Wellness

5 ways to stay fit as a first year student

That first year of college or university will throw some challenges at you — here's how to beat them

That first year of college or university will throw some challenges at you — here's how to beat them

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The independence that makes starting college or university so exciting — the chance to make new friends, explore a new city, choose your own classes and make your own schedule — can also be what makes it somewhat disorienting. It comes with routine and lifestyle changes that can be hard to navigate and one of the things it's notorious for is throwing off is physical fitness. 

The struggle goes beyond the recurring late-night post-party munchies or the shock of not having a scheduled gym class or after-school sports to keep you from becoming one with your desk-chair.

We spoke to two experts to help address some of the biggest challenges to fitness you might face in your first year of school. 

Challenge #1: You have a lot less actual class time but your workload and social calendar make you wonder if you'll ever have time to sleep, let alone take time for yourself 

Maybe you were already pretty organized in high school, maybe your teachers and parents had to nag and coerce you to stay focused and get your work done, or maybe you were the type that could slack off 50 per cent of the time and still pull off an A. 

Whatever type of student you were, you're probably going to have to develop some new time-management and self-motivation skills for balancing your course load, social life, and self-care. 

One useful way to figure out what's working for you, and what isn't, says Marc Pope, Director of Recreation at Simon Fraser University, is to write down everything you do in a single day and how long you spend on each thing. 

"It may seem a bit regimented," he says, "but it is important to know how much time you spend doing different things throughout the day… and what you record might surprise you."

Pope says to include things like how many hours you sleep, study, exercise, watch TV or go on social media, and any other activities that are important to you. Then you can put together a schedule that sets goals for how much time you plan to spend on important and less-negotiable things like studying and sleep. Any time left over can be set-aside for discretionary activities like hanging out with friends or watching TV. "When course loads are heavy, the time in your day may need to be reallocated," he adds. 

What qualifies as important will probably vary from person to person, but self-care and exercise should factor in at least a little bit. 

"First-year students find themselves in a new reality where they need to be self-motivated, not only for their academics but also to create a self-care routine," says Alexa Leon, a psychotherapist at McGill University's Student Wellness Hub. 

Leon says one of the things she sees students deal with a lot is the pressure to be working all the time. 

"There is a culture of perfectionism in which students internalize the belief that if they are not studying, they are falling behind. The reality is that regular exercise improves your ability to focus. In order to prioritize self-care, students need to understand that doing so will have positive impacts on their academic performance."

Leon also sees students who cut back on sleep to maximize their time, leading to "a lack of energy, a decreased capacity to regulate emotions, and ultimately, a compromised immune system."

While it may seem like there are more productive things you should be doing with your time, getting adequate sleep and exercise are two of the most effective ways to set yourself up for academic and fitness success.

"Habits that promote resilience can be difficult to establish when you are feeling beaten down," says Pope. "They are best built when you are flourishing, as an investment to help deal with a future stressful endeavour."

Challenge #2: Phys Ed isn't part of your course load and varsity sports are out of your league

What do you do if you were a star athlete at your high-school, but don't quite make the cut for varsity sports? First, says Leon, you need to actively seek out opportunities for integrating fitness into your routine. 

"Universities are full of opportunities for physical activity, and usually the best place to start is to look up your university's athletics website where you'll find information about club sports, group fitness classes, and intramural teams," she says. 

If there's an activity your school doesn't offer, talk to the recreation staff about whether it's possible to include it in the future. Inner-tube Waterpolo was a popular and unique sport on offer when I was in school.

Signing up for a residence floor that is focused on fitness or joining house league sports is a great way to maintain your connection to the community of team sports. 

Pope recommends getting involved early and exploring the different opportunities before you get bogged down in school work. 

Challenge #3: You've never worked out in a gym or are intimidated by your school's facilities 

In high school, I dropped gym the second it was no longer mandatory. I couldn't wait to get out of swim class. Aside from playing recreational basketball and volleyball, I'd never worked out at a gym before university and navigating the athletic programs and facilities at my new school — an especially large one — felt incredibly intimidating.

