The struggle new college students experience is real, says Eagle River physical therapist Chris Wilson. The ability to stay active and lead a healthful lifestyle is such a common challenge to young adults entering college, Wilson points out that it’s often stigmatized up in the term “The Freshman 15.”
“When a recent high school graduate first goes off to college, they’re surrounded by new challenges: meeting new people, adapting to a new place, living on their own, classes, studies, clubs, parties, financial obligations, and so on,” said Wilson, owner of Ideal Motion Physical Therapy in Eagle River. “It’s no wonder health and fitness often become an afterthought, leading some college freshmen to fall into habits that fall short of national fitness guidelines.”
And while Wilson points to studies that conclude the dreaded “Freshman 15” slightly overstates and oversimplifies the issue (the average college freshman is likely to gain 2 to 5 pounds; just 12 percent gain 15-plus pounds), the overall message is valid: new college students often struggle to maintain healthy habits.
“Unhealthy eating, inconsistent exercise, sleep deprivation, stress, sedentary routines … these are all things that can become habit-forming over the course of weeks and months,” Wilson said. “While it can be challenging, it’s important college students strive to keep and create healthy habits within their new lives – habits that can sustain them well after graduation.”
To help, Wilson offers the following advice to help new college students build and maintain healthy habits at school:
Keep Moving: Most colleges offer students the use of gym facilities. Take advantage of this! “Not only does exercise keep your body strong and healthy, but it can stimulate brain development, improve memory, help with focus and concentration, relieve stress, and boost your mood,” Wilson said. “So whether it’s going to the gym, walking/cycling to class, or joining an intramural team, always make time for movement.”
Get Plenty of Sleep: College students who trade hours of sleep for opportunities to both study and socialize should heed studies linking sleep with the ability to maintain healthy weight as well as the ability to better manage stress. So don’t dismiss good sleep habits, and if needed, take naps when you can.
Practice Mindful Eating: Try not to follow the path of least resistance when eating in college. “Late-night meals, indulging in drinks and deserts in the cafeteria, or stress eating while studying late into the night can become habit-forming and lead to unhealthy weight gain,” Wilson said. “Instead, plan your route through the cafeteria, keep healthy snacks in your dorm room, and don’t skip breakfast.”
Drink Water: We all know proper hydration is necessary, but students can quickly fall short of their water intake when they opt instead for coffee, sodas, sports drinks and, yes, the occasional alcoholic beverage. Lack of hydration can lead to fatigue, low metabolism, a fuzzy memory, headaches, and even thirst mistaken as hunger.
Since each student’s health status and lifestyle goals are different, sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to creating exercise habits. A physical therapist, such as those on the Ideal Motion Physical Therapy team, can help college students develop personalized plans for a more active lifestyle – one that takes into account available resources and challenges.