10 Common College Health Traps to Avoid
College is an exciting and challenging time for adults embarking on their own lives. There is great freedom - no curfews, no parents, no one asking if you did your homework - but there is also great responsibility. You are in charge of your money, your living situation, your time, and your health. There are several common pitfalls that college students encounter which can sabotage their finances, happiness, and health. It's a wise idea to be aware of these potential health traps and know how to avoid them.
1. Time Management
Though time isn't directly associated with health, managing one's own time can quickly become an overwhelming and stressful burden if it is a new responsibility. Balancing socializing with new friends against the heavy reading requirements of college, part-time work, sports, and other activities can be incredibly stressful and can affect one's emotional well-being. It's tempting to want to join every group, find part-time work to earn extra money, and even load up on course credits to get ahead. But it's wise to take it easy your first year in college, especially with activities, volunteering, and classes. The natural inclination for most people is to form new friendships - which is perfectly healthy given that everyone is in a new environment away from family. It's natural and normal to schedule plenty of time for socializing - this is not "slacking off." It becomes slacking off only if you do not go to class or complete papers and assignments, but you should learn to balance social time with school work before taking on additional activities and commitments.
Meal times are your responsibility - and now no one is forcing you to eat your veggies. Pizza sounds great! This is an area where freedom takes a little time to get used to; many students gain weight and experience mood swings their first year away from home as they indulge in junk food for the majority of their meals. Pizza is incredibly popular both in the cafeteria and as take-out, but unless you watch portion size and order a side salad, the pizza habit can quickly derail a lean, healthy body.
Because many students don't play sports as they did in high school, the lack of activity can lead to both weight gain and emotional stress. Exercise helps to release pent up toxins and negative emotions, so it becomes even more essential during the challenging transition to independence and adulthood. Exercise and healthy food are vital to taking on the greater responsibilities of adulthood and the intensity of a collegiate academic course load. At minimum, you should exercise aerobically three times a week to ensure proper weight management, healthy circulation, and energy. Your brain benefits from exercise, which will help with studies. And exercise is just a great way to expel emotions and frustrations that are pent up.
Most students try drinking in college, and many attend infamous "keggers" where getting drunk is the goal. Though things like alcoholism and DUIs might seem implausible to some, the fact is that many students do suffer these severe consequences of excessive drinking. More commonly, unsafe sex, lost possessions, and simply feeling the misery of a hangover are the results of excessive or "binge" drinking. No one can tell you not to drink, but know your limits and be safe. Drink water with each alcoholic drink you have. Always be accompanied by a designated driver. Make sure you don't "hook up" with strange men or women you've just met, no matter how fun it might seem at the time. This is especially important for women as date rape occurs most frequently in college. Eat a big dinner if you know you are going to be partying, and get plenty of rest. Don't make drinking the focus of your social life; find work out buddies, movie pals, museum friends, and other acquaintances to engage in healthier social activities with. Think smart and take care of your body, possessions, and overall safety.
5. All Nighters
College brings with it a lot of work. For every hour you spend in class, you will have at least one hour of reading to do outside of class. You should expect to have at least midterms, essays, and research papers in each class you take. And considering the average semester load is four classes, the pressure to complete work and read all course material is high. Even the most organized students can get behind or be forced to stay up a night or two studying. Do what you can to prepare in advance. Even reading and outlining weeks before the actual paper or test will take a tremendous amount of pressure off. If you get into the all-nighter habit, you are bound to sabotage your health. It's unlikely that you will get through college without an all-nighter, but don't rely on them to pull off important assignments. If you get sick or an emergency comes up, professors may not be too understanding. All-nighters are a recipe for exhaustion, emotional irritability, poor concentration, and stress.
All of the studying and socializing that are part of the college experience lends itself to snacking. Unfortunately, most snack options in college are of the chip and candy variety. Not every dorm will allow a mini-fridge or microwave, but there are plenty of healthy snacks you can keep on hand like fruit, crackers, string cheese, nuts, protein bars, juice packs, and dried fruit. Don't sabotage your health with greasy late-night fast food runs for french fries, wings, and nachos. It can be challenging to get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day in college, but you should make an effort to eat as healthily as you can in your snacking sessions.
Coupled with all-nighters and partying is the need for energy. Grande lattes and iced mochas are just the start - students often rely on No-Doz and energy drinks like Red Bull to stay up late, whether it's to party or to study. But the caffeine habit depletes "happy hormones" like dopamine from your body, leading to irritability, shakiness, and fatigue. For sustained energy, fuel your body with complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plenty of protein. Good snacks include string cheese and nuts, and healthy meals should include grilled chicken, tofu, or fish with brown rice, veggies, or salad. For an immediate energy boost, a small serving of caffeine and dark chocolate is just fine, but don't rely on chemically-laden caffeinated drinks for your foundation of energy. Exercise three to five times a week to drive oxygen into your muscles and fuel energy naturally.
8. Unsafe Sex
Sexual activity is a natural part of college life. But it's also a time of rampant STD transmission and the risk of pregnancy. Date rape occurs most commonly in college (according to some estimates, 1 in 4 women in college will be date raped). Most of the negative aspects of sexual activity can be traced to alcohol and drug abuse. Boundaries are simply lowered and decisions are made when reasoning faculties are not at their best. Alcohol makes people take risks they normally wouldn't; one of the most common is unsafe oral sex. Many students mistakenly think that oral sex is a "safe" alternative to traditional intercourse, but it isn't. While pregnancy is not a concern, STD transmission is still very likely. Not all STDs are curable, including HIV and herpes. And unsafe sex can lead to regret and self-judgment later. Talk to your school counselor about safe sex habits, and if you have engaged in unsafe sex or been the victim of date rape, you will need to meet with both a doctor and counselor to work through this incident in a healthy way. Your body is special and deserves to be treated safely and with respect. As a final important reminder, know that everyone makes mistakes, so try to learn from them and plan for mistakes not to happen again without beating yourself up or feeling that no one else has made the same mistakes you have.
Many students express anxiety about money. Whether you are faced with tuition bills, rent, or credit card debt, it is important that you speak with your parents, a financial aid advisor, or even a more experienced student about money management so that your health is not impacted by poor choices you could have averted. One of the major issues students deal with is credit card debt. Unfortunately, credit card companies tend to prey on students, offering them seemingly great credit deals - but at very high interest rates. What feels like "free" money that you can pay back later quickly turns into late fees, poor credit ratings, and large bills. The smartest thing students can do is to avoid credit cards altogether.
Lastly, relationships can be stressful and perhaps affect your health more than anything else. For example, the transition your parents have to make as they begin to see you as an adult is often challenging. Then, there is the newness of adulthood and forming new friendships and loves. And finally, there is the often-overlooked relationship with yourself. College is an important time for introspection and self-exploration. What fears are holding you back? What habits or behaviors ingrained in childhood are you still demonstrating? Do you feel defensive with professors or roommates - as if everything is about you? How healthy are your relationships? Are they respectful, open, honest and able to handle stress? Or are they secretive, manipulative or even abusive? These are important issues that can offer a tremendous opportunity for learning about yourself. Even if you feel "fine," it is both healthy and smart to talk to a school counselor from time to time just to ensure that you are living in alignment with what feels right for you emotionally and psychologically.
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