College can be a mentally strenuous period for students as they make their way through various educational programs. Between balancing school responsibilities, potentially working a job, and maintaining their personal interests, life can rapidly feel overwhelming for students. Subsequently, it can become easy to put health on the backburner.
Nontraditional students in particular may find it challenging to find time to put their health first. They may be working full-time jobs or have families to take care of, in addition to pursuing their undergraduate degree, working on their master’s degree, or staying enrolled in a doctoral program.
All of these areas of focus make it easy for students to put their mental and physical health at the bottom of the list. However, neglecting their health can negatively impact student schoolwork as stress builds up. For this reason, it’s important that students find ways to positively balance their lives to make time for nutrition, exercise, and wellness with their academic responsibilities.
Importance of Nutrition and Exercise During College
College students may find it all too easy to push exercise and nutrition to the bottom of their priorities. However, opting for health rather than comfort can not only help improve student well-being, but can also help to improve their academic performance.
Nutrition for College Students
The foods students eat can greatly impact their brain function. Though it may be tempting to combat stress by eating their favorite junk foods, swapping too-sweet or salty snacks for something healthier can be surprisingly useful for students. It’s important that students eat the nutrient-dense foods to help their bodies stay attentive and productive, essential for focusing in lectures and retaining information. Eating healthy can also help prevent student illnesses, which means they won’t need to take sick days off from class. Overall, good nutrition is a great tool to help college students navigate the stressors of their academic lives.
According to the Huffington Post, there are many ways food impacts the human brain. For example: heavy, greasy foods take longer to digest, so eating them before bed can keep students awake when they need to go to sleep. This can negatively impact academic success before an important test or presentation.
Likewise, trans fats, found in fried food and highly-processed baked goods, can be bad for students. Eating trans fats can lead to decreased memory function and potentially even a smaller sized brain.
Additionally, the food students eat can affect their mood and well-being. Foods that cause blood sugar levels to quickly rise then crash, such as white bread and desserts, can cause a decrease in attention span and mood. Instead of eating these types of simple carbs, it’s better to eat complex carbs like legumes and whole brains steadily send sugar to your brain. This will help students stay focused on their school work.
Exercise in College
In addition to eating healthy, students should also make time for physical activity. Replacing an hour of watching TV at the end of the day with a trip to the gym can have more benefits than students might think. In fact, a study on the effects of exercise on cognition found that even one set of exercise can help improve cognitive function.
Along with time, students might find it too stressful to add another task to their schedule. Nontraditional students might find it even harder to find time to workout when they have a job and a family at home. However, according to the Anxiety and Depressive Society of America, physical activity can help students reduce stress. Time spent on yourself at the gym or on a run isn’t wasted; it is time spent promoting your own self care.
Foods That Might Help Make You Smarter
In addition to eating a well-rounded diet, students can focus on adding brain-boosting foods to their diets. Doing so can help further improve brain function and add even more nutrition to their meals.
According to Healthline, there are over 15 science-backed benefits to eating a diet rich with omega-3s, many of which are related to brain function. These include fighting anxiety and depression, decreasing the likelihood of age-related mental decline, and helping you sleep. Students struggling with mental health and sleep deprivation can add omega-3 foods to their diets to help them improve their health, in addition to talking to their doctor.
Foods rich in omega-3 include fish like salmon, as well as walnuts, chia seeds, and soybeans.
Avocado is considered a healthy fat since it is an unsaturated fat. Avocados and other potassium-rich foods can lower blood pressure and promote healthy blood flow, which helps brain function. Students should try incorporating avocados into their diet when possible, though they should consume smaller portions, as avocados are high in calories.
Diets high in Vitamin E can help brain function. Studies have found that it can lead to better cognitive performance and prevent or decline cognitive decline as people age. Students can trade in chips, sweets, and other processed snacks for nuts and seeds, which are high in Vitamin E, along with leafy greens.
Leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, as well as green vegetables like broccoli, are high in iron. Iron is good for the brain as it has been shown that those who have higher intakes of iron for a prolonged period of time have improved brain function. Students can get an early start on preventing cognitive decline by eating plenty of leafy greens and vegetables.
Whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, and brown rice, are great for the brain. They can reduce the risk of heart disease and help blood flow to the brain better. Students should strive to make at least half of their grain intake to be whole grains.
Healthy Meals for College Students
The problem students may encounter when trying to improve their eating habits is planning their meals around convenience. For example, students may grab a sugar-packed muffin on their way out the door for breakfast, or head to a coffee shop for a caffeine and syrup filled beverage. They might get a chicken nuggets and fries off the dollar menu at a fast-food chain for lunch.
Though it may seem that eating healthy is inconvenient, it only requires that students make a few changes to their habits and schedules. One way they can make a healthy change is to switch up what they order at fast-food restaurants. Though it might still not be the best option, when students do go, they can pick from the healthiest meal options from fast-food restaurants.
