why exercise is important for your body, mind and spirit
By Mirella P. Auchus, Ph.D., MBA, Licensed Psychologist
Going to college represents a major life transition and developmental step into adulthood! There are multitudes of wonderful and exciting changes and opportunities that await you. You will be meeting people and living on your own with no curfews, no one to tell you when to eat, what to eat, when to study and when to wake up in the morning! In essence, you will be in charge of your schedule and your life. At this point you may be thinking… ”exercise…what for…I feel good and I’m not overweight” or “there is so much else to do…I have to study and get good grades. I won’t have time.” Let’s explore how exercise can actually benefit your collegiate life in a number of important ways: socially, academically, physically, cognitively and emotionally.
“The Freshman 15” In 2005, the American College Health Association1 surveyed 20,000 college students and found the following: only 6.9% of students reported eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day and only 44% engaged in 30 minutes or more of vigorous exercise at least 3 days per week. While you have probably heard that college students are likely to gain 15 lbs. during their freshman year, most actually gain an average of 4 lbs. during their first year of college.2 However, this weight increase is about 6 times more than an average adult gains in one year.3 Studies indicate that most weight gain occurs in the first semester of college.2,4 In fact, the greatest decline in physical activity occurs in adolescence and young adulthood.5 In another study of female college freshmen, it was determined that most freshmen women gained weight.6 This was despite the fact that dietary intake did not increase but actually decreased. A reduction in physical activity resulted in this weight gain and fat mass increased while fat-free mass decreased.
Start with a Plan So why is this information important? As a freshman college student, you have the opportunity to pave the path to a healthy life by taking the opportunity to develop healthy habits, which will serve you the rest of your life, as opposed to developing unhealthy habits that may result in lifelong weight and health problems. This means coming up with a PLAN before you go to college. Your plan might be to take a 15 minute walk each day before class, attend an aerobics class on campus three days per week or perhaps join the track club or soccer team. When you first arrive at college you might start with daily 15-minute walks until you explore other venues for physical activities that are more appealing to you!
Physical Health It is well known that physical activity is a very important factor for maintaining your physical health. Regular exercise helps prevent cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol. It also plays an important role in diabetes prevention. Exercise helps you maintain strong bones and muscles and prevents osteoporosis. The stronger you are, the more you can do!
Social Networking Most colleges and universities have excellent campus exercise facilities that are readily accessible to students. Or, you may want to participate in a team sport or join a yoga or zumba class. Going to a gym, attending regular exercise classes or participating in a team sport opens up a lot of opportunities to make friends, and develop and expand your social network.
Academics Did you know exercise might actually help you get better grades? A study conducted at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan found that students who participated in regular physical activity had higher GPAs. In order to explore if the reason for this correlation was simply that high achievers were more likely to transfer their high achieving tendencies to exercise, the researchers controlled for several variables including gender, time spent studying, subject studied etc. What did they find? Students who exercised vigorously several days per week had higher GPAs!
Emotional Wellbeing Research has found that there has been an increase in stress among college students in the US. Stress can be due to difficulty with time management, financial issues, academics, relationships, etc. This is significant because if stress continues for a prolonged period of time it can result in physical and psychological problems. Fortunately, exercise has been found to reduce stress and anxiety as well as decrease tension, improve sleep and self esteem.7 Furthermore, research also indicates that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression.8,9,10,11 Exercise may even have a preventative effect. One study found that people who exercised were less likely to develop depression or anxiety over the next five years.7
Cognitive Health Studies have found that physical activity has a positive effect on cognitive functioning in adults.12,13 Furthermore, exercise may positively impact neuroplasticity and cognition which enable an individual to adapt and respond to new situations.14
Mind-Body Balance Your college years represent a time for many changes. You possibly will move to another city or state, and live in a new place where you don’t know anyone. You are completely responsible for yourself! You are trying to figure out what you need to do to be successful! Although this is an exciting and wonderful chapter in your life, it certainly can create some stress and present some life challenges. College dining halls abound with food selections…often, there are all-you-can-eat buffets offering healthy, as well as not so healthy foods. The accessibility to alcohol and drugs may create a vulnerability to frequent or habitual use. Establishing a regular routine for physical activity can keep you mentally grounded…so you don’t stray too far from maintaining healthy habits for your body and mind.
