While we've all heard the old adage that it's important to exercise and eat our vegetables, it is especially relevant when it comes to maintaining student health. Healthy habits aren't an option; they're a requirement for academic performance. Poor diet and nutrition habits not only impact growth and development, but also cognitive ability. For students of all ages, substandard nutrition and lack of exercise can negatively affect the ability to learn.
The majority of children in the U.S. don't follow a diet that meets minimum standards of nutrition. These children fail to eat enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for a healthy diet, and they regularly consume too much sodium. Instead, far too many calories are ingested in the form of sugars, sodas, and unhealthy fats. This knowledge, tied with the understanding that poor diet is linked to poor cognitive function, points to a crisis in the nutritional habits of children. Their exercise habits are no better; only 25% of today's students move their bodies at a healthy level.
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Our nutrition and wellness guide illustrates the way lifestyle habits affect our bodies and brains.
The Importance of Healthy Habits
Good nutritional choices and healthy exercise habits are both key to health and wellness. Eating well can positively impact the ability to exercise, but it's important to understand that they are two distinct endeavors. They each affect our physical, cognitive, and emotional functioning in different ways. For students, choosing to exercise regularly and eat healthfully ultimately creates optimal conditions for learning.
Reduce Risk of Disease
|More than simply vehicles to power us through the day, our bodies are directly affected by the ways we treat them. Nutrition and exercise are cornerstones to good student health; without these healthy habits, we run a very real risk of major health concerns like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, obesity, autoimmune disorders, and more.|
Boost Energy Levels
|We are what we eat, and the food we consume does more than provide fuel; it determines the level at which our bodies perform. Lackluster energy can almost always be traced back to food we've eaten, or be improved by a eating a particular food. Regular exercise is also proven to fend off fatigue and boost overall energy levels.|
Increase Concentration & Awareness
|Physical exercise is good for more than the body; it also plays a key role in our brain's ability to concentrate, remember, and process information. Proper nutrition ensures that our brains are working in top form; together, these good habits help students make the most of learning opportunities.|
Foster Feelings of Overall Well-Being
|Adopting healthy habits is beneficial to every aspect of our lives. Properly fueling the brain ensures that you're operating at your mental peak; observing good eating habits and moving your body helps you manage the stressors of everyday life.|
Reduce Depression & Anxiety
|Regular exercise is proven to release endorphins that improve mood and stave off chronic anxiety or depressive disorders. Eating well can also prevent symptoms of depression or anxiety; a number of nutritional imbalances have been identified as triggers for emotional struggles.|
Fitness & Nutrition Challenges
Students at all levels face a variety of challenges when it comes to nutrition and fitness. Health and wellness are determined by the ways we eat, exercise, and sleep, and our age and place in life affects all of these factors, too. College nutrition, for example, will be different than nutrition for kids. Below we've outlined common challenges that come with developing healthy habits.
Cafeterias were created with convenience in mind. They, along with the vending machines popular on most school campuses, are designed to quickly dispense food that doesn't require preparation.
Cafeterias are appealing solutions for students, but they require some discernment to navigate healthfully. Campus cafeterias produce large quantities of affordable food, but low prices can be directly at odds with healthy eating; foods prepared in bulk are often loaded with sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats. For the college student strapped for time and funds, making healthy choices based on their meal plan and nearest cafeteria can be challenging. Working parents who don't send packed lunches also have little control of their school-aged children's food choices during the day.
Finding Time to Exercise
Most of us don't have the luxury of extra time to devote to working out, and we must juggle our priorities to make room for exercise. The way we live our lives doesn't help; increasingly, technologies contribute to a lifestyle that's more sedentary than that of previous generations. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association's 2015 Participation Report concluded that 83 million Americans forgo regular exercise, and nearly 20% of children born in 2000 or later reported zero physical activity.
When physical effort isn't built into our daily lives, failing to seek it out hurts our health. In addition to the lure of technology-borne distraction, modern students lead busy lives packed with classes, study time, and the pursuit of extracurricular activities.
Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep deficiency can hurt us in an alarming variety of ways. In the short term, sleep deprivation leads to impairment in concentration, memory, critical thinking, and creativity, all of which are essential for learning. Over time, failing to get enough sleep is also damaging to our health. When we sleep our bodies heal themselves, particularly our cardiovascular systems. When the heart and blood vessels are consistently stressed from lack of sleep, we become prone to a host of illnesses including high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and kidney disease. Our mood is also directly impacted by the quality and quantity of sleep we experience. If risks to health and learning capacity aren't enough, students who don't sleep well enough may not produce enough hormones to properly regulate normal growth and development.
Challenges For College Students
College students may find it particularly difficult to focus on health and nutrition. Many are living without parental supervision for the first time, which can be both exhilarating and daunting. Ready or not, these young adults suddenly find themselves in charge of their schedules, their diets and their free time. The change can be stressful, and the temptation to self-medicate with food or alcohol may be strong.
