College students have a lot going against them when it comes to staying healthy. There’s the stress of coursework and packed schedules. And there’s that new-found independence, which can take some unhealthy forms — think all-you-can-eat meal plans and pulling all-nighters. Fortunately, colleges and universities are working hard to help their students get in shape and stay that way. This guide gives information and advice on achieving and maintaining good health and fitness throughout college – and beyond.
How Much Exercise do College Students Need?
A balanced, healthy fitness routine for any adult includes two key elements: Cardio exercise and strength training. And for many, regular stretching is an essential part of their regime. Below are recommendations for how much exercise college students need.
Please note: You should always check with your doctor before starting any new fitness routine. These are general recommendations, but they don’t take into account any health conditions or concerns you may have.
What it is
Also known as aerobic exercise, this is any type of physical activity that uses large muscle groups, like those in the legs, in a repetitive way that increases the heart rate.
What it does for you
Among many other benefits, cardio strengthens your heart and lungs, increases your metabolism, helps you lose weight, increases bone density, reduces fatigue, helps control blood sugar and improves HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also improves thinking and memory, fights depression and anxiety, and helps you sleep better.
Moderate-intensity activities include walking briskly (a treadmill is an option), low-impact aerobics, dancing, doubles tennis, water aerobics and bicycling (under 10 miles-per-hour). Vigorous-intensity activities include swimming laps, running or jogging, singles tennis, hiking uphill (with weight) and bicycling (10 miles-per-hour or faster).
What it is
Activities that increase muscle mass and strength, and physical endurance and power. Also known as resistance training, endurance exercising and muscle strengthening.
What it does for you
Major benefits include stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments; improved joint functioning; increased metabolism and cardiac function; and elevated HDL (good) cholesterol. Strength training also helps reduce the risk of physical injury, manage weight and sharpen thinking. It can also reduce the signs and symptoms of chronic illnesses like back pain, heart disease, diabetes and even depression.
How often you should do it
The CDC recommends moderate-strength training activities at least twice a week that work all major muscle groups, including shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen, hips, back and legs. Weekly plans that designate exercise for specific muscle groups on different days of the week are common.
Weight machine and free weight (using barbells and dumbbells) exercises, such as chest press, leg curl, leg press and shoulder press. Resistance band exercises, including back rows, chest presses, lateral raises and thigh raises. Exercises without equipment, such as pushups, abdominal crunches, lunges, squats, planks and back extensions.
What it is
Stretching refers to exercises that deliberately stretch or flex specific muscles.
What it does for you
The benefits of stretching before or after exercise are questioned by some—both the BBC and the New York Times note that there is very little evidence to support its health benefits. Many believe, however, that it can increase flexibility, improve musculoskeletal function and range of motion, and help prevent physical injury. Whether or not it has lasting health benefits, stretching also helps many people feel good.
How often you should do it
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that adults do flexibility exercises a minimum of two or three days a week. Some find benefits to stretching before physical exercise and some prefer stretching after – or both! Decide (with your doctor’s advice, preferably) what works best for you.
There are several types of stretching exercises. Common types include:
Stretching a muscle to its farthest point and holding it there for a short period of time, typically 30 seconds or more.
Similar to static stretching except a device or partner provides the stretching force.
Controlled leg and arm swinging, gradually increasing speed and/or reach.
Employs the momentum of the body (bouncing) to stretch the body part beyond its normal range of motion. Only recommended for highly-conditioned athletes.
Active isolated stretching:
Involves taking and holding a position using only the strength of one’s own muscles.
College campuses often have a variety of resources available to help students get and stay healthy. Before you splurge on a pricey gym membership, check out what your school has to offer. And if working out in a gym isn’t your thing, there’s an abundance of exercise routines you can do in the privacy of your dorm room.
On Campus Resources to Use
Your campus likely features a package of services and facilities designed to make staying in shape as simple and fun as possible.
Fitness & Recreation Centers
Most college campuses feature some kind of recreation center for its students. Many have facilities that rival the most up-to-date gym chains—check out the facilities offered by Colorado State University. But even campuses with more modest offerings often have a track, pool or basic gym that can be taken advantage of.
