Maintaining your physical wellbeing while at university
University students aren’t generally well known for leading “healthy” lifestyles. The whole mix of drinking several nights out a week, irregular sleeping patterns, unhealthy food choices due to low budget and general low activity levels in result of the previously listed things, is well known to all of us. So, the question is, with all the chaos of leading a student life in mind, how do you develop the right habits for taking care of your body to gain more energy, which you can then take advantage of when studying or doing other things.
I’m almost certain that nobody at university gets enough sleep – mainly because it’s a very easy thing to neglect. If you’re tired you can just down a coffee or an energy drink and then you don’t have to think about how tired you are. But getting enough sleep is crucial to your body’s functioning – it helps save energy, reorganise your thoughts and memories, rejuvenates your body by rebuilding certain tissues and nerve cells and removing toxins, as well as allowing your brain to rest for mental recovery. Not getting enough sleep regularly, leads to increased appetite, a slower metabolism, lower testosterone production in men, increased insulin resistance, lowered cognitive abilities, and weakening of the immune system. Is that scary enough for you?
Below are some strategies to help you get better sleep:
Control light levels – add a program to your computer that can control the blue light emitted from the screen (e.g. f.lux or Iris). Most new phones have this function built in. Turn off all electronic devices 30-40 minutes before bed (yes, I know you want to keep watching that show and texting your friend but is it REALLY more important than taking care of your own health?). Also, lower the light levels in your room before going to bed by, for example, using a bed lamp. Ideally you want to be able to completely black out your room from any light when you’re asleep, but if that’s not possible then using a sleep mask can be of great benefit too.
Routine – your body loves consistency and will seek homeostasis, so building a routine of getting up and going to bed at the same hours can bring massive benefits to the quality of sleep. Having a bedtime routine also helps prepare your body for sleep. E.g. turn off all electronics 40 mins before bed, tidy up room and prepare anything you need for lectures tomorrow, brush teeth and read a book for 20 mins. You will naturally start feeling ready for bed by doing this.
Limit caffeine – no surprise here. Completely stopping caffeine consumption is probably unrealistic for most university students, so instead try not go over 100mg per day. This equates to roughly 2 espressos. Also try not to consume any caffeine after 2-3pm or around 6-7 hours after waking up, as this will give enough time for your body to break down enough of it so that it doesn’t disturb the quality of your sleep.
Work through excess stress – stress can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Things like meditation, journaling, socialising in person more often, can all help release tension from your mind and body in the long term.
Magnesium supplementation – e.g. Magnesium citrate, can be a beneficial supplement for your sleep, even if you’re already getting enough of it from food! (nuts, green leafy vegetables, legumes).
The easiest way to increase your activity levels is to start with your step count. You want to aim for at least 10K steps per day. If you have to walk around campus between several lectures in a day, this should be easy to achieve. If you’re generally not an active person, start looking for opportunities to move more, such as walking instead of taking the bus (Reading is not that big, so you can easily walk to town instead of taking the 21 bus) and using the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator. I’ve found listening to an audiobook or podcast when walking longer distances has helped make the journey more enjoyable. Your phone likely has a step counter (though it usually overestimates), so make use of that. If you’re already hitting 10K, then try aiming for 15K or even 20K.
Next up is making a commitment to join a gym or sports club. If you hate talking to people join a gym and put your headphones on, and if you want to quickly make more friends then join a sports society (not to say gym people are antisocial, I’ve made many friends through fitness). Sports societies are easier to commit to, as you just have to choose something you like, show up, and there will already be coach/trainer there to take you through the session. The Sports Park at university also offers a range of group exercise classes (Yoga, Zumba, Circuit, Pilates, etc.), which may be more suitable to what you’re looking for, but also their group aspect can make them easier to commit to than say going to the gym.
If you’re going to the gym alone then start off small and simple, so you can build up the habit. 2 sessions a week, with 3-4 exercises per session should be enough to start off for those of you that may feel more unmotivated. Choose a simple full body program that includes basic compound lifts such as some forms of squats, bench movement, pullups, and deadlift/hip-hinge movement. You can do a lot of research on Google and YouTube to find something you like. I know this part may sound very male-centric, but girls please don’t be intimidated – there are many female fitness Youtubers that provide information relevant to different body types and goals!