It's more important than ever for students to maintain healthy lifestyles. Not only can bad habits like binge-eating be avoided, but the stress of the transition can be better managed. The “freshman 15” (or more) is a reality; in fact, it's been proven that college students' BMI generally increases by graduation. Resisting the urge to eat poorly or skip the gym can go a long way towards avoiding poor health and improving the college experience.
Expert Advice: Alexa McDonald, MS, RDN, CSSD
|Alexa McDonald, MS, RDN, CSSD is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and 200 Hour RYT Certified Yoga Instructor. She has worked as a Campus Dietitian under Compass Group for multiple college campuses, including Manhattan College, Stevens Institute of Technology, Kean University, and Seton Hall University. As an avid runner and self-proclaimed foodie, Alexa is most often praised by her clients for her ability to “fit in the good stuff.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BeBalanacedRD or email her at Expertnutritionandwellness@gmail.com|
What are some common health challenges that students face?
Students face a variety of health and nutrition challenges while at school. Whether it’s food allergies, balancing health and academics, or stocking up on enough on-the-go healthy snacks to fuel busy days, eating healthy and fueling the body properly is always a challenge for students. Student athletes in particular may also face the challenge of eating a healthy diet and getting enough fuel while keeping up with a hectic, demanding schedule and meeting the competitive needs of their sport.
What can students do to stay in shape and eat healthy?
A few things I suggest to my students:
- Always stay prepared with healthy snacks and easy meals stocked at home, in your gym or book bag, or in your dorm.
- Eat at least three cups of dairy or dairy alternatives per day. Not only can they be an essential source of protein, calcium, and Vitamin D, but dairy foods have been linked to a healthy weight!
- Stay hydrated! Aim for at least 12 or 15 cups of water per day for females and males respectively.
- Aim for nutrient dense, not calorie dense! Nutrient dense items offer a lot of nutritional value through things like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, but all for a reasonable amount of calories. In other words: a lot of bang for your buck! Whereas calorie dense items pack a lot of calories for not much nutrition and are just a waste of caloric space.
Do you have any quick tips or tricks to help students lead a healthier lifestyle?
- Stay prepared with a variety of on-the-go, healthy snacks: trail mix, whole fruit, whole-grain granola bars, chocolate milk, yogurt, string cheese, or whole grain crackers. Whatever it may be, find something that you can throw in your bag that will keep you satisfied until your next meal any time hunger strikes.
- Keep a schedule for exercise! Find a realistic number that you can work with each week to act as your bare minimum. Each week, commit to exercising at least this amount of times and don't hesitate to go beyond it if you're in the mood!
- Purchase a 24-32 ounce reusable water bottle and fill it up throughout the day. It’s easier to keep track of than “cups,” so females can aim for 3-4 bottles per day and males can aim for 4-5 per day.
- Got questions? Reach out to your school or campus RD! Whether you're struggling with a food allergy, disordered eating habits, or burning nutrition questions, they will be happy to address and tailor your needs to your specific school and environment.
Though building better eating habits takes time, there are plenty of small ways to adjust your lifestyle gradually for better health. By simply avoiding poor choices, such as sugary drinks or processed foods, and replacing them with healthy options, you can pave the way toward lifelong increased health and wellness and better performance academically. You'll find some of our best nutrition tips and tricks below.
Created by the USDA, ChooseMyPlate is a resource dedicated to the development of healthy eating habits. The site is loaded with useful information, including targeted informational articles, a food-tracking app, online tools, official dietary guidelines, and hundreds of tips on executing a healthy diet.
Families with school-aged children can watch videos of other young families changing their diets, try one of many kid-friendly recipes, and discover interesting facts about foods in their area. A section dedicated to teens offers gender-specific tips on eating well and information on its popular FuelUpToPlay60 incentive program. College students can find simple recipes and try out an interactive tool that breaks down menu planning and shopping; the extensive number of articles about healthy food choices can also inform their decisions in the school cafeteria. ChooseMyPlate is an excellent source of information for any child or adult who wants to make the change to healthier eating, beginning with the smallest initial steps.
Food on Campuses
College students face their own particular challenges when it comes to nutrition. With the transition from living at home to moving out on their own, many students face new kinds of stress and may start taking shortcuts rather than being mindful of what they eat. We've outlined some tips to keep in mind in terms of college nutrition.
Eating in Moderation
Some college students find it difficult not to overindulge. Newly-minted freshmen may be awed at the bounty offered by an especially good meal plan, diving in at each opportunity. Other students may not feel comfortable turning down invitations to eat, regardless of actual hunger. Still others may find eating to be a solace amid the stress of collegiate life. In any of these situations, it's important to moderate intake. Ask whether you're eating because you're hungry or for other reasons.
Visit Your School's Health and Wellness Center
All college campuses have a student health center, and many of them also provide advice on nutrition for college students. Health and wellness center staff are well aware of the nutrition and fitness challenges that college students face, and they want to help you. Take the time to explore this resource; in many cases, they can provide you with personalized tips to make the most of your choices.
