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Top Tips to Stay Healthy at University

Starting university is a big step in any young person's life, as you may move out of your parents home and fend for yourself in student accommodation. Studying away from home provides the chance to improve your lifestyle and learn more about how to make more informed decisions on your health and well-being.

Here, we'll discuss some of the most important steps you need to take in order to stay healthy while in higher education.

Sleep

Sleep is exceptionally important as a student. While it may take time to adjust to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, you will reap the benefits of a good night sleep when you turn up to your lecture refreshed and wide awake.

Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that the human brain can retain information much better before sleep. So, it may be worth dipping into your reading list before bed for the best effect. As a bonus, reading a book - as opposed to reading on a screen - can help your mind to wind down and prepare for deep, restorative sleep.

Planning meals

Planning is extremely important as a student. With multiple essays, assignments and side projects to manage, you'll struggle to keep your head above the amount of work without good planning and preparation. It may be useful to plan your diet, too.

While it sounds boring to plan your meals, it gives you the opportunity to experience new flavours, learn culinary skills and save money while doing so. There are books dedicated to cooking with only a handful of ingredients or just one particular ingredient such as chicken or rice.

When planning meals, consider a shopping list. Shopping lists have a number of benefits:

  • Making more informed decisions on healthy food

  • Organising your shopping to reduce stress

  • Saving money by only buying what you need.

Make sure to include fresh fruit and vegetables, natural sources of protein, foods rich in cis fatty acids and complex carbohydrates which you can cook in a variety of ways.

There are few places as diverse as a university campus, so you may want to ask your peers for recipe. If your halls have a communal kitchen, you could take it in turns to cook for one another.

If you're not a good cook, ask a newly found friend to help you out or assist them with slicing, stirring and seasoning the food.

Carry a healthy snack

Cravings are common, especially when sat enduring a long lecture. If you're the kind of person who gets peckish easily, keep a healthy snack on hand to pick you up. Choices for healthy snacks can include:

  • Fresh fruit (especially bananas, which are nature's brain food)

  • Kale, beetroot, carrot or sweet potato crisps

  • Low fat yoghurt

  • Low sugar cereal bars

  • Sticks of celery or carrot with low fat dip

As a general rule of thumb, complex carbohydrates such as whole-grains, and snacks packed with fibre and vitamins are ideal. Stay away from processed sugars and sweets, which can affect your concentration.

Don't skip meals

The student lifestyle can be hectic, as you rush between lectures across campus. But you should always allocate some time in your day to eat 3 nutritional meals. Wake up earlier to accommodate a suitable breakfast into your morning routine and consider taking a nutritional packed lunch.

There will most likely be places on campus for you to sit down with friends and enjoy a meal. While on-campus cafes and canteens - perhaps even your student's union bar - will be your first consideration for eating, don't forget that surrounding eateries might offer a discount for students.

If you find you haven't got enough time in the morning, try swapping a bowl of cereal for a home-made fruit smoothie. Blend up fruit with some low-fat yoghurt or milk for a thick, creamy and refreshing smoothie. Try blending some banana, peanut butter (or substitute), natural yoghurt, low-fat milk and honey for a sweet and delicious protein-packed smoothie.

During the evenings, when you might be deep into studying or writing an essay, you may not have the motivation or the time to prepare a proper meal. If this is the case, you could grab a bowl of wholegrain cereal such as bran flakes, oats or wholemeal toast. These carbohydrates offer a source of slow releasing energy which keeps your brain fuelled. Combine these with fruit - fresh, dried or frozen - and unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils for a nutritious meal.

It's important to note that you shouldn't substitute every meal with a smoothie, shake, cereal or protein bar, but it can be a saving grace if you don't have the time to sit down and eat a balanced meal.

Drink plenty of water

Dehydration can affect your mental agility and alertness, so it's important to drink plenty of water. It shouldn't matter whether you drink bottles of water, tap water or water from a campus fountain. Keep a bottle of water with you on hand to quench your thirst and provide your body with the fluids it needs to function properly.

While energy drinks and coffee can give you a boost when studying for long periods, you should manage your consumption of caffeinated beverages as they can lead to a crash, which can disrupt your concentration and affect your sleep patterns. Caffeinated drinks are fine in the morning to give you a boost before class, but should be curbed after noon.

A good way of determining if you are dehydrated is to check the colour of your urine. If you are hydrated, your urine should be clear or a very pale yellow. If your urine is a bright or darker yellow, you could be seriously dehydrated and should drink more.

Get plenty of exercise

Exercise is one of the main ways of keeping your heart and lungs healthy - the vital organs which provides your brain with the oxygen it needs to function effectively. Between lectures and study periods, try to fill in your free time with around 30 minutes of exercise a day. This could simply be walking around campus or using the stairs instead of the lift.

It is most likely that your university has appropriate facilities such as a gym, complete with all the exercise you would expect such as treadmills, rowing machines, exercise bikes and plenty of free weights and weight lifting apparatus.

In many cases, you can use your student identification to get a discount on gym memberships and sporting equipment, meaning you can save money while staying healthy.

Join Sports Clubs

Sports clubs are great for socialising and having fun between studying. Freshers fair gives you the chance to check out the sports that are on offer at your university and sign up to the ones that interest you.

There are many sports to try at university from football, tennis and rugby to more unconventional sports such as trampolining and quidditch - yes, that quidditch. No matter your tastes or ability, there will be a sport for you.

Limit alcohol consumption

Although attitudes towards drinking have changed over the past decade, resulting in fewer drinkers among young people, the drinking culture in universities in the UK is still prominent.

Drinking games are not uncommon at student get togethers, such as house parties or in the on-campus bar. In these kinds of environments, you may feel under pressure to drink more than you normally would. It's important to know your limit and know when you should stop drinking. After all, a bad hangover is only going to make sleeping and concentrating the next day much harder.

