We've all heard it before: "Watch out for the freshman 15." It's like a mantra everyone will tell you when you talk about going to college. It's basically a cliché, but clichés are often rooted in truth or just plain good advice.

What they don't tell you is that the freshman 15 or 5 or 30 or whatever it may be for you doesn't happen overnight. It's the result of habits. Beyond weight gain, college is a time when it's really easy to form bad habits, and really hard to start good ones, or even continue the good ones you have.

I often think back to my time in high school. As an athlete and a dedicated student, habits defined my time every single day. My routine began with 5 am workout, shower, class, lunch, class, afternoon practice, homework, dinner, reading, then bed. Then you get up and do it all over again.

My teammates and I were averaging three miles a day in the pool, and putting over 16 hours a week in the water. When you're working out like that, you can kind of eat whatever you want (my personal favorite was cheese fries).

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Now don't get me wrong, I wasn't eating like Michael Phelps in Beijing, but there wasn't a lot I could do that affected my weight. Weight gain or loss, at its core, is simply net calorie intake vs. use. Burning through as many calories as I was allowed me to eat just about whatever I wanted. I could eat a triple cheeseburger with fries and still want a bowl of ice cream with five scoops later that night.

While I could've eaten better, I still saw the benefits of all the hard work, all the habitual hours. We won a state championship as a four-year-old team. It remains one of my proudest moments.

beer, pizza
Jake Kyte

Fast forward to college. I stopped swimming, but my diet didn't change. I was eating like I was still in the pool for 16 hours a week, and the sum of my exercise was walking up and down the many hills of Fayetteville. Sure I'd play a basketball game or an ultimate frisbee match here and there, but I just let things slide way too far.

Habits are a very slippery slope. It's almost unfair how easy it is to slide into bad habits and how hard it is to start a good habit. Like with me, it starts slow—you don't really notice it. You get busy, and one week you skip a workout on Friday. Next week it's Wednesday and Friday, then the following week you have a test and only get to the gym or pool twice.

Then, before you know it, you look up and it's been two months since you worked out regularly. You blink again and you're three years down the road and you've gained 30 pounds since high school and you ask, where'd it start?

For me, the moment happened last fall when I went home to see my brother, then a senior, and his team win their fourth state championship in a row. I took a picture with him and their trophy, and when I looked at it, all I could think about was what we looked like in this same moment three years ago. Those years had done well by my brother Robert, but not so much for me.

beer, coffee, tea, pizza, ale, wine
Jake Kyte

I'm sure there are many out there who know exactly what I'm talking about. I let myself slide into bad habits and let them force my good ones out the door. The toughest part to face was that it wasn't something that happened in a day. It was gradual, and I had every opportunity to stop it, but I didn't.

My weight gain has been unfortunate, and something I'm not proud of, but it's happened and there's no use crying over spilled milk—or empty plates, for that matter. I realized I was unhappy with what I looked like, and I wanted to do something about it.

Another thing they don't tell you is that bad habits are usually fun, and the good habits are a hell of a lot of work. Why go to the pool when there's a new NBA 2K out? Why hop on the bike when you've got schoolwork to do? Why head out on a run when your friends are headed to the movies? The distractions in college are endless, and, more importantly, they're fun. 

So what am I saying? Don't have fun, become a gym rat, work out like a fiend? Not at all. The key to habits, to health, and to life is balance. Want that hamburger? Extra half hour in the pool. Didn't work out this morning? Skip the dessert. It's the same as making sacrifices for schoolwork. Sometimes you can't go to the movies because you've got a paper due. Sometimes you've got to have grilled chicken instead of fried.

That's the last thing they don't tell you—it's all about finding a balance. And that works for life outside of food and exercise. The saying "too much of a good thing," definitely applies here. It's easy to enjoy all the good things in life a little bit too much. Sometimes you have to take a step back and measure the scales. Ask yourself, what's out of whack here?

I stepped back, and I know I've got to curb my diet and exercise. So I'm working on biking more and eating less. I'm still enjoying my favorite foods, but in smaller portions. I'm finding friends to ride with me. I'm working to make a change.

And it's really tough. I won't sugarcoat it, but life is filled with rewarding work, and these rewards are motivating me to fight the consequences of bad habits. I'm still having lots of fun, I'm still doing the things I want to do, but I'm balancing them with the things I need to do.

There's a lot they don't tell you about college. But I'm telling you now—make good habits, cut out the bad ones, and find a balance. You'll be happier, healthier, and better prepared for the crazy world ahead.