Optimizing Your Health in College Part 1: Fighting the Uphill Battle

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College is like that old game from windows computers called Minesweeper. The point of the game was to navigate a playing field full of mines, without blowing yourself up. The tough part was that squares on the board were only revealed by you clicking on them. This meant that often times you were clicking on a square that had a decent chance of blowing you up. I use this example to paint a picture of what navigating college is like for the optimistic and health conscious individual.

When you first get to college it’s like starting a game of Minesweeper for the first time, you aren’t quite sure of what to do with yourself. Like the game, college is an open playing field with endless opportunities to either be healthy or unhealthy, productive or unproductive, etc… Learning the “way” of the game is most often achieved through failures. Personally, I tend to be a “figure it out as we go” sort of person, which means I deal with a fair share of failure. Although, through all of this failure you learn to do things the right way. You learn to be strategic in your ways.

I can’t really say I ever became good at Minesweeper, but I definitely saw people who could flawlessly win game after game without cracking under the pressure. This fascinated me. Low and behold this same model was what college felt like, at least until I figured out how to defy the majority. This didn’t happen overnight, it took almost 2 years for me to really “hack” health in college. People often say “You only get 4 years of college, so enjoy it while you can”, which in most cases translates to “Have as much fun as humanly possible. Drink like a fish. Party harder than ever before. Sleep? Who needs it, you’re young!”. That’s all nice in theory, but what about reality? Reality for the average college student involves things like difficult academic demands, the pressure to pick and pursue a career and student loans, just to name a few. Combine these high-stress factors with things like lack of sleep, copious amounts of drinking, and poor diet and you get one giant ticking time bomb of a person.

Now before you go calling me boring and uptight, listen to my reasoning. I’ll start with all the bad stuff, then provide you with some tactics I personally use to combat the unhealthy grips of college.

It’s fair to say that the average college kid does not get enough sleep. Either they’re up very late studying or pulling all-nighters. To fuel these long bouts of sleepless work, they rely on things like energy drinks and caffeine. There’s nothing wrong with drinking a few cups of coffee per day, but it becomes a problem when you drink it around the clock. I’m specifically talking about how this affects your adrenal glands. Without getting into too much detail (I will definitely dedicate a whole blog post to this subject in the future), by over-relying on stimulants you are putting your body in a chronic high-stress state. Down the line, lack of sleep paired with overconsumption of caffeine can lead to a number of bad things, including adrenal fatigue, chronic body-wide inflammation, anxiety and more. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice cold beer, glass of wine or shot of whisky as much as the next guy. The problem is that in college, its almost never just one beer, one glass, one shot. After a long week of classes and stress it’s no wonder that most college kids live for the weekend. The culture of “work hard, play hard” is a very real thing, and all I’m saying is that it’s a very easy way to lower your life expectancy. Like most things, a night of drinking and partying comes with a trade-off, with drinking its a little thing called a hangover. Dry mouth and pounding headache from dehydration are not fun things to deal with, but are they worth enduring for that night out? Apparently most people think so. They just roll with the punches and complain about how much it sucks while getting their cure-all fix of coffee from Starbucks. Where is all this going? Well similar to the issue of no sleep and high caffeine intake, chronic binge drinking wreaks havoc on your body and brain during the time when you need them the most. Why would you only want to function at a fraction of your best at such an important, precious and brief time of your life?

That is what I had to ask myself during my own personal game of college Minesweeper. Why am I breaking my body and mind down every weekend and then complaining about how tired and crappy I felt during the week when I need the energy the most. I couldn’t workout as hard as I wanted, I couldn’t focus and study effectively, and my stress levels were elevated so high for so long that it became the new normal. When I finally decided to stop slowly destroying my body I was pleasantly surprised to find that one could still have the same kind of fun, while sparring their bodies, grades, and mental well-being. Moderation, prioritization, and balance are the keys to becoming the ultimate Minesweeper in college.

Without further adieu, here are a few of my tips and tricks to being the healthiest version of you while fighting the uphill battle that is college:

1) Walk Everywhere

Depending on the size of your school, you may already do this. I originally attended a small school of only 3,200 students…so as you can imagine, the campus was quite small. Fortunately, that meant I was able to walk everywhere and although it wasn’t very big campus, it added up. I ended up transferring to a much, much larger school of 30,000+ students with a campus far bigger, which meant even more walking for me. The primary mode of transportation around campus is by bus or car, which 95% of people choose to use. I, on the other hand, wanted to capitalize on this opportunity to walk everywhere for a few reasons. I knew that by walking everywhere I would burn significantly more calories due to the increase in steps and activity. Low and behold I was blown away by the results I got from tracking these stats for the first few months at school.

