from home.

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