Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Staying balanced

Yours truly was asked to answer the question,

"What's the best way for busy college students to maintain a healthy lifestyle?"

Great question, and one that I've pondered many times. 

I very much enjoy working with students.  To share some background, I was a Resident Advisor for two years in college.  I've served on the advisory board to the Midwest Asian American Students Union for about seven years to date.  Now, I work for a private university. 

Beyond my background, I also think many times about what the me of today would have told the me of my younger days (if that makes sense).

Here are my suggestions on how college students can maintain a healthy lifestyle.  (Although, these suggestions are certainly not limited to college students!)

1.  Schedule workouts

For many folks, working out is something to do when time permits.  This means that workouts can easily go by the wayside for any number of reasons.  I've procrastinated on working out because I got sucked into Facebook, started cleaning out my email inbox, or finally decided to attack Mount Laundry such that its depreciative effect on my sock drawer could be resolved once and for all.

If you have plans to, say, meet your best friend for dinner, you schedule that time into your day and you do everything you can to keep that appointment.  Why not do the same thing with your workouts?  Put them into your calendar and treat them like any other appointment you make.

OK, maybe not like these appointments.

Now, we certainly can't always control every aspect of our schedules.  There's no telling when some emergency will occur or some unforeseen circumstance will throw a huge wrench into your day.  And it's okay to skip working out on days like those.  But on most other days, having your workout appointment helps you organize your days more effectively, establishes a sense of focus and control, and also keeps your workouts a priority.

2.  Do a little every day

Some folks might feel that they need to go all out with every workout.  They have the philosophy that no pain is no gain, so they push themselves to the absolute limit every time.  In my experience, this quickly leads to burnout and puts you at risk for injury.  Killer workouts are not always enjoyable - and if it's not enjoyable, you're not going to do it.  It's also more difficult to find the time to do big workouts, which means you're less likely to work out when things get busy.

Healthy lifestyles and exercise are cumulative over time.  Therefore, I strongly believe that it's more effective to do a number of shorter, less-intense workouts per week than it is to do one giant workout per week.

I suggest trying to do some kind of exercise seven days a week - and in doing so, to feel free to vary the intensities.  On those days when you don't feel like doing anything, just go for a quick walk.  Unless you are injured or under the weather, the easiest workout is still better than nothing.  Usually getting started is the hardest part - but once you get going, you will probably find it much easier to keep going.

3.  Make sleep a priority

If anyone were to ask me for my biggest health tip, it would be simply to try to get as much sleep as possible, every night

Many folks would disagree, thinking that sleep is a waste of time.  I know plenty of people who even take pride in not getting much sleep, wearing it like a badge of honor.  Many people say, "I will get plenty of sleep when I'm dead."  After all, who needs to sleep when there are emails to be answered, work to be done, or friends to talk to?

I adamantly disagree.  I believe that if you are constantly sleep-deprived, that you'll get to your deathbed much sooner.  We simply function better with adequate sleep.  Sleep improves your mood, your memory, and your immunity; and it reduces stress and anxiety.  I think an hour of much-needed sleep will result in more than an hour's worth of improved productivity the next day.  It's an investment well worth it, in my opinion.

Obviously the key to being able to get enough sleep is to plan accordingly.  If you procrastinate on your work to the point where it's midnight and you haven't even started a 20-page paper that is due at 8 AM the next morning, then at that point you may not have a choice.  Don't let yourself get to that point!  Assess your deadlines and then work backwards from that date to determine what needs to get done now in order to stay on track towards meeting that deadline as best as you can.   

Example: Today is Sunday and I have a report due first thing Friday morning.  I know that I'll need one day to do research, one day to draft the materials, and one day to review and revise it.  Since I need at least three days to complete the paper, I need to get started by Tuesday in order to stay on track for a completion by Thursday night.

I also know plenty of people who are chronically sleep-deprived during the week, but always try to "catch up" on weekends.  As with all healthy lifestyle habits, the effects of getting enough sleep or being sleep-deprived are cumulative.  It doesn't make sense to eat junk food five days a week, but then try to make up for it by consuming only vegetables and water on the weekends.  Sleep is no different.  Do your best to get enough or as much sleep as you can EVERY night. 

