Local Experts Weigh in on How College Students Can Build Healthy Habits

Mindfulness, nutrition and other preparation can help ease the transition.

Navigating the many aspects of campus life can prove especially tricky for new students, whether it’s roommates, demanding courses or more basic things like food preparation and laundry. To combat stressors, students need to take a holistic approach to self-care. Here’s how.

Mind Matters

“Coming to college is a huge time of transition,” says Amy Henning, director of counseling services and the Alcohol and Other Drug Program at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. “Their space is new, their roommate is new, the food is new. Then, of course, [there are] the academic rigors, which can be very different from what a student is used to.”

Henning suggests that students have a so-called tool kit at their disposal—one filled with activities that help manage stress when it crops up. Those might include journaling, meditation, talking with a friend or family member, listening to music, or taking a walk—and tool kits can change over time. “What might have worked in the past may no longer be effective,” Henning says. “Be open to learning new ways.”

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For those with known mental health concerns, Henning recommends some extra preparation before arriving on campus. They should know the counseling resources available or even a therapist they might want to see and who will prescribe medication if needed. If they qualify for an accommodation, disability support services will also have to be contacted. “[Many schools are] training faculty and staff on how to look for signs and be supportive, so students feel they have many places they can access support,” says Henning.

For all students, Henning recommends creating solid connections, whether it’s a friend, a professor, an advisor or a counselor. Scheduling downtime is also essential, as is making time for fun activities. “I think it’s really critical for students to get out of their room, and find others that they can connect with,” Henning says.

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One Step at a Time

According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, less than 20 percent of American adults get enough exercise. And busy students spend a lot of time sitting in classes and lectures. The National Wellness Institute recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, which is a great place for students to start. Time management is the key. “The number one reason people don’t exercise is they don’t make a commitment to a regular exercise program,” says Dr. Maria Elena Hallion, an associate professor and the department chair of health and exercise sciences at Cabrini University in Radnor, Pa., and that most students don’t think they have the time.

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Hallion recommends using a calendar to schedule time for physical activity and finding small ways to incorporate it throughout the day. That might be as simple as walking to class and doing errands on foot. Even cleaning counts, so long as “the arms and the legs are moving in some kind of rhythmic fashion that’s getting sustained for some time,” Hallion says.

Hallion also recommends making the most of campus resources. Ask the staff at the fitness center to show you a few exercises. “Some colleges have classes for credit,” says Hallion.

Staying active can help with weight management and fend off sickness and disease. It can also build confidence and self-esteem and enhance sleep. “If you sleep better, then you have more energy and you can focus better,” says Hallion.

Related Article: 5 Simple and Healthy Dinners for College Students

What to Eat

It’s far too easy for students to eschew healthy habits established at home—especially when it comes to food. “I think a lot of [students] are overwhelmed with all the choices and the fact that they can really have as much as they want and have dessert at every meal,” says Sharon Collison, a registered dietitian and clinical instructor in nutrition at the University of Delaware.

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To keep students on track, Collison recommends meeting with a dietitian prior to coming to campus or at the start of school. An expert can help determine what food and calorie needs students have and guide them through nutritionally sound options.

When it comes to tempting treats, Collison suggests moderation, keeping in mind the “sometimes foods” and which ones should be eaten daily. The former includes things like fries, mashed potatoes and desserts. She also cautions about foods with added fat, like butter and creamy salad dressings.

Some college students may burn fewer calories than they did in high school, especially if they no longer play sports. Alternately, those who were inactive and now find themselves trekking long distances to class may burn more calories. For those who don’t have an eating disorder, “I think monitoring weight is a good reality check,” says Collison. “The salad bar can really be a full meal if there’s a protein source.”

Collison stresses the importance of maintaining an eating routine that includes breakfast. For those with hectic schedules, many dining halls offer to-go meals. “College students are going to be more likely to have a healthier diet and better weight control if they’re more consistent and they don’t skip some meals and overeat at the next meal,” says Collison.

Snacks also play into the equation. During the day, Collison recommends string cheese and crackers, or an apple with a small amount of peanut butter. Greek yogurt with grapes is also ideal. In the evening, try a serving of light microwave or air-popped popcorn or hot chocolate. To prevent overeating, Collision suggests buying single-serve portions or pre-portioning large snacks.

Short of seeing a dietitian, Collison suggests adhering to general nutrition guidelines. “I really like the plate method,” she says. “About a quarter of the plate is protein foods, a quarter is grain and half is vegetables.” 

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