Health & Nutrition Centers
Health and nutrition centers and programs are also a trending feature on college campuses. They’re often associated with a school’s medical center or health services academic department, and sometimes offer programs to both their student body and the surrounding community. A good example is the University Health Center at the University of Georgia, whose nutrition services program includes individual nutrition counseling, peer nutrition educators, cooking classes and more.
Colleges routinely offer a wide range of fitness classes to students which can be taken either free with a rec center membership or at an additional small cost. Typical class offerings include cardio, strength training, cycling, yoga, dance, Pilates and Zumba.
Some colleges even offer fitness classes that can be taken for credit. And don’t forget about intramural sports. The University of Notre Dame provides a good illustration of what’s available.
Exercises for Your Dorm Room
You don’t need a lot of space – or money – to work out. An easy fitness routine you can do in your dorm room is just a Google search away. Here are a variety of resources that provide inexpensive or free workouts you can try in your own room, many with no equipment required.
Want to try yoga? Check out Yoga With Adriene. Interested in men’s fitness? Try the channel by Men’s Health. Like to try a variety of workouts? Give BeFit a try. Just remember that anyone can upload a video to YouTube, so not all of the workouts you find will have been created by health or fitness professionals.
Pinterest is a great place to find sample exercise routines. Try searching for a specific type of exercise or do a more general search like “workout videos” or “exercise routines”.
This website offers over 500 free workout videos and a variety of inexpensive workout plans created by two personal trainers. They provide a variety of different types of workouts of varying lengths, many that require no equipment.
This popular website features a fitness channel with free workout videos from personal trainers. Search by exercise type, length and equipment needed.
TV fitness personality Jillian Michaels offers an online fitness program for $9.99 a month that includes customized workout programs, a meal plan and tracking tools.
Easy Ways to Get Fit on the Go
A modern rec center and comprehensive campus-sponsored nutrition program are great, and students would certainly be wise to take advantage of them. But there are plenty of easy ways you can incorporate more exercise into your busy schedule.
Bike to and around campus. You’ll save money on gas or public transportation, and get fit! A win-win.
Don’t own a bike? Walk instead of driving or taking the shuttle. It’s good for the environment and your health.
Take the stairs instead of elevators.
Take a hike. Many campuses, or areas surrounding the campus, feature open spaces with hiking trails. Get out and explore.
Grab your roommate and a Frisbee. Or a football. You’d be surprised how much good you can do your body if you just get outdoors and move around a bit.
Speaking of outdoors, grab an exercise mat and go outside. Take a look at the cardio, strength training and stretching exercises listed above. Most of them can be done anywhere and without expensive equipment.
5 Tips for Creating Healthy Habits
Creating new habits can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. But here are a few tricks and tips that can help you be more successful on the road to a healthier lifestyle.
Get on a schedule Most college students have good intentions. But it can be easy to forget about eating well and moving your body when balancing a packed schedule and busy social life. But including these essentials in your daily schedule can help you actually do them. Write a meal plan into each day and stick to it. Schedule small amounts of exercise throughout the day. Even 10 minutes in between each of your classes can add up.
Keep water handy Staying hydrated is something lots of students don’t think about, but it’s important. Get in the habit of keeping a filled water bottle in your book bag at all times.
Find a fitness buddy It’s easier to stick to healthy habits when sharing them with someone else. Ask your roommate to join in or find a workout buddy at the gym. If someone is waiting for you, you’ll be more likely to show up for a workout.
Download a fitness app Smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal, Couch to 5K (C25K) and ACTIVEx can make it easy to fit in some quick exercise and keep track of your fitness goals. Many also include active communities where you can find workout partners to help keep you accountable.
Reward yourself Giving yourself a small (and healthy) reward when you reach health and fitness goals can help keep you motivated to keep going.
Student Discounts to Take Advantage of
Businesses love college students, and they show it by offering some pretty substantial discounts. Here are some to check out:
Maybe you find your campus rec center lacking, or just prefer to get out and into your local community for exercise. Student discounts for gym memberships are common, but you’ll probably have to ask for one directly at the gym of your choice. Life Time Athletic is a great example of a chain the offers membership discounts to students.