In addition, students can switch up their snacking habits. Instead of munching on chips while watching TV, students can opt for fruit or vegetables that contain the healthy fiber that will keep their brains functioning well.
How to Eat Healthy in College: Meal Planning 101
Though ordering better at restaurants and choosing better snacks is a good start, the best way to make a good dietary change is to plan out meals. Meal planning is effective because it gives students the opportunity to think ahead about what they are going to eat, instead of indulging in what sounds best when they are too hungry to make smart choices.
According to Choose MyPlate, meal planning can save students time in their week and help them have better control over their diet. With meal planning, students know what they are going to cook ahead of time. This means they can make a list of everything they will need for the week so they can shop and cook in bulk. This can help them save time on shopping trips and cooking time.
Choose MyPlate recommends the following tips to make meal planning easier:
- Use ingredients they already have
- Write down their meal plan using a worksheet
- Create a list of healthy recipes that they enjoy
- Plan ahead and plan around their schedule
- Use leftovers whenever possible
Meal planning is a great way for both traditional and nontraditional students to find time in their schedule to prepare healthy meals.
Sample Meal Plan
When students start meal planning, they may need guidance on the how to select the best options. Once they get to know proportion sizes and the different nutritional values of different foods, they can start to create their meal plans by themselves. In the meantime, Choose MyPlate features a two week sample meal plan that students can follow. Here is an example of what a day looks like on the menu.
- Cereal with Fruit: 1 cup toasted oat cereal, 1 medium banana, ¼ cup lowfat milk
- 1 hard-cooked egg
- Beverage: Water, coffee, tea
- Green Salad with Honey Lemon Chicken: 1 cup romaine lettuce 3 oz sliced Honey Lemon Chicken, 3 slices tomato 5 slices cucumber
- 2 Tbsp vinaigrette dressing
- 1 slice whole-wheat bread with ½ tsp tub margarine
- 1 Chocolate Chip Yogurt Cookie
- Beverage: 1 cup lowfat milk
- One Pan Spaghetti
- ½ cup steamed broccoli
- ½ tsp tub margarine
- 1 white roll
- 1 tsp tub margarine Shake-A-Pudding
- Beverage: 1 cup lowfat milk
- 3 cups popped popcorn
- 1 large orange
Exercise and Mental Health: Psychological Benefits of Working Out
Mental health can be just as difficult to maintain, and just as important for college students and diet and exercise. Fortunately, mental health is directly related to physical health. As stated by Psychology Today, exercise directly affects the brain. Since exercise can increase blood flow to certain areas of the brain, it can also improve oxygen and nutrient levels. They also state that many professionals believe that exercise has positive correlations to treating mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression: “Evidence is accumulating that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus. The evidence is particularly strong for depression.”
According to the New York Times, people should try to get at least two and a half hours of exercise per week in order to keep their brains healthy. Students who do this can potentially improve their academic success as well as their mental health and overall mood.
Types of Exercise
There are three main types of exercises that students can choose from or combine to make an ideal workout for them.
Aerobic exercises are exercises that involve moving your body, breathing faster, and increasing your heart rate. Aerobic exercises include running and biking.
In contrast, anaerobic exercise are short and intense activities, like weightlifting or sprinting.
Flexibility involves stretching your body to be able to bend better, have more range of motion, and have improved balance. This can be achieved through simple stretches, yoga, and pilates.
Workouts for College Students
Although working out is an important part of life, signing up for a gym can get expensive pretty quickly. Fortunately, students have many resources available to them to help them get the physical activity they need.
Traditional students, for example, will likely have access to an on-campus recreational center included with their university fees. Nontraditional students unable to make it into the rec center can take advantage of student discounts at other gyms. Alternatively, students who cannot workout on campus can use free weights or household objects, such as water bottles and laundry detergent containers, to workout at home.
Examples of At Home Workouts
Traditional and nontraditional students can both benefit from at-home workouts, ranging from easy exercises to give your studying muscles a break, to simple training activities to keep your muscles toned.
When students spend long amounts of time at their computers, it can start to take a toll on the body. For this reason, it is important to stretch out and exercise your study muscles by:
- Clenching the hands into a fist as hard as possible. Then, release hands, stretching fingers as far back as possible. Repeat three times.
- Put arms straight in front out, bend wrists as far down as they will go. Hold for 3 seconds. Stretch the wrists up as far as they will go, hold for 3 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
- Stand up straight with hands on hips. Bend back gently at the waist. Repeat 5 times.
For students looking for a more intense at-home routine, they can try compound exercises that work as many muscles of the body as possible. For this, students can try:
Wellness Apps to Help Students Stay On Track
Students who like a little extra help and direction can try out free wellness apps to help them stay on top of their health. Fitness apps can help students keep track of their workouts, find workouts that are best for them, and guide them through specific exercises.
- My Fitness Pal is a common wellness app that allows users track goals, activities, calories, and more.
- The J&J Official 7 Minute Workout app centers around circuit training that focuses on short but intense exercises.
- Sworkit matches users to customizable workouts and exercises depending on their goals.