One of the inherent perks of being a college student is the newfound independence: to do what you want when you want and with whom you want. While this independence can be very freeing, it does come with its own set of challenges. The crushing weight of student loans and tuition payments, stressful classes and long hours of studying, and a busy social life—all this combined can be overwhelming, especially for new students who are unfamiliar with the college environment.
Sometimes small, simple changes in behavior and/or thought processes can make a huge difference in the way we feel. Taking steps to ensure we have a healthy body, healthy mind, and healthy habits can allow us to navigate our own well-being more efficiently. This three-part series will offer tips to help you balance your academic, social, and mental wellness when you're on campus. First up: taking care of your body.
Exercise and activity
To have a healthy state of being, it's beneficial to have a healthy body too. And the mental health benefits of exercise are numerous. According to the Dana Foundation, when you exercise, your heart rate increases and therefore brings more blood flow to the brain. During this process, your brain is exposed to an increased amount of oxygen and essential nutrients needed for neuron growth. The brain secretes chemicals like dopamine and endorphins when you exercise, which help improve your mood. Exercise also helps regulate your sleep and improves short- and long-term memory.
It's important to note that the word “healthy” does not constitute strictly slim figures, harsh workouts, and boring diets; you can be healthy and still enjoy your favorite foods, and you can be healthy without being thin or working out rigorously! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need roughly 150 minutes of exercise per week. I know this sounds like a lot—however, it can be broken down into just 30 minutes a day for five days a week, or around 15–20 minutes a day over seven days. Low-maintenance exercise includes walking, water aerobics, climbing stairs, cycling, and stretching. You can also participate in more intermediate to difficult levels of exercise such as weight training or CrossFit. Yoga helps keep you healthy as well, and there are many different types of routines for different levels of skill, flexibility, and body types. There are a ton of ways to stay active on any college campus—join a club sports team, check out your school’s fitness center for free or discounted classes, or try walking or riding your bike to class instead of driving.
Another way to keep our bodies up and running is to eat nutritious food. You don't need to "go on a diet" to be healthy; oftentimes, dieting can lead to a surplus of body image issues and eating disorders. An article by Arizona State University states that people who diet often gain back the weight they lost in about five years, as the body is built to resist starvation, and dieting can confuse the body into thinking that it’s starving. The author also writes that “many diets teach deprivation rather than nourishment.” To help avoid this strained relationship with food, it’s important to focus on what we can add to a meal to make it nutritious, not what we can take away. For example, you can incorporate things such as beans, vegetables, and nuts into your meals at the dining hall or recipes you enjoy. That way, you're not depriving your body of something; you're adding something with added nutritional value to it!
It’s also important to remember that there’s no such thing as “bad food” and “good food.” There are some foods that have more nutritional value than others, sure, but that does not make things like cookies or ice cream “bad” to eat. Having a piece of cake or an ice cream bar is not going to kill you or undo any of the work you've put into your body. As long as you're not consuming large amounts consistently (like five pieces of cake every day) and you’re aware of what foods trigger you into eating more at one time, you're good! You don't need to “pay” for enjoying what you eat. Remember that you deserve to eat, and you deserve to enjoy eating. (If you find yourself not eating as a form of punishment or out of guilt, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association website.)
Self-care and relaxation
Lastly, you can help your body stay healthy through self-care. This means taking time to pamper, replenish, and appreciate your body and giving it the attention it needs to feel good—which in turn helps you feel good both mentally and physically. Some classic forms of bodily self-care include taking a shower or bath, doing facemasks and skincare, practicing yoga, doing low-maintenance exercise like a short walk or stretching, painting your nails, doing your makeup, and easing muscle tension through mindful meditation. It's important to note that all forms of body self-care (and self-care in general) are gender inclusive—there is no activity that people of a certain gender identity and expression are allowed or not allowed to do.
Your body keeps you up and running, and feeling good physically will help you feel good all over! Remember not to be too hard on yourself and give yourself some grace. There is no reward for pushing your body beyond its limits just because you can.
Keep an eye out for part two of this series coming soon. For now, learn more about staying healthy and active in college with the articles and advice in our Student Life section!