Here’s some rough math for ya: I averaged between 16k and 18k steps every day and over 500,000 steps a month. That amount of steps each day burned me roughly 1,000 calories alone, then paired with exercise and other movement pushed me close to 3.5-4k calories burned each day. In one month of those stats I could burn around 95k to 100,000 calories. It’s estimated that it takes 3,500 calories to burn one pound of fat…so now you do the math and see how much of an impact walking everywhere could have for you.

This may not be the most reasonable goal for some people out there, and I’m not saying you have to go this insane with walking. Sometimes you just can’t walk everywhere, or perhaps you’re not a student and have to commute to work where you sit for most of the day. For that person I say: win where you can. Take breaks and walk up the stairwell, in fact, always take the stairs. Use a standing desk if possible so you can increase the time spent on your feet when work has you tied down. 

2) Fix your circadian rhythm

What I mean by “fix” is that most people, especially in college, suffer from very irregular sleep schedules that end up negatively impacting all aspects of their life. Perhaps classes or work require you to get up very early, but you still find yourself staying up late at night studying or just wasting time. Or maybe you sleep till lunchtime every day because of your late nights studying past 1am. The point here is that our circadian clocks are very very sensitive and if not taken care of properly can affect your life in less than favorable ways that include, stress, insomnia, fatigue and hormone imbalances, just to name a few. 

I have found a lot of success from evaluating my circadian rhythm and adjusting where it is needed to fully optimize my daily functioning and nightly sleep. The first step is to map out a typical 24hr period in your life. Once you have that mapped out, you can make small changes to it that will have resounding effects. I’ll use my own situation as an example. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I have an 8:00am class that usually means I’m up between 7-7:30am. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t have class until 12:30pm. This morning freedom allowed me to sleep in extra, which I needed because I was staying up quite late the night before. Despite the extra sleep I got on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it never seemed to be enough, as I was still groggy and tired. That feeling crept into my M/W/F mornings as well and left me even more of a tired mess. The solution? First I had to prioritize sleep, even over school work. If I made my sleep a non-negotiable thing, the work would somehow, someway get done (this was also a great way to expose how much I was procrastinating).  Next, I had to make my wakeup time’s uniform, which meant I was going to wake up between 7-7:30am every day now. Your body and mind are creatures of habit, they like to eat, sleep and wake up at the same time every day if they can. By making my wake up time the same every day I successfully eliminated the morning grogginess that came with the previous alternating wake schedule. The final step was to adjust my bedtime accordingly to ensure I got adequate sleep. This step can also be hard at first because school and life can be busy and unpredictable. Assignments, work, and TV may beg you to stay up later than you should, but with practice you will find that all of those things can be fit in during other parts of the day. Sleep should be kept sacred. 

Trust me, this process is absolutely worth every minute you spend on it. Most people will tell you how important sleep is to them, yet so many still don’t prioritize it. As I learned, if your sleep isn’t in check, chances are it is affecting other areas of your life too. 

3) Eat Clean and Drink like you’re Broke

This could either be the easiest or hardest aspect of your life to fix because there are a few different types of people out there. There are people who eat like a champ but drink more vodka than water. There are people who eat like crap but don’t drink at all, and then there’s the special type of person who both eats like crap and has a full-time job drinking. Contrary to popular belief, a sort of Unicorn can exist too, meaning the person who eats healthy but drinks in moderation, still having a fun time. I’m not saying that everyone is destined to be one of these people, but they are accurate character summaries.    

I fell into a few of these categories throughout the years. I started out college in the eat everything in sight, drink everything in sight phase, which can partly be attributed to football. Next, after I realized how unsustainable that was for me I shifted into eating better but keeping my drinking the same. I was so confident that I could make it work, but I was fooling myself. Then began the slow transition into the wonderful world of moderation. It truly was possible to eat clean and drink smart. Hence the title of this section “Eat Clean and Drink like you’re Broke”, which is exactly what I’m proposing you do. Chances are that if you’re a college student you’re already on a strict budget. Most college students spend an inordinate amount of money on alcohol, which is their choice, but in most cases digs them into a hole. Waking up the morning after a night out and checking your bank account can be a scary thing when you don’t impose any limits on yourself. So the trick is to do just that, impose some limits, exercise some self-control and suck it up. Impose a budget on yourself. This budget may be a figment of your imagination, but do everything you can to make it seem real. This may not result in you going out less on the weekends, because you value your social life, but it will decrease the amount that you drink and money you spend. So on behalf of all the brains, livers and bank accounts out there, thank you for choosing the healthier way and keep fighting. 

More on eating clean, and staying sane in college in Part 2…

-GK


Before you go, I would love to hear your:

Own experience dealing with health in college

Questions

Feedback

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