The simple answer to better nutrition for anybody is – you want to mainly eat whole unprocessed foods. It sounds boring, I know. But over the long term, what you put into your body will have a big impact on how well it functions. One thing to remember is physical activity and good nutrition go hand in hand. When you drive a car (your body), you need fuel (what you eat) to power it AND to also steer the car (exercise) so you go in the right direction (having a physically fit body).
There are several factors that make up a good diet:
Aids your body’s recovery – meaning, it contains enough nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibres, etc.) needed for the different body processes, especially muscle recovery. You can get vitamins and minerals by eating more fruits and vegetables (which I’m certain most of the people reading this don’t!), and this doesn’t mean just eating a banana for breakfast and some cucumber on the side for dinner. There is such a huge variety to explore! You can get fibre from foods like grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables (again), wholemeal breads, etc.
Contains enough protein – this is very important if you are training regularly! Protein aids muscle tissue recovery after it has been broken down from training. It also keeps you more satiated than carbohydrates and fats. As well as this there have been studies showing that people who ate more protein when losing weight burned more fat and less muscle than those who ate less. If you are training regularly then aim for at least 1.6g per KG bodyweight. A higher protein consumption isn’t dangerous except for people with serious kidney problems.
Is sustainable – consistency is key in living healthy, so the point is to be able to maintain your healthy choices for as long as possible. A lot of people may try a low carb diet, and get good results from it, however sometime after ending their diet they go back to their old eating habits and reverse their progress. The idea of a good diet is to permanently change your eating habits in a positive way.
Is not too restrictive – you wouldn’t be able to stick to a way of eating if it was horrible and agonising. If you take a person that loves sweet food and completely forbid him to eat anything sweet, that person is likely to become very agitated. His desire to eat sweet food will increase significantly, because when something is taken away from us or a restriction is placed on it, we begin to desire that thing even more. So, a good way to work around it is to be 80% correct, 80% of the time – eat primarily whole, nutritious foods but give yourself some leeway to have those treats you really enjoy.
Sometimes, eating more healthily can bring along more frequent feelings of hunger or cravings for the foods you have been used to eating. Here are some strategies you can use to battle that:
Eat at regular times – eating at different times every day can lead to more hunger, higher cortisol levels and lowered insulin sensitivity. When you eat at the same times every day, your body becomes used to it and then doesn’t stimulate hunger during other hours.
Use smaller plates – this is a method to trick your brain into thinking that the portion you’re having is actually larger because it uses the size of the plate as a reference. This will lead you to feel satiated quicker and with less food.
Limit the variety in a dish – variety stimulates your appetite. The more different foods you see on a table, the more you will want to try all of them. Make your meals a bit simpler (not every dish has to be of Instagram quality!) by reducing the amount of different ingredients. E.g. only 1 source of protein, carbohydrate and fat respectively (except vegetables, get varied with those).
Be prepared ahead of time – this means meal prepping for 2-3 days ahead. It sounds tedious, but actually you will save a lot of time and mental resources in choosing what to eat and actually cooking the food. Make a plan of 4-5 or more recipes that you like, which have enough protein and vegetables in them, and cycle them around so that you don’t have to eat the same stuff for the whole year at uni.
In terms of actually shopping for groceries, I realise it can get expensive, especially in some supermarkets (*cough*co-op*cough*). Good places to buy your groceries for the week are Lidl, Aldi or Asda. These are a bit far from campus, however if one of your mates has a car you could go once per week to buy everything you need, and then you don’t have to think about food for the next 7 days. It also makes it easier to track your spending that way. You can also bulk order online with your housemates to have groceries delivered to your house! Another good place for fruit and vegetables is the Thursday market in 3sixty, where you can sometimes find very good deals on otherwise expensive produce.
Written by Gabriel Marchev