4.  Mix things up

It's very easy to get into a routine with your lifestyle, e.g. the same food, same exercise (or lack thereof), same path to/from your home, etc., etc., etc.

However, at most universities, there are plenty of resources - whether they be clubs and organizations, advisors, fitness facilities, food choices, and other people from all walks of life.  With so many resources and so many options, challenge yourself to try something different at least once a week, if not more often.

Instead of your usual workout regimen, try a different workout machine.  Vary the intensity of your workouts.  Run your usual route in reverse.  Try a new type of restaurant or dabble with a different food selection in the dining hall.  Eat breakfast for dinner.  Your body eventually adapts to nearly everything you put it through, whether good or bad, so keeping things diverse will improve your resiliency and your overall health.  It's also easier to stay on track with being healthy when you do not feel as though healthy habits are constraining you.

Now, a quick side note to illustrate a personal example of a routine you REALLY SHOULDN'T do.  When I was in college, the dining hall had a soft-serve ice cream machine.  During my freshman year, there was a long period where I ate soft-serve ice cream three meals a day, seven days a week.  My idea of "mixing things up" that year was more along the lines of this:

Living the dream... six flavors of soft-serve ice cream in a single cone.

Eventually I came to my senses and limited myself to eating soft-serve ice cream only twice a day, seven days a week.  But as you can imagine, I definitely packed on a few pounds that year.  At the rate I was going, it wouldn't have taken long for me to rival the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  And that is not a good thing.

5.  Take pride in your successes

Thus far I've talked a lot about eating habits and exercise.  However, mental considerations are just as important, if not more important, towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Give yourself credit for everything that you do towards being healthy, because it does all make a difference.  Just because a workout might have been an easy one certainly doesn't mean it was worthless and that you shouldn't be glad you did it.

Also, there is no time like the present to maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle.  Even if you only stay on track for a day, that was still one day that you were on track versus another day that you weren't.

If it were easy to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle, then everyone would do it.  Realize that we are all human so we will all inevitably slip from time to time - and that is okay.  No need to beat yourself up over something that didn't go the way you wanted it to.  Heck, allow yourself to let loose once in awhile so you won't go crazy feeling restricted.  Just keep moving forward and doing the best that you can to the extent possible.

In short, it all adds up and it all counts - and be proud of yourself for taking any steps that you can.


  1. I wish I had known ANY of this when I was in college! As hard as it is to make health a priority as a grown-up, it was even harder for me in college. I worked 2 jobs and took a full load of honors classes most semesters, so I never had a lot of extra time.

    The one of these awesome tips that I use the most now is scheduling my work-outs. Having a plan for which days I'll be able to work out is a huge help, and I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner! But once you have a schedule, it's easier to get into a groove and stick to it.

    And I've had the ice cream problem too :) They used to offer 4 different flavors of self-serve ice cream at my office every day, and I'd load up every afternoon. Because it was good and free. That adds up pretty fast!

    1. You worked two jobs AND took a full load of honors classes most semesters!?!?!?!? GOOD LORD!!! How did you find the time to breathe!?!?!?

      Agreed regarding the scheduling - it takes a lot of the guesswork out of working out! If you're anything like me, even the littlest hitch can cause me to put off doing my workouts, so every tool makes a difference!

      Good and free soft serve at WORK? Wow... not sure if that's good or bad! I would be saying hello to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man real soon! =D

    2. I lived at home in college, so I didn't do a lot of the social stuff that most people do. The only clubs I joined were honors ones, because I was (am) a huge nerd :)

      And I could totally relate to not getting to the gym because of things like laundry, but now that I have a schedule I can't let that stuff derail me. That, and I have a ton of people that I'm accountable to on workouts now, which I didn't always have, so that helps a lot!

    3. I was (am) a huge nerd, too. When I was growing up, my nerdiness was embarrassing but now I don't care. We are who we are! =D

      Being accountable to people for your workouts is HUGE - especially for things like early-morning workouts when it's cold and dark outside. I am very strongly considering starting to post weekly summaries of my workouts, just like you started doing, because that in itself would keep me more accountable!

