My College:
Health & Safety

3 Essential Health Topics to Discuss With Your Student

Marybeth Bock, MPH

The summer before a student first leaves for college is typically a time when parents try to initiate a lot of discussion about how to stay healthy and safe while away at school. Part of this is an attempt to alleviate some anxiety for us parents, and it’s also the desire to help our kids start off this new phase on the right foot.

For me quite honestly, many of my send-off talks with my kids were prompted by personal experiences from my own first year of college, when I was a typical (i.e., sometimes foolish) 18-year-old experiencing true freedom for the first time, and not always making the wisest choices when it came to my health and wellbeing.

In other words, I ate an abundance of crappy food, drank too much alcohol, didn’t make exercise a priority, and was sleep-deprived most of the year.

My fervent wish was that my kids wouldn't make the same mistakes — or at least not to the same extent.

These conversations can and should be ongoing throughout the college years. It's always the right season to talk about health and wellness.

The “Big 3” of College Health

For decades, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges have been improving strategies for keeping students physically and mentally healthy at school. Student health services have expanded, state-of-the-art recreation centers are now standard, and new student orientation often includes training on topics such as substance abuse, sexual health and consent, eating disorders, and common mental health challenges.

However, no matter how many helpful resources colleges offer students, taking personal responsibility for their own health is the best chance they have for staying well.

There are three key components that students should prioritize: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

Why Is Sleep So Crucial?

College students are notorious for being sleep deprived. Communal living arrangements, academic pressure, and FOMO (fear of missing out) are the main contributors. College students often find themselves in the dilemma of wanting to do it all, and not having enough hours in the day to get it all done. Typically sleep is the first self-care activity that suffers.

Physiologically, insufficient sleep experienced by college students has been linked to health issues such as insulin resistance, hypertension, diabetes, weight gain, and stress. Not surprisingly, there is evidence to suggest that “a substantial subset of college students self-medicate with alcohol, marijuana, or over-the-counter medications to help sleep.”

In addition, a large-scale research study published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine found that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with lower college GPA and that students who experienced sleep deprivation from their freshman to senior years had a lower chance of graduation than students who were not sleep deprived.

Can College Nutrition Affect Future Health?

Campus dining halls have come a long way in a generation when it comes to providing nutritious options, yet two factors still heavily contribute to a decline in students’ nutrition — fast food and alcohol.

Most college students tend to eat a diet that is high in fat and sodium and lacking in essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. In the American College Health Association’s Spring 2022 annual College Health Assessment, only 18 percent of college students reported eating three or more servings of fruit per day and just under 28 percent reported eating three or more servings of vegetables per day.

College students today have a decent understanding of what they should be eating and drinking, yet still make most of their nutrition choices based on convenience, taste, and price, not on the health implications. Unhealthy habits often lead to weight gain and according to research from the Journal of American College Health, “overweight college students are more likely to become overweight adults and are at a higher risk for diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and hypertension.”

Yes! Exercise Is Medicine

Along with healthy sleep hygiene and good nutrition, exercise habits can also deteriorate during the college years. Many kids who played sports in high school don't continue that team participation and fail to exercise regularly when they reach their college campus.

A report from Healthy Campus 2020 indicates that “only 46.2 percent of college students reported meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week.” Although research that's focused solely on physical activity in the college setting is limited, available data does show “a small, positive relationship between physical activity and academic success, and that physical activity can also reduce stress and anxiety in college students.”

Not only does regular exercise relieve stress, it's an immunity booster. And between flu season and new strains of COVID-19, our students can use all the help they can get! According to Richard J. Simpson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Departments of Nutritional Sciences, Pediatrics and Immunobiology at University of Arizona, "While exercise may not prevent us from becoming infected if exposed, it is likely that keeping active will boost our immune system to help minimize the deleterious effects of the [COVID-19] virus, ameliorate our symptoms, expedite our recovery times, and lower the likelihood that we can infect others with whom we come into contact."

Getting outside to exercise in the sunlight and fresh air also means increased levels of Vitamin D, known to be critical for immune function.

Healthy Behaviors Work Together

Parents have an opportunity to help our college students understand the interconnectedness of sufficient sleep, proper nutrition, and regular exercise. All three work in tandem to help a body function at its best, both physically and mentally.

When a student is sleep deprived, they're less likely to want to exercise on a regular basis and more likely to reach for energy drinks and sugary foods to help them stay awake during the day. Students who eat well and move more will also generally be sleeping better at night.

Whether the summer before college, during a regular phone call or FaceTime chat, or when they're home on break, take a little time to help your student reflect on their current health habits and talk about the “What-Ifs” of campus life:

  • If they know they’ll have early morning classes and have become accustomed to staying up late, help them create a tapering-off schedule where they can begin to shut off all screens and relax a little earlier each night for a couple of weeks. There are many free and low-cost apps available to help with relaxation, meditation and sleep hygiene — I like Calm and The Tapping Solution.
  • Take a look with your student at their school’s website and any online resources related to health and wellness. What fitness facilities and classes are available at the campus recreation center?
  • If they prefer to exercise on their own, suggest they run, walk, or bicycle with a friend. They might want to check out local yoga studios, and there are countless free yoga and workout videos on YouTube for every level of fitness activity.
  • If your student has let physical activity fall to the wayside, encourage them to start back up slowly with a daily half-hour walk. Maybe you make a date to walk at the same time and catch up with a phone call while you're at it!
  • In every campus dining hall, there are healthy and not-so-healthy options. Talk with your student about limiting fast food to an occasional pick, trying new foods, and how to integrate more healthy items into their diet by snacking on fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds.

Getting more sleep, eating a healthy diet, and regular exercise are all proven ways to boost our immune systems, reduce inflammation, and flush out stress hormones. College students who make these health behaviors a priority will be in the best position to stay healthy all fall, winter, and spring and have the best year possible on campus.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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