Board with the gym? Try yoga. Many studios, like Open Doors Yoga, offer discounted drop-in rates for college students.
Actually, merchants of almost every kind offer discounts to students, but sporting goods stores are a good place to start. Modell’s Sporting Goods is a one example.
Got a favorite local supermarket or grocery store? Ask if they offer a student discount. Whole Foods does.
Practically all chain restaurants offer some kind of discount or other deal to college students, and that includes those that have healthy menu options. You will likely have to ask at the specific location if deals are available, though. A good one to try is Veggie Grill.
Expert Advice on Student Health
The Director of the Center for Student Well-Being at the University of South Florida
Fitness Coordinator for Wellness at Spelman College offer advice on getting and staying fit while in college.
What are students’ biggest challenges for staying fit while away at college?
Reed-JohnsonThe biggest challenge for students is trying to make their health a priority in the midst of a busy academic and social schedule. Many students want to be physically active and are excited about utilizing the gym when they first start college, but then student life happens. Students also come into college believing that stress and sleep deprivation are indicators of success.
DiPreteCompeting priorities tend to create the biggest challenge for college students when it comes to staying fit. Students tell us that between classes, studying, socializing and extra-curricular commitments they are overbooked. Sometimes they just don’t have the time or motivation to either start a fitness routine or hit the re-start button on re-engaging in physical activity.
How do you approach the issue of supporting health and fitness among your school’s student population?
Reed-JohnsonWe are a historically Black college for individuals who self-identify as women. Because we encourage activism and social justice engagement, we understand we have an obligation to teach our students the importance of self-care and self-preservation. We pride ourselves in launching programs and classes that promote body positivity, self-acceptance and inclusion. We want our students to visit the Wellness Center because they love themselves, not because they are trying to change something they dislike.
DiPreteWe approach our students’ health and fitness from a comprehensive standpoint. We have a first-rate Campus Recreation Department that offers a multitude of ways students can stay active. Students can also meet with a success and wellness coach to set goals and strategize action steps to meet those goals. In addition, we offer a variety of presentations and workshops that support healthy routines and a balanced lifestyle approach.
What programs/incentives do you have in place to encourage students to stay fit in terms of both diet and exercise?
Reed-JohnsonTwice a week we offer a class where students have the opportunity to meet with a personal trainer to create a personalized workout and get nutritional guidance to help them meet their goals. Our fitness attendants are available to walk students through all of the strength training equipment and teach them how to use them properly during Wellness Center hours. Our building also houses a teaching kitchen where we host healthy cooking demos that include dorm-friendly recipes and info sessions on how to navigate the campus cafeteria.
DiPreteTechnology is shaping the fitness industry. Campus Recreation uses a mobile application that is free to students to track their workouts. The application allows students to join challenges on various pieces of cardiovascular equipment and participate in group cycle classes. The challenges, competitions and group camaraderie encourages participation. There are often giveaways and prizes as incentives for exercising both inside and outside of the facility.
What are your best pieces of advice for a student regarding maintaining his or her health while in college?
Reed-JohnsonWe encourage students to utilize all the resources on campus for their total well-being such as Counseling Services, Yoga in the Museum and Student Health Services. When students learn to employ healthy habits and protocols in the midst of a rigorous academic schedule, they are more likely to adhere to some of these same habits once they graduate and enter the workforce.
DiPreteWe recommend that students develop a healthy routine that best matches the needs of their academic schedule and outside commitments. We ask students to take care of the basics, including keeping a regular sleep schedule. We encourage them to schedule their fitness activities just as they would a class, even if it’s a 15-minute walk. We encourage them to stay well hydrated, consume healthy meals and keep healthy snacks on hand in between classes.
More Health Resources
American Council on Exercise (ACE) This site from the non-profit ACE includes access to a healthy living blog, healthy recipes, exercise library, plus fitness tools and calculators.
College Health and Safety One-stop source for college health and safety information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
College Women’s Health Food and Drug Administration site with tips and information on a wide range of issues impacting college women’s health.
Livestrong This health and fitness information site provides tools, calculators, recipes and tons of advice.
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