Talk to any college student, and I’m sure they’ll agree that college is fun. In many ways, college can be incredible. But talk to any college student, and I’m sure they’ll also agree that college is hard. In many ways, college can be unbearable.
Understandably, freshman year is often the one that requires the most adjustment. Everyone deals with their own unique challenges. But although the dialogue is growing, people often don’t talk about the health consequences a stressful college lifestyle can have on the body and the mind. I can attest to the fact that adjustment isn’t always necessarily easy.
For me, transitioning from a lifetime of playing two team sports year-round and having a yoga studio across the street to discretionary, unstructured exercise was a struggle. Going from cooking all my meals almost every day to eating every meal in a dining hall was a shock.
During school, it’s all too easy to let health and fitness fall to the bottom of the priority list. However, a healthy body is essential for the healthy mind you need in college. I’m using this summer as an opportunity to reset after a stressful semester and to build healthy eating and fitness habits that I can sustain at school. Here are five ways you can do the same.
Reconnect With the Kitchen
When you’re on a university meal plan, it can be easy to forget about anything more than which buffet line sounds the best on a particular day. However, food is not only about filling your stomach. When you separate food preparation and food consumption, which is what happens in a dining hall, you lose some of the most important aspects of eating.
I love to cook. I cook because I like being able to control of what I’m putting into my body. I cook because I find it enjoyable and relaxing. I cook because sharing a meal is a way to build relationships with and express love for my family and friends. I found it difficult to cook during this past year, which took a toll on my happiness and health.
But whether cooking is something you already love or something you want to try because you’ve spent so many months stomaching dorm food, summer is the perfect time to get into the kitchen. Supermarkets are bursting with fresh produce, and many towns host incredible local farmers’ markets. There are so many opportunities to learn.
If you get the chance before school starts up again, cook. Try to cook. Attempt and miserably fail to cook. Best case scenario, you discover a delicious dish and a useful new skill. Worst case scenario, you have a funny story to tell.
Side note: I find that a lot of people think that cooking yourself is more expensive than being on a meal plan or eating out all the time. This isn’t true. If you want to stay healthy and save some money, consider cooking at home (or in the dorm).
Get Active In Your Own Way
At many colleges, self-care and mental health are prominent discussion points–and rightfully so. However, conceptualization and implementation are two very different things. Although we’re told that our health comes first, it can be hard to uphold that when we’re faced with exams, obligations, and personal problems.
We’re also told that exercise is important, usually in the context of maintaining a healthy weight. But did you know that, in addition to all of its other health benefits, exercise is also the most underutilized antidepressant? The free time and better weather in the summer are perfect for starting or intensifying an exercise routine.
“But I don’t like running.”
Guess what? Even though I’m a lifetime athlete and physical activity fanatic, I really don’t either. Unless I can explore a city like Providence or enjoy nature at the same time, it’s hard to get me excited to go for a run. But who said running is the only way to work out?
Try a fitness class like Zumba. Take a hike somewhere cool. Even just walking has its benefits. Heck, have a dance party alone in your room if that’s what you want to do. It’s your body, so do what feels good for you. Your body and mind will thank you.
Go Back to Breakfast Basics
Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but between maximizing sleep and making it to class on time, a lot of students fall victim to simply grabbing a granola bar–or worse, skipping it altogether (which is not a good idea). This summer, why not change that? As much of a hassle as it may seem, a balanced breakfast can boost healthy habits and brain function.
Instead of blowing it off, experiment with dishes that will make you excited to get out of bed. Try something trendy, like an acai bowl. Maybe a savory avocado and smoked salmon scramble is better suited to your palate. If you really want a challenge, last summer I made a different kind of oatmeal every single day (Yes, it is possible. Yes, I know that’s crazy).
In the grand scheme of things, sure, making breakfast might be a mostly insignificant change. But for me, it’s a little thing that can make a big difference in reducing my stress, helping me settle into a routine, and reminding me that my health is important.
Try it. Actually try it. If you find that making breakfast really isn’t your thing, then my challenge to you is to find your “breakfast.” Figure out something simple that helps you relax, unwind, and smile. Maybe it’s food- or exercise-related, maybe it’s not. Really, anything is good (although I still argue that breakfast is best, because waffles).
Bonus: more time to cook also means more time to Instagram the delicious-looking dishes you whip up, right?
Keep It Going
At this time of year, it can be tempting to “crash diet” in an attempt to slim down quickly for the summer. However, remember that while short-term goals are useful, it’s the long-term goals we want to keep in mind. Besides being unsustainable, severely restrictive diets often lead to unhealthy habits once they end.
Energy-wise, an unhealthily low calorie intake causes damage to your metabolism, your muscle mass to decrease, and your body to go into starvation mode. Additionally, when your brain perceives that your body is being “deprived,” it will instinctively try to end that deprivation. In some cases, this can lead to overeating, binge eating, or weight cycling.
It’s summer. It’s hot. You’re smart, you’re awesome, and most importantly, you deserve that ice cream cone. Being healthy doesn’t mean eating nothing but celery and lettuce all the time. If you’re craving something indulgent, then indulge intelligently. Treating yourself once in a while will actually help you stay on track in the long run.
As college students, we already have plenty to worry about. Summer is the perfect time to start or reinforce healthy eating habits that you can carry over to the school year. Focus on eating healthy, wholesome foods instead of dieting. This way, you can boost your health and happiness and maintain them over time.
Remember: Hungry, Healthy, and Happy
With warmer weather, longer days, and more leisure time, summer can be one of the best times of the year. However, it can also be a source of anxiety. Today’s social pressures regarding body shape are stronger than ever, and the uncertainty and stress of university life make college students particularly susceptible to disordered eating.
For any fellow students who struggled with the transition to eating well and maintaining a healthy relationship with food in college, use this summer to remind yourself that your health is what’s important. How you look is subjective and secondary; how you feel is objective and non-negotiable. And body weight and fitness don’t necessarily correlate.
College is a time of transition. Some of these changes may be harder to cope with than others, especially if they’re problems you’ve never dealt with before. This is expected, this is okay, and this is something everyone experiences in their own way. There is always someone willing to listen if you need it.
If you take one thing from this article, let it be to put aside some extra time this summer to relax, recuperate, and recharge. If cooking relaxes you, then make the yummiest berry meringue and sabayon you can. If working out de-stresses you, then take some time to go on a cool exercise expedition. Whatever makes you feel good, do it.
So eat, drink, and be merry. After this semester, you deserve it.
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