A Complete Guide to Staying Healthy, Fit, and Happy in College

Becca Cornell
May 4, 2021

Heading to college involves a lot of really big life changes. For many students, one of the biggest changes is leaving home. In addition to everything else, that means away from nutritious, home-cooked meals to lots of fast food grabbed on the run. Making it incredibly difficult to stick with those healthy habits.   Your exercise routine will be affected too. It’s usually the first thing to go when your schedule’s crammed with classes, assignments, a part-time job, and hanging out with friends.   Your mental health is also a key component of your overall health and wellness, so be sure to factor it in as you're trying to stay healthy and fit.   If you’re determined to make healthy choices while in college, try some of these great health and fitness tips this coming school year. Your mental health and grades will thank you.   Photo by Christopher Campbell

How to achieve healthy eating habits

Certainly, healthy eating practices apply to college students. You still need to get enough protein. You still need to consider portion control. You still need to remember calories in versus calories out. It's just that this balance can be harder to achieve while in school because of more temptations and lack of structure.  

In the dining hall

Your school’s dining hall can be both your best friend and biggest enemy. While a buffet may seem counterproductive to a healthy and fit lifestyle, it actually gives you more than massive amounts of food. It gives you options.   That means you can make healthy choices – if you know what you’re looking for. Opt for proteins that are baked not fried, for example. Look for fresh or steamed vegetables over those served in a cream sauce. And if you balk at the idea of carbs, remember that carbohydrates themselves are not the culprit. Those that are heavily processed, refined, or empty (like white rice) are the ones that can cause trouble.   More >> Here are some tips on how to navigate the dining hall    Another easy and quick tip for making healthier choices in the dining hall is to opt for water instead of soda or juice. Both are full of empty calories and sugar that will make you crash.  

On campus

Being on campus is great because there is free food and free drinks at nearly every turn. From your science club’s free pizza to events with lots of Dr. Pepper and maybe even a little rum, it can be great for your wallet but not so great for your waistline.   The key again is to find the healthiest options. For instance, you can usually find veggie trays and fruit salad at most events in addition to the pizza. While in no way should you feel like you have to choose veggies over pizza every time, you can limit your slice intake and bulk up your vegetable servings.   fruit plate on a tabletop at an on-campus event Photo by @inga_zaiat via Twenty20

Healthy eating on a budget

If you’re in student housing and trying to eat healthy while on a budget, talk to your roommates. You can share the cost of fresh produce, for example. The advantage here is that you waste less (it can be hard to finish all the fruits and vegetables yourself before they go bad) and you both save money.   Buying cheaper protein sources is another great way to save money. Meat is expensive, but nutritionally-dense Greek yogurt, eggs, peanut butter, tuna, and black beans are all great sources of protein that won’t break your budget.   More >> Ever thought about going keto? Check out how college students can try the keto diet on a budget.   If you live in a residence hall, you should have some of those cheap protein sources on hand. This helps if you’re hungry and too lazy to hike to the cafeteria. A small fridge will hold some fresh fruit and vegetables too.   For quick snacks, keep trail mix, nuts, and granola on hand. These are a good source of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein, and they don’t spoil easily.   Whether at home or in the dorm, keep the junk food to a minimum. If it’s not there, you can’t snack on it!   Pro tip >> At the beginning of each semester, go to a wholesale store like Costco or BJ's and stock up on nutritionally dense nuts, granola, and other snacks   college man at gym taking a break between sets Photo by @daphneemarie via Twenty20

Find time for fitness

In addition to good nutrition, finding the time to work out and exercise is important. Exercise not only keeps you physically fit but is also proven to benefit your brain and reduce your risk of depression and anxiety. Plus, it helps you sleep better, something most college students could benefit from.  

How to maintain a fitness schedule

The first step to keeping active in college is to find your own and maintain a fitness schedule. In terms of what schedule you should keep, that is entirely dependent on your own preferences and your class schedule. You should do what works best for you and what you’re most likely to stick to.   The easiest way to do this is to set simple, yet actionable goals. Setting goals also helps you feel accomplished and gives you benchmarks on how well you're doing. The real key to goal setting is to not set a long-term goal   More >> Workouts you can do anywhere that don't require equipment   If you’re not a morning person, don’t try to force yourself to wake up at dawn. Chances are you’ll just roll over and go back to sleep instead of doing that five-mile run. It’s important to design your schedule to your own preferences or you won’t end up working out at all, defeating the purpose.   Your class schedule isn't the only one you need to watch. You’ll want to make sure your exercise schedule generally avoids those times you’re usually busy. If you go out with friends Thursdays and Fridays, don’t schedule workouts for those evenings. Try to fit them in earlier in the day, or make sure you get some time in the gym on alternate days.   Photo by Luke Chesser

How to stay active beyond just working out 

Even if you do try to do your best to avoid conflict when creating your workout schedule, chances are, especially in college, you’re going to have to cancel some exercise times. That’s okay! While it’s important to prioritize your health and fitness, it’s not healthy to obsess over it or give up family, friends, or good grades in order to achieve it perfectly.   So when you do pick the party over push-ups, try other methods of staying active. Walk places, bike instead of bus, take stairs instead of escalators or elevators. Play pick-up games of basketball or tennis with friends.   Always, always, always prioritize good sleep habits if you know you'll be pushing your physical and mental limits.  