If you are drinking for a prolonged period, have a glass of water between each alcoholic drink. This will keep your body hydrated and help to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Alternatively, you can drink soft drinks such as sodas or juice between alcohol to stay hydrated.

Sticking to the guidelines on how many units of alcohol you can safely consume each week is preferred, though specific numbers will vary between yourself and your peers. If you are struggling with the pressure from friends, or feel you are or becoming dependent on alcohol, your university could be able to offer confidential support for you from support groups to counselling.

Organise your schedule

There are only 24 hours in a day, so plan your day wisely. You may find that certain days are allocated to certain readings, delivered by a different lecturer, held in another building or simply be free of any formal lectures at all, leaving you to decide how you're going to spend the day.

Get a small planner or annual diary to keep a track of what is happening on each day. With this, you'll be able to see at a glance what is happening on any given day and be able to prepare for each class and study session. You can also jot down chores or other tasks you need to do throughout the week in the planner so you can keep track of those too.

If you have a day when you have no lectures, try to stay productive. You could spend the morning working on your assignment so that the afternoon is free for chores and recreational activities.

It's a good idea to keep a track of your timetable also, as these can change throughout the year. Compulsory trips, exam periods, and moved lectures are not uncommon and can throw you off-kilter if you are not prepared.

Plan Your Workload

Throughout the academic year, your workflow will fluctuate as assignments and assessments come and go. Knowing what needs to be done and when will be crucial if you want to be successful at university.

If you have two papers, prioritise them appropriately. Start working on the longer paper or begin research for the harder paper. You may well be given a list of assignments at the beginning of the term, and it may not be clear which one to start with.

Managing your workload is mostly down to common sense - which essay needs doing for which day? You wouldn't waste your time working on a paper due 4 months ahead when there's another paper due in a week that you haven't begun researching. If you are unsure about how to prioritise your work, speak to your tutor.

If you are struggling to keep your head in the books, set yourself small goals by rewarding yourself with each step in progress. An effective technique is to use food as a bookmark. Place a chocolate bar between the pages of a book where you intend on reading up to. Then, once you've read up to that page, you have a sweet reward for your efforts.

Avoid stress caused by leaving work to the last minute

Procrastination is one of the worst habits to get into. Frantically typing that final essay, which is due at midnight, while wired on energy drinks at 11:55pm is not good for your health.

This procrastination can lead to stress which, in itself, can cause a number of health problems including:

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Headaches

It can also worsen other conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, as stress causes your body to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can affect your heart rate and blood pressure.

There is no doubt that university will be stressful at times, as you juggle multiple deadlines and rush around campus between classes. Leaving your work to the last minute isn't going to help.

Remember to register with a doctor

The student lifestyle can put a tremendous stress on your body and mind, making it paramount that you receive regular check ups.

Firstly, you should sign up to a GP local to the university, if you are staying away from home. Some universities offer a service that makes the transition between two GPs easier. Secondly, find a local pharmacy. For times when you cannot get an appointment with a GP, you can consult with a pharmacist about possible treatments for a range of maladies. They may not be serving on the counter when you go in, but you can ask to see the pharmacy for advice on the symptoms you are experiencing and appropriate treatments.

During freshers week, you are at a higher risk of becoming ill from 'freshers flu'. This is an umbrella term used to describe any illness, such as an unfamiliar strain of the common cold or a throat infection, which a student may contract within the first few weeks of starting. Symptoms of 'freshers flu' can include:

  • Coughing

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Headache

  • Shivering

  • Sneezing

  • Sore throat

Many over-the-counter treatments can help with the symptoms, such as paracetamol to help with the headaches and lozenges to help with the sore throat. While you'll still want to explore all that freshers' week has to offer when you're ill, you should rest to give your immune system a chance to fight off the infection.

Be aware of sexual health

While you may not contemplate pregnancy or contracting an STD while studying away at university, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Both sexes should consider contraception, whether short or long term. Contraceptive pills and IUDs can greatly reduce the chances of becoming pregnant and condoms are effective against the transmission of STDs. For the best protection, you should combine barrier protection methods with hormonal contraception to mitigate the risk of both pregnancy and STDs.

Many universities in the UK have information on their websites about on-campus sexual health services as well as local pharmacies and clinics that offer tests for sexually transmitted diseases, access to emergency contraception, confidential advice and support.

Sexual Health Clinics and Genitourinary Medicine Clinics (GUM Clinics) can provide free sexual health services to anyone who needs them, including testing and screening for diseases, access to contraception and confidential advice regarding sex and relationships.

Get help if you need it

Mental health is important, especially in university. Dealing with multiple workloads, deadlines and exams can take its toll. And with some universities cutting on-campus mental health services, despite their growing demand, the state of support for students with mental health issues is deeply worrying.

While deadlines and exams can apply added stress, they may not be the root cause of anxiety or depression. Problems with family and relationships, money or alcohol and drug use can all play a significant role in your well-being.

However, this doesn't mean you can't get help at university. Speak to someone you trust about how you are feeling, such as a friend, family member or tutor. Talking about how you feel is often the first step to resolving your problems.

You may also seek help from a mental health adviser who may be able to refer you to student-led support groups or counselling provided by the university. If your depression becomes severe, you should speak to your GP, who may be able to offer treatment or refer you to a specialist.

If you are unsure about the services available to you while you are studying in the UK, you can check out the NHS Service Search.

Studying at university should be a learning experience beyond the books and lectures. Teaching yourself to make healthy decisions and forming good habits are not only crucial to staying productive at university, but these lessons can stay with you after your graduation and throughout your career.