Staying healthy. It’s something many college students don’t think about until they’re drowning in dirty tissues and suffering from one of the worst colds they’ve ever had. It can affect our school work, our body and our social life, but for some reason many students in college still don’t take care of themselves the way they should.
Many times in college, both a person’s mental and physical health suffer as a result of poor diets, lack of sleep and/or the occasional binge drinking. Such practices can lead to drops in grades, which only adds to the stress on students trying to keep scholarships or make it into prestigious grad schools.
Katharine Korthase, Boyne City junior and a current student in Tammy Jechura’s health psychology class, says that for some reason–be it the personality type that chooses to go to college or other pressures–health is always the first thing to go when faced with a busy schedule.
“You don’t think about making yourself food–you’re going to grab McDonald’s or something like that,” Korthase said. “It’s pretty sad that [health] is not as stressed because I know class is important, but it’s important to understand that, yes, while you have the exam, your body also needs sleep.”
There are many health issues that plague students, such as cold/flu, constant stomach aches or digestive problems, anxiety and depression. These health issues can add pressure to a person who is already stressed enough, especially around exams.
Cheryl Krause, the director of health services, shared some of her ideas on the topic and tips for students to stay healthy.
“Many college students don’t pay much attention to staying well until they become ill,” Krause said. “College students are an overall healthy group; however, they are often over-committed, and neglect the body’s basic needs for food, fluids, exercise and rest.”
It’s also important for college students to take care of their mental health. A survey given in June 2013 by the American Psychology Association found that 41.6 percent of college students have concerns about anxiety and 36.4 percent struggle with some form of depression, from mild to severe.
Cold and Flu
Cold and flu are the most common health concerns among students. Many times, living in close proximity with many of your peers in a dorm or an apartment can cause germs to spread much more quickly.
One way to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot at the start of flu season to protect yourself. It’s a good idea to encourage your roommates or suitemates to also get a flu shot to ensure that your living space is free of that particular virus, which has a way of taking college students down halfway through the semester.
“Most germs are harmless, but you can pick up some that cause illnesses when you forget to wash your hands,” Krause said. “Washing your hands, and washing them properly with soap and water, is the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs.”
Krause suggests washing your hands about as long as it would take you to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself and remember to use soap to clean all of one’s hands and between the fingers. It’s also a good idea to avoid touching your eyes nose and mouth, as that’s where most germs that make us ill enter our bodies.
Sleep is probably the most commonly ignored aspect of healthy living by college students. It’s easy for students to pull all-nighters when studying for important exams or writing papers for class, ignoring the fact that sleep is extremely important for the body to function properly. Getting a full night of sleep every night—or as frequently as humanly possible—can lead to a stronger immune system and more energy throughout the day. Krause suggests at least six to eight hours of sleep per night as the ideal amount.
Korthase has made a “sleep debt chart” in her room. The chart helps the girls keep track of how many hours of sleep a night they get, the goal being seven hours a night. When a girl gets less sleep that night she must subtract whatever amount of time she missed and add it to their sleep debt. At the end of a two-week period the girls will add up their sleep debt and declare a winner.
“If one night you didn’t do well, so, like, you only got four hours of sleep, the next night you’re more apt to get seven hours of sleep because you can see the larger picture rather than just one day,” Korthase said. “Because it’s a physical thing that we can see, it’s easier to stick to. It’s specific and measurable and it’s something you can actually do, not an impossible goal.”
Things such as “sleep debt charts” can work not only to help you and your roommates get a good night’s sleep and start some healthy competition, it can also be applied to other areas of health, such as exercise or nutrition.
“Your mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand,” Krause said. “Mental health issues can affect physical health in a variety of ways. Stress, depression or anxiety can contribute to physical symptoms such as sleep disturbance, digestive issues and lack of energy. Often talking with a counselor can help students work through their various issues and improve their feelings of well-being.”
Many students, upon entering college, can feel out of sorts and have a hard time adjusting to the new schedules, demands of harder classes and a completely new social code. It can be easy for students to feel isolated or to spend a lot of time alone in their dorm rooms. It’s important for students to get around campus and involved with different projects.
If going out to the parties on the weekend isn’t your cup of tea, there are dozens of other fun things around campus you can do with different groups. Though having social anxiety can make it more difficult to participate in such activities, remember: many of the other students are in or have been in the same position you’re in when transitioning from high school to college, and many campuses offer a safe, welcoming environment to new students.
Launda Wheatley, a yoga instructor here at Albion, also shed some light on the connection between your mental health and physical health in terms of how anxiety or depression can affect how you feel on a day to day basis.
“How we think, process and respond to things translates to our health in terms of knots in muscles, headaches, twitches, pain and eventually disease if we don’t begin to address our stresses, our emotional pain and our responses to the daily load we carry,” Wheatley said.
If you’re still struggling with anxiety or depression, or your emotions become heightened to the point where you have suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate in talking to either a friend or a counselor at counseling services. If you ever find yourself having a crisis that needs immediate attention, students at Albion can call campus safety at 517-629-1234 to reach a counselor after hours or on weekends.
How Yoga Can Help
A great way students can become involved in a different activity while simultaneously letting go of stress and stepping away from the anxieties of the day is yoga. Practicing yoga daily, even just for a short time can do wonders for your mood and your body.
“Yoga means union,” Wheatley said. “It is not just a physical practice as so many believe. It is a system of awareness that cultivates an understanding of our perceptions, how we continually need to see the world not just from our lens, but of everyone we encounter, this includes how we have been conditioned by so many factors to see ourselves. Yoga brings clarity and focus to each moment when we chose to take the time to see compassionately, rather than out of fear, anger or ignorance. The attention to breath is key. We shorten our breath in a whole host of situations, when we do; we create anxiety in the body and mind. This anxiety is very much felt in the body and in our reactions to ourselves and others.”
She says to use this technique to breathe deeply from the belly, holding the inhale for about four seconds, holding for two and then exhaling slowly for six to eight seconds. By doing this about five times while relaxing your shoulders and elongating the spine—that is, sitting up as tall as you can—you can feel a difference in your anxiety levels afterward.
Though health can sometimes seem unimportant in the face of all the other pressures at school, remember that it is just as important to take care of your body as it is to do well on that exam. When you become sick, it’s your body’s way of trying to send a message to you.
“The message your body is trying to give you is ‘pay attention,’” Krause said. “The lack of proper nutrition, hydration, rest and exercise are all things easy to accomplish, if we pay attention to the signals our body sends.”
You can decide to start changing your habits at any time, all it takes is the mindset that you are absolutely ready to make a change and improve your well-being and lifestyle.
“Start small, but specific and do something that you can measure,” Korthase said. “For us, setting those boundaries up is a two week period, seven hours a night, and you have to have that all laid out and then hold yourself accountable to it. Start one at a time, so if you want to drink more water drink a water bottle a day. And don’t get discouraged when you fall off your path.”
It’s important to know that when trying to make a significant life-style change there are going to be days or nights where you either can’t or don’t accomplish your new health goals. Setbacks like these are common and happen to everyone–don’t be discouraged by a failure along the way. What is important is getting right back on track with your new healthy habits and stick to them.
Photo courtesy of yogachallenges.tumblr.com