When you look forward to your first year away from home, you are excited about hitting your new university campus, meeting new people and taking in all the social life that university has to offer. You are thinking of all the new people you are going to meet, all the amazing parties you are going to hit, and maybe you even have an eye on what you want to accomplish academically. One of the last things on your mind coming out of high school is probably your health.
Many people in high school coast through, relying on school programs, growth spurts and parental controls to keep them relatively healthy. If you are lucky, you haven’t had to worry too much about your weight and your health between your youthful metabolism and not being fully responsible for what goes into your body.
When you hit university, however, the onus is going to be on you to take care of yourself, and a large part of that is going to be how you take care of your body. While you are young and your body can technically handle a lot of abuse and keep ticking, that doesn’t mean that it should have to. You are out on your own for the first time, and the patterns you establish for yourself this year are going to do a lot in determining your patterns for the next few years, at least while you are at college.
While it may be overstating it to say that the average freshman puts on 15 pounds, a four-year study by Cornell University found that men gained an average of six pounds, and women an average of four and a half in their freshman year. If you maintain the same lifestyle for a three year program, you are going to end up with more than student loans weighing you down at the end of your program.
Why The Gain?
There are several factors that contribute to weight gain when you are on your own for the first time. One of the reasons is that, unless you already have an exercise regimen that you practice, chances are that you are going to be doing less physical activity. Being in high school often has physical activity built right in. Between phys ed classes and organized sports teams, the programs are in place for you if your are interested. You don’t have to take responsibility for training on your own. Once you hit university, while there are programs available, you have to search them out, and it can be intimidating throwing yourself into programs with strangers whose skill levels are unfamiliar.
The student life is also a lot more sedentary than the high school life. Activities usually centre on socializing and studying, neither of which is particularly conducive to physical fitness. As much as we’d like it to, lifting a pint to your mouth does not constitute a bicep curl. Depending on your program (and your ambition level), you will also find that you will be spending more time sitting around studying than you ever did in high school.
Another major health factor is that you are going to be responsible for feeding yourself for the first time. Your mom will not be there to make sure you have eaten your breakfast, to make sure you are eating fruit, and to make sure you are drinking milk with your meals instead of pop. If you are lucky, your parents instilled some healthy eating habits and taught you a bit about nutrition. Chances are that your recollection of the food pyramid and basic food groups knowledge have drifted off to the same place as all of your health class wisdom.
If you are living in a dorm, then you will have special challenges. While you will not have to worry about actually cooking and shopping for yourself that first year, you are going to have to learn what is healthy and what is not in order to make good choices once you hit that cafeteria.
The final factors are social and emotional. Many social activities are centered on eating and drinking in your first year, and you are likely going to jump in with both feet. Between late-night pizza and nights at the bar, you are probably going to increase your intake of empty-calorie, high fat foods by five fold. If you are someone who comforts themselves with food in times of stress, loneliness or sadness, then you are likely going to be overeating for these reasons. Going away to school is incredibly exciting, but it is also nerve wracking. You will feel homesick and overwhelmed sometimes, and eating to soothe these feelings is not going to help your emotional or physical well being.
The most important factor in your strategy to stay healthy is to learn about nutrition and know what you are facing in a cafeteria situation. If you need to, talk to a nutrition counselor.
In the meantime, here are some good basic tips to follow:
- Avoid casseroles, fried foods, meat with sauces, gravy, breakfast meats, butter on bread, creamy or cheesy pastas and high calorie desserts
- Stock up on vegetables, fruit, lean meat, beans and whole grains, which are high in fibre and low in fat.
- Make sure you are getting your calcium (in low fat dairy products if you can) because your bones are still growing in density and robbing them of calcium could affect you down the road
- Eat fruit for dessert
- Skip seconds
- If there is a vegetarian entrée choice, it is likely the healthier choice (unless it is dripping in cheese)
- Check out the salad bar: choose leafy greens, veggies, and low-fat or calorie-reduced salad dressing
- Avoid late night ordering in, vending machine or convenience store runs
- Drink water or milk with your meal instead of soda
- Have a small refrigerator in your room where you can keep healthy snacks
- Don’t graze on high fat snacks the entire time you are studying. Instead, schedule specific times to take a break, have a snack and move around
- Watch your portion sizes. Just because they offer you several options for your meals, doesn’t mean you have to choose all of them.
- Watch your booze intake. Drink light beer when you can, and diet soda or juice with your hard stuff (although recent studies have shown that sugar replacements may be harmful, so drink diet drinks in moderation as well)
- Drink plenty of water
Once you have figured out nutrition, figure out a way to work physical activity into your schedule. If you get 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise a day (including brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, weights), then you are going to see a difference. This can mean simply walking across campus to a class instead of taking the bus. Try to get others in on it so that you have the social pressure of keeping it up.
Most campuses have free, or at least very affordable, fitness programs available to students. Most offer weights and work out machines as well as classes, intramurals, and sports teams. Again, the more people you can recruit to come out, the more it feels like a social event as opposed to drudgery.
If you are having a difficult time adjusting emotionally to the change or the stresses of school, find ways to deal with stress that do not involve eating. Go for a rigorous workout, talk to friends on campus or at home, or talk to a counselor. All universities offer peer and professional counselors to students for free or minimal charge. Your stresses won’t necessarily go away, but you can find different ways to manage them.
Your first year of independence is an exciting time. Try not to get swept up in it and begin lifestyle patterns that are going to be difficult to undo as you get older and the poundage gets more difficult to take off. Maintaining a moderate approach to food, exercise and partying is going to help you succeed and stay healthy enough to enjoy all aspects of your college life.