Think of exercise as a “health maintenance/disease prevention” tool. Exercise is consistent, predictable and familiar, and gives you a sense of accomplishment. It serves to establish some routine in your life, at a time when you are in transition and have not yet established a daily routine. Overall, it gives you a sense of control when much of your new environment may feel beyond your control! Exercise can provide structure, promote physical and mental health and self care, and help you be successful in your transition into adulthood!
TIPS FOR FRESHMEN
1 Keep healthy snacks in your dorm room for quick breakfasts, lunches or evening snacks
2 Eat three meals per day – don’t skip
3 Make an initial plan for regular daily exercise before you get to college
4 Go online and check out the fitness facility at your college. Then, check it out in person during orientation – set this as a priority (It’s easy to do before the work begins)!
5 After surveying your college fitness facility, fitness classes offered, sport teams, etc., revisit your initial plan for exercise and decide what kind of physical activity you will commit to and incorporate into your college life.
6 Place your “workout” gear in a convenient, visible and accessible place.
7 Plan an “alternative” activity that you can do just in case you wake up late… it’s raining…or the exercise facility closes early, etc. For instance: a brief jog or brisk walk around your dorm or doing a home-exercise routine while listening to music.
8 Do some form of physical exercise, stretching, jumping rope, etc., even if you only have 5 minutes.
Dr. Auchus is a clinical psychologist who specializes in exercise program design and motivational strategies. She is also an American Council on Exercise certified trainer. Dr. Auchus’ services include customized exercise programs, coaching on motivational strategies and cognitive techniques to enhance exercise adherence.
Sources: 1 The American College Health Association (ACHA) (2005). Journal of American College Health, 53(5),199-210.; 2 Levitsky, D.A.,Halbmaier, C.A.,& Mrdjenovic, G. (2004). The freshman weight gain: A model for the study of the epidemic of obesity. International Journal of Obesity, 28, 1435-42.; 3 Mihalopoulos, N.L.,Auinger, P.,& Klein, J.D. (2008). The Freshman 15: Is it real? Journal of American College Health, 56, (5) 531-33.; 4 Holm-Denoma, et al. (2008). The “freshman fifteen” (the “freshman five actually): Predictors and possible explanations. Health Psychology, 27(1), Suppl.,53-59.; 5 Stephen T., Jacobs, D.R., & White, C.C. (1985). A descriptive epidemiology of leisure-time physical activity. Public Health Reports, 100(2), 147-58.; 6 Butler S.M. et al. (2004). Change in Diet, Physical Activity, and Body Weight in Female College Freshman. Am J Health Behav, 27(1): 24-32.; 7 Anxiety and depression Association of America (ADDA), Silver Springs Maryland.; 8 Stathpoulou G. et al. (2006). Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantification and Qualitative Review. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, Vol. 13(2), 179-193.; 9 Ray U.S. et al. (2001). Effect of Yogic Exercises on Physical and Mental Health of Young Fellowship Course Trainees. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol.Jan;45(1):37-53.; 10 Hassman, P. et al. (2000). Physical Exercise and Psychological well-being: A Population Study in FInland. Prev Med, Jan; 30(1):17-25.; 11 Blumenthal J.A., et al. (1999). Effects of Exercise Training on Older patients with Major Depression, Archives of International Medicine, Vol. 159(19), 2349-2356.; 12 Kramer, A.F., Erickson, K.I & Colcombe, J.(2006). Exercise, cognition, and the aging brain. Journal of Applied Physiology.; 13 van Prag, H. (2009). Exercise and the brain: something to chew on. Trends in Neuroscience, 32(5), 283-290.; 14 Hotting K. & Roder B (2013). Beneficial Effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition. Neuroscience Biobehav Rev, SO149-7634(13)00101-2.