College is supposed to be a happy time of joyous independence. You are not supposed to feel that your body is a battleground or that food and weight obsession is taking up all of your time. It can be hard to to stay healthy in college, but college is a unique opportunity to learn how to take care of yourself in the real world.
I’m someone who has struggled with body image issues all my life. I’ve suffered through bulimia, anorexia, and then another bout of both when I got to college. When I finally did start to recover, I discovered that a huge part of the reason I was the way that I was had to do with basic realities of food and health that I just did not know how to do properly. If you can develop those skills as a college student, you’ll be ahead of the game from the get-go and hopefully you won’t have to suffer the way I suffered.
In that spirit of kindness, here are nine suggestions for keeping your body healthy:
1. Purchase a meal plan with lots of points, and very few required dining hall trips.
There is just no way to feel good about your eating experience in a dining hall. Sure, it’s a chance to hang out with friends, but it’s also an overwhelming encounter with enough food to feed a small army.
During your first year of college you will almost certainly have to live in the dorms, which means you will almost certainly be obligated to purchase a food plan. Purchase a plan with a small percentage of dining hall meals and a large percentage of “points”, which you can spend at any café on campus. I’ve taken classes on three college campuses of varying sizes and I can tell you that the café food is widely recognized as superior to the dining half food every single time.
Every café on campus will also allow you to grab food and go, whereas most dining halls require you to eat in the dining hall and won’t let you take food out. That means you can practice portion control by saving some of your café food for later, or grabbing it before class and eating an hour later when you’re actually hungry. You’ll be able to eat more slowly, too, instead of inhaling your food to get out of the dining hall and on to the next activity. Scarfing down dinner is bad for your digestive system and can easily lead to overeating. If you treat eating like a painful obligation, your relationship with food and therefore with your body will suffer. If you treat eating like a fun, casual activity, that’s what it will become.
2. Take advantage of recreational trips.
Seriously, when else in your life are you going to have the opportunity to take kickboxing for $50 per semester? When else can you go on a rock-climbing trip one week and a horseback riding trip the week after that, all for under $100? Answer: never.
So go out into the world! Enjoy yourself. These trips are a rare opportunity to connect with upperclassmen who otherwise won’t give you the time of day. They’re a chance to meet students from totally different disciplines and with totally different life experiences. Instead of going to a party and waking up the next day with nothing to show for it but a painful headache and a legacy of bad decisions, why not head out into nature and drink in the beauty?
3. Alcohol has calories. Lots of calories.
Alcohol has literally hundreds of dead-weight calories. Most alcoholic mixed drinks are straight-up sugar with fruit juice and simple syrup. You are basically downing a tub of white sugar. If that thought grosses you out, think hard about why.
A better idea is to order a martini or a vodka soda. Don’t just chug random stuff someone gives you at a party. This is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It is not a “rite of passage.” It is playing fast and loose with your well-being and with your health. Also, if you stick to one drink order, you will have an easier time figuring out how many you’ve had. Excess of anything is a bad idea and this includes alcohol. You don’t have to get drunk to have fun. You don’t have to go to every party or bar crawl. It’s great to cut loose but remember to be safe and stay mindful of what you are putting in your body.
4. Walk places.
College means spending huge portions of your time sitting. You won’t have required gym classes to break up the monotony of your day. You won’t have your parents standing over you, freaking out because you’ve been asleep for 20 hours straight during the weekend. No one’s going to force you to get up and move your body. That means that if you have a car, and your school has a good bus system, you won’t actually be forced to walk longer than from the classroom to the bus stop.
Good! That’s an important option to have to be able to survive in -12 degree temperatures in winters in Minnesota. It’s a pretty cool option if you find yourself on crutches for six weeks because your ligament got messed up, which indeed happened to me during college.
Otherwise, you don’t need the bus! Get out and walk.
Walking does miraculous things to the human body. It opens up our brains to the world around us. I’m a writer, and I get some of my most creative ideas while I’m on walks. Walking helps you think, it helps you figure out what you’re feeling when you’re confused, it helps reorient you to the world. Walking is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It is also one of the easiest.
Best of all, it’s free!
