It's finally here, I thought to myself as my parents drove away from my dorm. I'm finally on my own! No one will tell me what to doI can sleep till noon, eat out all the time and have pizza for breakfast! OK, so I quickly learned I couldn't quite do everything I wanted.
My 8 a.m. class didn't allow me to sleep in, but I could stay up as late as I wanted. And although I couldn't afford to eat out all the time (or buy all that pizza for breakfast), I could eat whatever I wanted in the cafeteria. I started thinking, No one can tell me when to go to bed! Or not to eat Frosted Flakes and ice cream for dinner. And no gym teacher will make me run laps every day!
A few weeks into the semester I realized I wasn't taking care of myself. Even though no one was forcing me to do things like exercise or eat right, I still needed to. I quickly realized I had to find ways to keep myself healthy. It wasn't always easy, but I learned a lot that I can now share with you about taking care of yourself at college.
Recharge Your Body
One night, I put off studying way too long. Before I knew it, my final was just hours away. I pulled an all-nighter to study, and the next day I was basically a walking zombie. I couldn't concentrate, I was very irritable, and everything I had worked so hard to learn the night before seemed to have left me. I'd stayed up all night for this test, but as I sat there taking it, I was falling asleep. Even worse, it took days to get my body back on a normal sleep schedule. Lesson learned.
Our bodies just weren't designed to go without sleep for 24-hour periods. Like cell phones, we need to be recharged. When on proper rest, our minds are able to function better and we're not as likely to get sick.
So, how much sleep should you get? Health professionals recommend around seven to eight hours a night for normal, healthy adults. But in my scientific research (well, I asked some friends), it seems like it really depends on the individual. Some of my friends in college could sleep six hours and be fine. But I've always needed eight hours minimum to feel good and function well. Others may need a tad more. Don't feel weird if you need more sleep than your night-owl roommate who seems to be perfectly fine after sleeping in his chair for a few minutes. The key is to be tuned in to your own body. When do you feel the best? Be honest about how much sleep you need and adjust your schedule around it.
That doesn't mean always missing out on late-night fun. Just be aware of how much sleep you need. You'll have to make choices. Sure, go out with friends, but don't feel like you have to be out every night after midnight. Seek a balance. Don't skip every trip to the all-night diner, but don't make it a nightly habit.
Oh, and there's a big secret in college: Naps are cool. Take a quick nap to make up for the sleep you didn't get last night because your friend from home called late in the evening. Or schedule them just like you would study times. It's amazing how much an hour-long nap can help.
Eat to Your Health
Junk food is a college student's best friend. Or at least, it was this college student's best friend. But the key is moderation. Some ice cream or potato chips every once in a while aren't a big deal. Just don't make those kinds of food your main source of nutrition.
I made this mistake. After a few weeks of high-fat, high-calorie foods, I couldn't understand why I was always feeling so sluggish and run-down. When I started to eat more from the salad bar and grabbed fruit for snacks, I felt better physically and had more energy.
What if you just don't like salads and fruit? College cafeterias try to cater to everyone's likes and dislikes, so chances are you'll find something healthy you can eat. My college was great about having some kind of specialty barlike a make-your-own waffle station, a build-your-own sandwich bar and a pasta bar.
If once in a while you just can't find anything healthy and appealing in the cafeteria, you can get creative in your dorm. Some dorms have a communal kitchen so you can cook for yourself. But if there's no kitchen, you can still microwave packaged foods such as rice and frozen dinners. Just check out the nutritional info on the back. But if you paid for a meal plan, then use it as much as possible. Spending extra money on food is wasteful and can be a major budget buster. Besides, if you choose wisely, cafeteria food can be far healthier for you than anything you could cook up in the dorm microwave.
Even though I seemed to be dashing around campus 15 times a day, I still wasn't getting the exercise I needed to stay in shape. When I made sure to exercise regularly, I actually found all kinds of benefits. It relieved stress and I found I slept better, too.
The problem: Even though I knew exercise was good for me, I dreaded doing it. I found it boring and I simply wasn't self-motivated. The solution: A workout partner. I discovered that working out with a friend was fun and gave me the accountability I needed to keep going. If you have a similar attitude toward exercise, then don't try to go it alone. Work out with a friend or two. Set up a weekly exercise schedule. If you've already penciled it into your day planner, you'll be more likely to follow through.
It's also helpful to be creative. Jog around campus one day and play a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee the next. Or, you can hit the weight room and ride a stationary bike while watching your favorite sitcom. You can even stay in your own room and work out to an aerobics DVD.
Still not sure you're disciplined enough to stick to a regular exercise routine? Then sign up for a physical fitness class, which gets you moving for credit. And if the first class doesn't work out, don't give up. I didn't. My sophomore year, I thought a weightlifting class was a good idea. But because of an old back injury, it turned out to be a bad idea. Next, I tried aerobics. I'm not very coordinated, so that one didn't work either. Finally, I thought about taking a swimming course. The warm water and low-impact movement were actually good for my back condition, and the exercise was very relaxing.
Making the effort to look after my health wasn't easy. I didn't always like scheduling time for exercise, and there were plenty of times I would've liked to grab some pizza instead of veggies and a chicken breast. And yes, I stayed up too late more than once. But in the long run, it was worth it. After all, college is a lot more fun if you feel well enough to enjoy it!
Tara Ryan Walker is a graduate of Hannibal-LaGrange College in Hannibal, Missouri.