Independently Healthy: 8 Tips for New College Students

College is an exciting time for young people, but it can quickly become a negative experience if you forget to take care of your health.

Ty Bristol, MD, pediatrician and medical director of UNC Pediatrics of Panther Creek, says college is a lot of fun but also something to approach thoughtfully.

“It’s really a sacred time and a wonderful opportunity,” Dr. Bristol says. “You will have a great time, but I think we should enter it as a serious endeavor.”

Staying healthy means you can do your best academically and socially. Dr. Bristol offered these eight tips.

1. Organize your studies around a regular sleep pattern.

Be wary of all-nighters and what they can tell you about your time management, Dr. Bristol says.

“If you are doing all-nighters often, it means you’re not being efficient with your study time,” Dr. Bristol says.

Schedule your study time and your sleep. Whenever possible, study for tests or write a paper over days or weeks, not all at once. (Yes, that’s easier said than done.) Trying to keep to a regular sleep schedule in college isn’t easy, but shooting for about the same bedtime and same wake-up time every day will help. Your brain will work hard in college, and it needs consistent, quality sleep.

2. Make unhealthy food the exception instead of the rule.

The “freshman 15” weight gain isn’t inevitable, Dr. Bristol says. If you start your first year trying to make healthy choices about what you eat, those habits can stick throughout college.

In the dining hall, there will be healthy and not-so-healthy options. If you can make healthy choices the norm, you will be happier in the long run—not just because of weight gain, but because you need fresh, healthy food to feel your best.

“Junk food once in a while is OK, but having pizza every night in the dining hall is not healthy,” Dr. Bristol says.

You probably already know this, but it bears repeating: Focus on lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, and whole grains. Try to keep dessert to one or two nights a week rather than every day.

3. Hit the gym.

Physical exercise has many health benefits. Not only will exercise make you stronger, it will make you feel better in your body. It increases confidence and focus—all important for a college student. It’s also been proven to improve sleep quality and patterns.

“Exercise is also a reliable way to relieve stress and tension,” Dr. Bristol says.

Physical activity also increases your metabolism, which helps combat potential weight issues.

Being a student likely gets you access to your college’s fitness center. Use it. You might make friends while you’re improving your health. If a gym isn’t available or isn’t your thing, just get outside and walk, run or bike. You can also join an intramural or club sport as another way to exercise and socialize.

4. Get a checkup before you head off to college.

Before you begin this new chapter of your life, stop in to see your primary care physician.

You’re about to come in contact with many people, in class and also if you’re living on campus in a dorm. Make sure your immunizations for vaccine-preventable diseases are up to date. That might mean catching up on any missed childhood vaccines, such as those for Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis), HPV, meningococcal disease, and hepatitis A and B. You’ll definitely want to get a flu shot—you don’t want to be super sick away from home if you can help it.

College students need to start taking care of their own health, rather than relying on Mom and Dad to keep track of things.

“Make sure any medications you normally take—allergy and asthma meds, your EpiPen if you have food allergies, et cetera—are up to date, packed and ready to go,” Dr. Bristol says.

5. Get to know the health facilities at your college.

Most college campuses have a health care center for students that treats everything from the common cold to sexually transmitted infections. Find out how to make an appointment and get to the facility, before you’re sick. Look up the closest emergency department and urgent care clinic, too—you never know what might happen.

You may be able to receive needed screenings, like Pap tests for cervical cancer, at the health center, as well as mental health services. This is an important resource for college students, Dr. Bristol says. “They’ll be the bridge between you and your primary care doctor.”

6. Think about risks and consequences.

There’s no use being naive: A fair amount of underage drinking (often to excess) goes on in college, as well as drug use and unsafe sexual activity. Dr. Bristol tells his patients to think carefully when they’re considering behavior that could change their lives forever in a negative way—or even end their lives. Alcohol use, for example, carries the risk of everything from school discipline to death from alcohol poisoning or a fall or traffic crash.

“We’ve all heard tragedies about folks that went off to college, so try to avoid some of the high-risk behaviors,” Dr. Bristol says.

If you have questions about safer sex practices, your college health center should be able to help.

7. Watch out for changes in your body and mind.

If there is any significant change in how you feel, either physically or mentally, seek help at the college health center.

Whether your weight is fluctuating, you’re always tired or you can’t stabilize your moods, it’s always best to get checked out by a health professional.

Your late teenage years and early 20s can be a time when mental illness starts to manifest. The stress and tension that comes along with starting college can make things worse.

“Getting treatment when you start to notice changes in your mood or mental health can make all the difference in your ability to thrive at school,” Dr. Bristol says.

8. Stay on top of your chronic disease.

If you have a chronic condition, anything from inflammatory bowel disease or asthma to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it’s important to make sure that the many distractions of college don’t throw you off your treatment.

“Sometimes you get to college, and you’re so busy doing other things that you forget about the therapy that you were doing at home. This could lead to a flare-up of one of these chronic conditions that then will affect your ability to do your schoolwork and to do it well,” Dr. Bristol says.

Stay in touch with your physician at home and a provider at your college health center.

Remember, the better care you take of yourself, the better you’ll feel, the more you’ll learn and the more fun you’ll have.

 Need a checkup? Find a physician near you.