5. Keep healthy snacks in your room.
You might know that people overeat most often when they’ve waited way too long to eat, and their brains are now convinced they are starving. Do not do this to yourself! Instead, buy a box of Cliff Bars and keep it in your room. Get some trail mix and some cashews, some dried fruit. Buy a large enough stash that it will get you through at least the first month.
Your brain needs fuel to operate. Fuel does not have to mean Domino’s Pizza! Learn to feed yourself what you need when you need it. I promise, your body will be grateful for it.
6. Keep ridiculous amounts of water around, then drink it all.
Our bodies are almost entirely composed of water. We need massive amounts of water to stay healthy. Don’t expect yourself to fill a paper cup with water from the bathroom every time you get thirsty. Most dorms have communal bathrooms, and they’re gross. They’re also probably going to be located on the other side of the building from where your room is.
Ditch the paper cups and get a plastic water bottle instead! Many schools give these out to freshmen during orientation or during an internship fair, so you likely already have one rolling around your room somewhere! It’s going to hold a lot more water and you can take it with you everywhere. Many college campusing have water bottle refilling stations too, so you can get filtered water for free. Fill it up every chance you get and stay hydrated!
7. Audit gym classes.
Most universities let you audit gym classes either for free, or for a very small fee. Auditing means you show up to every class session, just as though you were enrolled, but the class doesn’t show up on your transcript. This is a great way to expose yourself to all kinds of different physical activities so you can find one, or twenty, that you like.
Try to take at least two per semester or per quarter. Take one that sounds comfortable and familiar, and one that sounds totally bizarre. Take Swimming together with Yoga. Take Hiking together with Kickboxing. How will you know what you like if you don’t experiment?
If you’re already on a sports team, try to take at least one other recreation class each semester. Take something fun, stress-reducing, and physically simple, like yoga or massage.
Give yourself the gift of this time to grow your relationship with your body.
8. Take an introduction to how gyms work class.
This class will have a different name depending where you go to school, but I can almost guarantee you it exists. Take it. It’s worth it.
Chances are probably pretty good that if you’re just entering college, you won’t have spent much time in a professional gym before. Maybe your high school had a weight room, and maybe you spent some time there under the tutelage of your coach, but that’s probably the extent of it. For that reason, the thought of starting to work out in a massive open space filled with complicated machines where everyone is staring at you (at least you think they are) probably seems terrifying.
You don’t need an introduction to the gym because you’re stupid. You need one because those machines are freaking complicated. The treadmill has about ten million settings, and people really do fall off them every day, in every gym in America, just like in a romantic comedy. Seriously.
Don’t be one of those people! Ask for help.
These classes are so great because they’re catered to freshmen. You’re likely to find yourself in a group with 20 other people who are equally as clueless as you. You’ll get a chance to see how each machine works and to try them all with people watching who are willing to save you from the weight about to fall right on your big toe. Everyone in the group will look like an idiot, all at once and all together, which means no one will look like an idiot. That’s the power of numbers.
Maybe you’re not a gym kind of person. That’s okay. I’m not either. I still go to the gym, because the reality of my daily life is such that the most effective and efficient way for me to exercise involves reps and weights and other things I don’t much like all on their own. These things I don’t much enjoy, however, are what make and keep my body strong.
It’s like any kind of medicine—you learn to love it for how it makes you feel.
No matter what approach you take, the decisions you make in college will impact your health for the rest of your life. The important thing to remember is that your brain cannot work properly if your body is not being taken care of. Put in the time and take the necessary steps to treat yourself well. After all, who deserves your consideration more than you do?
Ariadne Wolf works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Experimental Fiction, Screenwriting, and just about everything else you can think of. Her creative nonfiction essay “Mermaids Singing” was initially published in Rascal, and Rascal has nominated the essay for the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Perspectives has nominated her short fiction story “Granny in the Forest” for the 2019 Best Small Fictions Anthology. Wolf’s publishing credits include DIN Southwest Literary Magazine, Ashoka University’s Plot Number Two, and others. She has many credits to her name as a journalist in the Corvallis Advocate and the Willamette Collegian. Wolf has completed her MFA in Creative Writing and she is currently exploring non-coastal America.