    4. Yep, posting them on the blog is huge for me. I also share my log with my trainer when we meet. And even posting them on myfitnesspal makes me feel accountable. You should give it a try, I'm always interested in how other people spend the week exercising.

    5. Thanks for the thoughts, Anne! I've never heard of myfitnesspal but I am going to check it out now. I have to give some thought to potentially posting on my blog, mostly on what format would be most comfortable/interesting to readers... food for thought!

  2. Great tips. 20 years later, I still need to work on the sleep thing. I love the soft serve ice cream story. There was one in my dorm too and I think I had a lot of it, plus whatever pies, cakes, cookies there were. It's a really a wonder how many calories I consumed on a daily basis in college!

    1. The sleep thing is definitely still a challenge for me, too, especially when things come at your schedule out of nowhere that you can't plan for! Likewise, I'd eat soft serve three times a day PLUS whatever other desserts they offered. Gosh, do I miss my college metabolism! You too?!?!?

  3. I love this so much. Lots of great stuff here (for me it was fried cheese curds at midnight freshman year. Yikes)


    1. Fried cheese curds. YUM!!! Wow, do I miss the days of college when I could eat as poorly as I did but not really gain that much weight. Sigh!

      (YES!!!! HOCKEY!!!!!!!! THREE MORE DAYS!!!!!! =D =D =D )

  4. Such a great post! This is actually something I think about often, what would I tell my crazy college self? I think the main piece of advice is to sleep sleep sleep! It took me a very long time to realize that 2-3 hours of sleep prior to an exam is the perfect recipe for disaster. I soon learned that you could only cram in so much material before your brain simply shuts down for the night. And we also had a soft-serve machine along with a candy-topping bar in my freshman college dorm! It was killer and eventually I had to limit myself too :) Looking back, I would also force myself to get into running earlier on in my life...I would be a hell of a runner now!

    1. Ah yes, I've done the 2-3 hours of sleep prior to an exam myself, and it was not pretty. At all. Where did you live as a freshman!?!?!? I lived in Snyder Hall for two years and then was an RA at LAR for two years.

      Oh my gosh - I did run when I was in college, but several years afterwards I took a long hiatus from running. Similarly, I so wish that I had been consistent with my running all along. Imagine where we would have been with all those extra years of running under our belts!?!?!? But look at how far we've both come just in the time that we HAVE been running!!! WOO HOO!

  5. I adore this post and all your tips! I agree with doing a little every day. My college campus was pretty big, but I did not ride the campus buses my entire first year. (Full disclosure: I didn't take the buses b/c I was was too chicken! I hate new situation!) Instead, I'd take the 15 minute walk across campus to class. Not everybody's idea of a good time, but it helped keep the Freshman 15 at bay and I didn't even have to really do anything. (I envy people who can walk to work!)

    My other piece of advice would be to surround yourself with like-minded people. When my boyfriend at the time (now hubby!) went to the gym, I'd go to. Not because I liked working out, but because I liked him. The club I joined was a service organization and not a sorority. We did things like picking up trash off the highway instead of having big blow out parties. (Not that you can't have a little of that in college, too.) It's just easier to do things that are good for you if you are doing it with other people who want to do those things, too.*

    1. Oh my gosh, Amy - the tip on surrounding yourself with like-minded people is HUGE. It makes more of a difference than I ever could have realized!!! I think that is one of the biggest benefits of training with a group, is that you have so much shared energy and passion, which only serves to increase your own energy and passion. GREAT SUGGESTION.

      Walking 15 minutes across campus to class is FABULOUS exercise. I did the same thing in college and I think it was my savior, too, when it came to my eating habits. The walking also helped wake me up in the mornings, too.

      Yay for joining a service organization!!! I have some friends who did the same and they LOVED the experience and the friends they made through their involvement! I wish I had done more volunteer work in college!

  6. Love this post! My weakness has always been the sleep issue, especially pharmacy school. I would go almost a week sometimes without getting more than 5 hours of sleep at night. A lot of times I would have to consider the fact that if I was going to work out, I would be up later and sacrificing some sleep. Its not easy finding the right balance, but you can do it. Time management is key. My best GPA in Pharmacy school was while I was in the middle of marathon training and I honestly think it is because I was that much better at managing my time since I was SO busy.