If you're in the same boat, "Remind yourself that everyone has experienced a 'first time'," says Leon. "It's normal to feel a little scared to enter an unfamiliar environment. Going with someone or meeting with a trainer at the gym who can introduce you to the different equipment are two strategies for mediating this."

Subsidized rates and a broad variety of options make this the perfect time to try new activities you've always been curious about, even if you're intimidated. Often times you'll find that you're not the only beginner in the class. 

I took advantage of this to try ballet and finally learned to swim with a really cool instructor (and fellow student) I wish I had made friends with.

Volunteering or working as an instructor at your school's athletic centre is another way you can get involved in campus recreation, says Pope.

Challenge #4: There's always a game, pub-night, or impromptu hang you could be joining and you have serious FOMO

With everything you've got on your plate as a new college or university student, it's not unusual to feel like you have to choose either-or on a number of activities. But when it comes to spending time with friends and getting in some exercise, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. 

"More and more, research is showing that exercise is a key factor in maintaining mental health," says Leon. "It has been shown to improve executive functioning, mood, and stress resilience, among other benefits. Once we understand this, it becomes easier to make it a priority."  She says creating a positive association with your exercise routine by linking it to your social life can help.

"It is much easier to be motivated to work on physical health if it is balanced with social health," says Pope. "Exercise often doesn't feel like work when you're doing it with friends." 

Challenge #5: The cafeteria buffet has endless amounts of food and the booze is always flowing. How do you keep from overdoing it?

At home, your parents likely provided you with balanced meals and accommodations for your food restrictions. Once you're living on your own, it's up to you to seek out a balanced diet and figure out how to make the most of your campus meal plan. Even if you're still living at home, the extra commute and long hours on campus can mean you're more inclined to reach for a bag of chips than a piece of fruit. In short, it's really easy to consume way more calories than you're used to.

"Some groups that face particular challenges include students with dietary restrictions who might struggle to find good food options on a meal plan," says Leon. This is when you have to learn to advocate for yourself. According to Pope, the dining services at your school are often able to expand menu offerings when they receive feedback. 

You can also look into whether your school has nutritionists on staff who can answer your questions and help you with meal plan preparation, a feature that Pope says they offer students at Simon Fraser. 

For some students with a history of disordered eating having to develop a new routine around eating can be triggering. 

"If you notice that distress comes up when you don't meet your fitness or healthy eating goals, this is a signal that you've developed some rigid thought patterns that could be indicative of an unhealthy relationship to exercise and/or eating," says Leon. "If you notice yourself becoming preoccupied with body image, or if it becomes difficult to de-couple fitness and/or eating from body image, pay attention to this and reach out for help."

Overdoing it with alcohol is also something that's common when you're first living away from home. Its availability at social activities and ability to lower inhibitions can make students feel pressured to drink more than they intend. But drinking too much can impact your energy levels, lead to weight gain and trigger anxiety

"Partying too much in the beginning of the semester can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and difficulty managing stress later on," says Leon. 

If you do choose to consume alcohol, moderation is important since it takes time to learn your limits, says Pope. He recommends drinking with people you trust in an environment that feels safe, consuming alcohol slowly, avoiding mixing alcohol with other drugs and calling for help if you need it.

Ultimately when it comes to your first year of college or university, chances are you'll experience at least a little change in your fitness level at some point during the year, even if you build physical health into your routine. 

"There will be times when your routine will be impractical, and that's okay, but try to get back to your routine as soon as you can — it's a long-term investment in yourself," says Pope. "Maintaining physical health with sleep, diet, activity, healthy relationships and being mindful of your limits is investing in your ability to study and do well in school. It's all linked."

It's also important to remember to not beat yourself up over not living up to your own expectations. "Self-compassion, being able to forgive yourself and move on, is an important skill for everyone to learn," says Pope. And one, that will come in handy well after you've graduated. 


Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.

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