Exercise fun around campus

Get involved and participate in exercise classes offered by your school. Many colleges offer a variety of classes including spin, Zumba, other dance classes, HIIT workouts, and even CrossFit.    Not only will this give you the opportunity to get active, but it’s also a great way to get involved with others around campus and meet new friends. Surrounding yourself with new friends who like to be active can be a great way to naturally get more activity in your life.   

Pay attention to your mental health

College presents many changes rather abruptly. You might have gone from living with your parents in a house with your own bedroom where you could shut the door anytime you want. Now you are living in close quarters, sharing the same four walls as your roommate(s), and you don't have your parents watching your every move and telling you to stop bingewatching Netflix and do your homework.   Though some of this sounds great (YAY freedom!) it can also be a bit overwhelming.  Here are some ways to cope with these new feelings.  

Maintain a strong relationship with your roommate

Before I get ahead of myself, you don't have to be best friends with your roommate(s) by any means, sometimes it doesn't work out that way for good reason. You will either pick a roommate or you will be assigned a roommate, but both options can come with consequences if not cared for properly.   A strong relationship really means you have good communication. You should be able to openly speak up about how you feel in your home at any point. This requires you to do a bit of meta-communicating or discussing how you will handle communication.   Make sure everyone is on the same page. If you have a problem, you should understand how to approach that problem so that it doesn't come off passive-aggressive or as an attack. The best way to communicate and get along is to understand how each person handles conflict and resolution to find a common ground.   Finding this communication cadence right out the gate can ensure that you won't bottle up your feelings and have a blowout. It can also help bring calmness and peace to your space, not having to worry about your every move and bothering the person you're living with. You know that if they have a problem they will speak up and vice versa.   More >> Here is an in-depth guide on how to survive living with a roommate  two college girl friends talking and confiding in each other Photo by @criene via Twenty20

Never be afraid to talk to people

If your body is healthy and fit, but your mind isn't, well you are missing the most important aspect of health and wellness. It's essential to put attention and care on your mental health as well as your body.   Depression and anxiety are extremely prevalent among college students and there's certainly a good reason. As a young adult, navigating through this transition period that also places a lot of stress on you mentally and physically is bound to present itself one way or another.   Finding people you can confide in can be helpful. Whether you find a peer, a family member, or a faculty member to talk to, talk to someone you know cares about your well-being. They can help talk you through it or guide you in the right direction.   Never feel like you can't seek professional help from a therapist. Therapists for college students act more like life coaches and can help you find a good balance and success in your life both in college and beyond. Therefore confiding in a therapist could be a huge step towards the greater meaning of your life.   Always keep in mind that health is not skin deep, mental health is just as, if not more important than physical health.  

Keep your finances in check

Financial health in college may sound like an oxymoron, but there is a way to make sure you're keeping your finances under control even with the limited means you may have.   The unique environment of college has some people living on pennies...and others on their parent's credit card. If you are the former and your friends are the latter, first, don't judge yourself. The important thing to remember is that they simply might be able to do and buy things you cannot. Don't try to measure up to impress them or you'll end up even more broke.   Use this time to get good at budgeting your money. If you have only a certain amount of money to last the semester that came from your financial aid refund, you want to make sure that money lasts you all semester. You can do this by building a concrete budget and following it. You can also be mindful of what's essential and what isn't.   There are some things you'll still want to do that you just might need to get creative with. For example, if you're going on a date, find a budget-friendly option. Sometimes these are more fun than fancy dinners anyways. Make it work for you and try not to dwell too much on being broke. Some day that will change you just have to be patient now.  

Don't put too much pressure on yourself

It's easy to feel obligated to get good grades, workout, eat healthy, have a job, and maintain an active social life, but this can really put a damper on your happiness. Especially when you're scrolling social media and it feels like everyone is finding success balancing it all. There are lots of other ways to build self-confidence!   Don't let what you see on social media impact how you live your life. Chances are, not many people are posting about the bad they're going through, so your feeds get flooded with only people living their best life. If you know this is something that you struggle with, try doing a social media detox and put these thoughts out of sight and out of mind.   Overall, you should focus on a strong balance of all of these things. Achieving balance is just a matter of prioritizing what's important one week vs another. Rather than try and do all the things all the time and risk burnout, you can actually maintain your life in a meaningful way.   For example, if you have a big exam coming up, you should shift your focus to studying and eating nourishing foods. Getting in movement and fueling your body impacts how you perform mentally so couple these together and see how it works.   Once you take your exam, you can shift your priorities the following week to include your social life and things you enjoy doing.   Finding a balance that you can maintain also requires you to release any judgments you have. No one can do everything all the time so carving out what's important based on the circumstances will put you in a much happier place and help you avoid putting too much pressure on yourself!   More >> What every college student should know going into their freshman year