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3 Essential Health Topics to Discuss with Your Student Right Now

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 the “last summer at home” talks with my kids were prompted by personal experiences from my freshman 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 academic year.

My fervent wish was that my own kids would not make the same mistakes that I did — or at least not to the same extent.

This summer, with the added concerns surrounding COVID-19, student health will be at the forefront of every college parent’s thoughts as they contemplate dropping off their young adult at school.

The “Big 3” of College Health

For decades before COVID-19, 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 before they even start classes most students are required to undergo educational trainings 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 they should prioritize, particularly during this pandemic: 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 Fall 2019 annual College Health Assessment, only 18 percent of college students reported that they ate three or more servings of fruit per day and only 30 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 spring 2018 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 is 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.”

Getting regular exercise will be even more important for college students this year, as both a stress-relieving activity and as an immunity booster. According to Richard J. Simpson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Departments of Nutritional Sciences, Pediatrics and Immunobiology at the University of Arizona,

It is paramount that we find creative ways to exercise while maintaining social distancing and proper hygienic countermeasures. 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 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 this fall, in the sunlight and fresh air, also means less time spent indoors around others and increased levels of Vitamin D, known to be critical for immune function.

Healthy Behaviors Work Together

We have an opportunity right now 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 items like 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.

Before Your Student Departs for School

Take a little extra time now to observe their current health habits and talk with them about the “What-Ifs” of campus life this fall.

  • If they know they’ll have early morning classes, either in-person or online, and they’ve become accustomed to staying up very late these past few months, help them create a tapering off schedule where they can begin to shut off all screens and relax a little earlier each night for the next 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 specifically the re-entry updates surrounding health and wellness.
  • The level of COVID-19 community spread within the county where the school is located may dictate whether recreation facilities will be open when students return. If gym workouts and indoor group fitness classes are what your student was used to, brainstorm ideas of how they can start, or continue, exercise habits that are safer during these months of physical distancing, such as walking, running, swimming, biking or joining up with a couple of friends for outdoor yoga sessions. There are countless free workout videos on YouTube for every level of fitness activity.
  • If your student has let physical activity fall to the wayside these past few months (as many of us have), encourage them to start back up slowly now with just a daily half-hour walk. Offer to walk with them and think of it as the perfect opportunity to talk about their hopes and concerns for the coming year. Focus on listening during these sessions — let them release some anxiety, or maybe surprise you with their optimism!
  • Campus dining is another student experience that will be completely different than it was just six months ago. Salad bars and buffet-style offerings with communal serving utensils aren't coming back any time soon — grab-and-go and pick-up options will be the norm. As always, though, there will be healthy and not-so-healthy food choices.
  • Talk with your student about what they may encounter in the dining hall, limiting fast food to an occasional pick, trying new foods, and how they can supplement healthy items into their diet with grocery store delivery of favorite fruits, veggies and snacks like nuts and seeds. Check out Amazon Fresh as another option for sending healthy food to your student if you are able.

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. This fall, college students who make these health behaviors a priority will be in the best position to stay healthy — and hopefully experience fewer severe symptoms should they go through a COVID-19 infection.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two college students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as an Army wife, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites.
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