Keeping healthy at university isn’t always simple. Study, work and social commitments can make maintaining a balanced lifestyle tough.
But it’s still important, however hectic things may seem at uni, to look after your health. In addition to preventing illness, keeping fit and eating well can help you to be more productive and, in turn, help you study better and improve your academic performance.
And, as we’ll explain here, following a healthy lifestyle doesn’t necessarily have to cost you more (it can actually save you money in some respects).
So with fresher’s week in full swing, and the official start of the new semester just around the corner, in this post we’ll discuss what measures new and existing students can take to make their uni lifestyle a healthy one:
Alcohol: keep it sensible
Recently, we wrote about how attitudes to alcohol are changing, particularly among young adults. Statistics have shown that more young adults are choosing to abstain from alcohol, and this has to be at least in part due to increasing awareness of the various health effects.
However, these statistics also show that when young people do drink, on their heaviest day they tend to exceed the consumption levels of other age groups; which illustrates that binge drinking is still a prominent practice among younger adults.
Freshers week is the first experience many will have of university life and living away from home; and traditionally, the consumption of (often too much) alcohol has featured prominently in this. However, even if someone plans to ‘take it easy’ in the weeks to follow, consuming alcohol every night is certainly not a healthy practice to maintain for an entire week.
When it comes to alcohol, there isn’t a ‘safe’ limit. But keeping consumption to sensible levels can drastically reduce the chances of it impacting your health. (Being sensible with alcohol will also save you a lot of money.)
The lower risk guidelines for alcohol are:
- less than 14 units per week (spread over three or more days if you regularly drink 14 units per week)
- with at least two alcohol free days per week
And it’s advisable to stick to these guidelines as much as you can.
If you do have a heavy night, make sure you give your body a chance to recover, by having at least 48 hours off before drinking any more alcohol.
Sleep: stick to a regular pattern
For many students, irregular work and study hours are a fact of university life. Some may have lectures early in the morning or in the evening, or have late night commitments due to a part-time job. Some weeks may be more ‘study-dense’ than others, and social events may lead to the occasional late night too.
Living in halls of residence or shared accommodation can sometimes present obstacles to sleeping soundly as well. Other residents might keep opposite hours, and lots of people living in a small space inevitably means that there will always be some kind of party going on somewhere.
Maintaining good sleeping habits (or ‘sleep hygiene’) has several health benefits. It helps us to concentrate and stay focussed on our work and study, and helps to keep our immune systems functioning well. In the long term, some studies have suggested that good sleeping habits can lower our risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
So, wherever possible, try to follow these sleep hygiene practices:
- get between 7 and 9 hours per night
- keep your sleeping hours as regular as possible, avoiding going to bed too late at night, or lying in too late in the day
- avoid eating too close to bedtime, ideally having your evening meal at least 2-3 hours before going to bed
- try not to use your phone, tablet or computer for at least an hour before going to bed
- invest in a pair of earplugs, or a sleeping mask
- keep caffeine and alcohol intake to sensible limits
- if you’re busy, make a to do list for the next day before you go to bed, so that you don’t stay awake thinking about the tasks you need to do.
Wherever possible, it’s a good idea to have a minimum of one completely ‘free’ day a week, where you don’t work or study, and have time to relax. This enables you to fully wind down and rest, and helps to ensure that your study days are more productive.
Bulk cooking: cheaper and healthier
Eating out and ordering takeaway are tempting options when we don’t have any food at home. And if we’re short on time, it might seem more economical when shopping in the supermarket to pick up a few ready meals.
But restaurant meals and takeaways are likely to contain more salt, sugar and saturated fat (and be much more expensive) than meals we can cook ourselves. And even though ready meals may be convenient and, at first glance, appear to be cheaper than cooking a meal at home, they often don’t provide as much nutritional value.
Bulk cooking meals from scratch and eating them over the course of a couple of days is a cheap, and often healthier option. Using basic ingredients enables you to exercise control over how much salt, sugar and oil goes into what you eat. Having a cooked meal ready to reheat in the fridge also reduces the temptation to pick up the phone and order out.
When bulk cooking, here are some rules to remember:
- Invest in some sturdy, food safe, sealable containers or tupperware
- Whatever food you put aside for another day should be cooled within two hours
- Divide your meals up into portions for easy freezing and defrosting
- Avoid bulk cooking hot meals which aren’t suitable for reheating, such as rice and shellfish
- If you’re keeping leftovers in the fridge, eat them within two days
- Ensure food is hot all the way through after reheating (it should remain at 70C for two minutes, and be steaming)
- Don’t reheat food more than once
- Only defrost what you plan to eat, and don’t freeze food more than once
- Make sure any frozen food has fully defrosted in the fridge before reheating
- Fully defrosted leftovers should be eaten within 24 hours
Impulse buys and supermarket snack promos can often work against our healthy eating plan, and our wallets, so when food shopping you should always try to:
- know what you’ve already got at home
- plan your meals beforehand
- make a list and stick to it
- go on a full stomach
- go when it’s quieter (so you have time to find the ingredients you need and check prices, rather than just picking up the closest to hand).
Exercise: make time to do it
It isn’t always simple finding time to exercise, particularly during busy study weeks. But regular physical activity, as well as helping you to stay healthy and alert, can be of benefit to your productivity; so even if you’re going through a dense study period, it’s a good idea to keep it up as much as you can.
The NHS recommends undertaking a minimum of around two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity (such as swimming, brisk walking or riding a bike) per week; or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (jogging, running or playing a team sport like football or rugby) per week. In addition to this, they also advise strength training on two or more days per week.
Broken down across the week this only amounts to half an hour a day, with two days off; which even during hectic study periods should be manageable for most.
One particular advantage of being a student is that gyms, swimming pools and fitness clubs are seldom far away from campus; and they will often offer membership at discounted rates.
Joining a university sports team can also provide some added motivation to participate in exercise regularly, particularly on those weeks where you feel less inclined to train on your own; as can joining a club which undertakes physical activities regularly (such as walking, hiking or cycling).
Campus noticeboards and university social media will often have information on events and how you can join teams, clubs and societies.
Staying well: hygiene and your health
It’s difficult to perform at our best academically if we’re under the weather, so taking measures to avoid illness is crucial.
One thing to keep in mind when living in halls of residence or shared accommodation is that it is much easier for infections to spread. As we’ve covered, good sleep practices, limiting alcohol intake and getting regular exercise can help to keep your immune system working at its best.
But good personal and environmental hygiene is vital too. Keeping your own living space as well as communal areas clean and tidy is likely to lower your risk of picking up an infection. This includes vacuum cleaning floors, sanitising kitchen and bathroom surfaces and fixtures regularly, laundering clothes regularly and washing towels and bedding every week or so.
Furthermore, having less untidy clutter around will also serve to limit distractions when you’re settling down to study, and help you focus.
Of course, many people will pick up colds and flu from time to time while at university. In most cases, these tend to go away with a few days rest and drinking plenty of fluids. But if you notice any unusual symptoms, or if your symptoms become serious, see your doctor.