A Studentís Guide to Staying Fit and Healthy
It is widely reported and universally accepted that a regular programme of
exercise and/or physical activity is essential for both physical and
mental health. However, what may be less widely known is that a regular
programme of exercise can also improve concentration, focus, retention and
learning, particularly in the 1-2-hour window post exercise.
For many students, the advent of life at university
typifies that stage in their life where participation in sport and exercise
declines to almost non-existent levels. Often, the structure afforded by school
and college provides the perfect backdrop to stay active, play sport and keep
fit amongst friends. However, despite the wide availability of sport and
exercise opportunities on most campuses, unfortunately the same cannot be said
for university life. Most adults will cite their student years as the primary
cause of their adult-onset Ďpodgeí, often blaming binge drinking, fast food,
last-minute cramming, stress and juggling work with university as the root
causes. Itís important to recognise that with a little more thought and an ounce
of discipline, it really doesnít have to be this way.
If youíre a student that doesnít want the above scenario to
be your destiny then the following 5 suggestions may just provide you with the
necessary inspiration and direction to help you stay fit and healthy during your
student years and beyond.
The pareto principle, which is also known as the 80-20 rule, states that for
most events, around 80% of the effects are borne from 20% of the causes. This is
especially true when it comes to diet and nutrition.
If the bodyís internal biochemistry isnít right then the
effects of exercise will actually have a detrimental effect on health. The first
time you will become aware of this is when your immune system is flattened and
you get stuck down by a cold, or worse, the flu. Like exercise, the effects of
poor nutrition are interpreted by the body as stress. This stress is combined
with other environmental stressors (e.g. study demands, relationships, financial
strain) and causes those stressful hormones like cortisol to rise exponentially.
Before you start any programme of exercise, take your time
to plan and research what you will eat and when. Stay hydrated, ideally with
water, and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. You donít need to
become a personal trainer or nutritionist to learn to eat well. The
Eatwell Guide is a great place to start to broaden your knowledge of what it
takes to eat right.
Most people think that exercise is about burning calories and busting a gut
Ė while this is one approach, exercise doesnít just have to be about energy
expenditure and weight control. In a world where people are over-stimulated and
stress is rife, Ďworking iní is as important as Ďworking outí.
Mindfulness based activities can include all manner of
activities and tasks to increase awareness about the bodyís energy level,
physiological state and level of stress and tension. They can include
meditation, keeping a journal, breathing techniques and a wide-range of other
activities that direct mental and physical energy internally.
Yoga and Pilates are often great group-based activities to
start to raise your awareness about mindfulness-based activities. There are also
any number of mindfulness-based apps available to help raise awareness.
There are a wide-range of studies that have been completed
in recent years that have demonstrated the positive effects of mindfulness-based
education. These lessons and techniques help to calm the mind and body, reducing
stress and increasing the potential to engage with learning. Most
forward-thinking universities now run their own mindfulness programmes as
enrichment and so itís likely that student services will be able to give you
more information on what is available at your university.
The modern sedentary lifestyles have created epidemic levels of overweight
and obese people at all stages in life. However, it is important to recognise
that this phenomenon has not occurred because people donít go to the gym enough,
itís happened because people arenít active frequently enough!
It is entirely possible to exercise daily and still be
unhealthy, especially if the bodyís nutritional needs are not being met. Being
active at regular intervals throughout the day is far more beneficial than being
largely sedentary, then doing a daily cardio blast to boost your
aerobic fitness levels.
The general advice is to avoid wherever possible prolonged
sitting and to actively explore ways to increase physical activity profiles
throughout the day. With this in mind, focusing on steps per day is a useful
strategy because it is something that can be easily measured with a smartphone
app, and can be modified in the moment if you are behind you target. Some really
simple steps you can take to increase your daily steps include getting off the
bus or tram a stop or two earlier, taking the stairs rather than the loft or
escalator, and if you are a student lucky enough to drive, parking further away
from the entrance so you have to walk further. With these 3 simple techniques,
youíll be surprised how easy it is to step up your physical activity profile.
The perils of physical inactivity have been highlighted sufficiently above,
but itís worth acknowledging that a student life can be a very sedentary life if
sufficient consideration isnít given to staying active. Prolonged sitting during
lectures, reading textbooks and writing assignments all involve very little
bodily movement and these seated postures can take their toll on the
musculoskeletal system. Neck, shoulder, low back and wrist pain are common
amongst student populations because the body just isnít designed to be seated
for such long periods of time. The micro wrist and finger motions involved with
writing and typing also often give rise to ailments like carpal-tunnel syndrome
and other repetitive strain-type injuries.
Increasing the strength of key postural muscles and raising
awareness of good posture and alignment while seated, either in a lecture or at
a PC are great ways to reduce the risks of these ailments, and in doing so you
will save yourself a lot of pain and unnecessary expenditure on physiotherapy.
Pilates and Yoga can again help to raise awareness about these aspects while
also developing whole-body strength, mobility and flexibility. Developing
strength without length is unlikely to serve a student well given the length of
time that they will spend being sedentary. This is only likely to compound
muscle imbalances and lead to further injury, pain and dysfunction.
Sleep on It
As we reach the terminal end of this article on staying fit and healthy in
your student years you are probably surprised to see that sleeping is our last
focus area and that exercise and physical activity has been a lesser focus of
the Article. If we could reinforce only one key message in this article it would
be that exercise is a form of stress and if other areas of a personís life are
not in balance, then this stress will spill over to other aspects of health and
will have an adverse effect. If therefore you are not getting your 7-8 hours
daily quota then it wonít be long before you are literally running on empty from
a mental and emotional perspective.
Most health authorities suggest that we should accumulate
between 6-8 hours of Zís per day this is actually a quite a broad and sweeping
recommendation. Some people function better on less sleep while others operate
better on more. It is certainly worth experimenting with a 7-day sleep diary to
establish what your optimum sleep range is. If you feel tired when you wake,
youíve either had too little or too much sleep. Make a note and then try to get
more or less the next night (as appropriate) and compare how you feel to your
previous night. It wont take long until you learn exactly how much sleep you
need to function well. This should be as important a daily goal as your 10,000
steps per day.
Sleep quality is as important as sleep quantity because
itís entirely possible to wake in a morning after having what should be an
adequate amount of sleep and feel exhausted. Dietary factors like caffeine and
sugar can cause sleep to be disturbed, as can eating large meals too late in the
evening. That kebab on the way home from a night out might not always be a good
idea! Make a note of the foods you are eating in your diary before you go to bed
to see if you can spot patterns between what you eat, when you eat and how you
Remember, stress is stress, whether it is physical (from
exercise, lack of sleep), environmental (temperature), emotional (relationships,
finances, workload), nutritional (from poor diet and of lack of hydration), the
effects accumulate and adversely affect health and fitness. If you can learn to
listen to your body and to make subtle adjustments as required, before long
youíll start to experience a renewed sense of energy and vitality youíve never
Andy is Tutor and Assessor at HFE with over 20 yearsí experience of
personal training courses. He holds a First-Class Honours Degree in Sport
and Exercise Science and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He
has a passion for all things exercise and fitness, is a keen runner and enjoys
in his spare time completing ultra-endurance events around the world.