Exercise is just as important as nutrition. In fact, one study demonstrated that consistent aerobic exercise correlated with enlargement of the area of the brain that manages verbal memory. This is likely due to growth factors that are released in the brain during exercise, creating new brain cells and blood vessels in the brain. Other research points to enlargement of the prefrontal and medial temporal cortex, which control thinking and memory.
As we grow older, our bodies are more likely to sustain illness and injury. When our bodies are given the proper tools, they are better able to heal themselves and fight off further illness. Exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week counteracts the effects of modern-day sedentary life, increasing longevity and overall quality of life. Read on for our tips and tricks for incorporating physical fitness into your lifestyle.
Fitness for K-8 Students
While adults are encouraged to exercise 30 minutes per day, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends an hour per day for children and adolescents. Though many families may find it difficult to find an unscheduled hour in their daily lives, it's possible to build regular exercise into their schedules.
Recommended Daily Exercise, by Age
|Age||Recommended Daily Exercise|
|Children under 12||1 hour|
- Younger children need to develop their motor skills, coordination, and strength. Many traditional playground games can accomplish this, like hopscotch, tag, red rover, hide-and-seek, jump-rope, foursquare, or red-light green-light.
- Standard playground equipment, like monkey bars, swings and climbing structures, help develop strength and coordination. Bicycle riding teaches coordination and builds endurance.
- Organized team sports offer aerobic exercise and muscle development. Children in this age group may opt for competitive leagues or choose local non-competitive programs that emphasize fun and learning.
- The Olympic Hot Spot Challenge is ideal for children ages 9 through 12. This game presents exercises for kids in an entertaining format.
- Parents of school-aged children should monitor their children's screen time, restricting their access to electronic distractions. Today's grade schooler is tech-savvy, but parents can meet resistance by allowing limited screen time only after outdoor activity.
Fitness for High School Students
The CDC also recommends an hour per day of exercise for teenagers. This can be particularly daunting to parents of busy high schoolers; in fact, one study found that only 10% of today's teens exercise regularly. Making exercise a priority in this age group can set the stage for a lifetime of healthy habits.
- Team sports in this age group are generally competitive. As such, training for competition is a challenging mix of endurance and strength-building activities.
- Students who are not inclined towards team sports can still be athletes. Track and field, cross country running, basketball, and cycling are excellent options for aerobic and strength training.
- While high schoolers are notoriously reluctant to join family activities, outdoor excursions on weekends may be the exception. Family outings to hike, camp, or boat can provide a workout as well as a break from electronics.
- Indoors, teens can take advantage of streaming online fitness videos. The web is filled with tutorials and classes taught by qualified coaches; yoga is a popular choice that lends itself well to home workouts.
Fitness for College Students
Establishing a regular workout routine in college helps students maintain a healthy weight, cope with stress, and manage classes. Developing healthy habits is as important for their academic success as good time management skills.
Fitness for Online students
Students in online schools face challenges similar to those of adults with desk jobs. Sitting for long periods of time is damaging to our physical health; research has demonstrated that excessive time in a seated position can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. Online students should be aware of these risks and take steps to combat them. Simply standing up can make a difference, though building regular vigorous exercise into your routine is ideal for health and wellness.
Online college students should take frequent breaks to stretch, change positions, or otherwise get blood flowing; generally, this should happen about every 20 minutes. Moving your body frequently helps your brain stay at peak alertness, allowing you to make the most of your study time. It's also important to acknowledge that screen time is fatiguing, and your body will appreciate periodic relief. Getting outdoors is particularly helpful to students who study online. Constantly focusing on a screen near your face can cause headaches and vision problems, for example, and natural light has been shown to correlate with better vision. Spending time outdoors has also been linked to increased serotonin release and attention span.
Beyond our guide, remember to take advantage of online resources relevant to student health. These resources offer not only more information on health and wellness, but also ways to track and analyze your nutrition and fitness progress. Check out the recommended links and apps below to find more tools for healthy living.
|MyPlate||MyPlate is a reminder to find your healthy eating style and build it throughout your lifetime.|
|Greatist||By taking a realistic approach to nutrition and fitness, Greatist operates on the principle that you'll do what works for you. The site is packed with recipes, workout ideas, and informational articles to help you find your path to wellness.|
|MBG||MindBodyGreen is dedicated to wellness and how to achieve it through movement, nutrition, and lifestyle choices. Workouts, recipes for clean eating, motivational tips, and interviews with wellness experts are standard fare.|
|The 50 Best Free Workout Resources You Can Find Online||Curated by fitness guru Dave Smith for Huffington Post, this list is a collection of free online workout resources for participants at every level.|
|LIVESTRONG||Offering up-to-date journalism on health and wellness topics, a fitness tracker, fitness challenges, recipes, and more, this site is a comprehensive resource for readers looking to improve their knowledge about health and nutrition.|
|Food Politics||Operated by a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, Food Politics is devoted to educating the reader about the foods we eat and the policy issues that surround them.|
|Earn money for charities every time you run, walk, or bicycle by using the free Charity Miles app. Corporate sponsors agree to donate a few cents for every mile you complete.|
|This popular app helps you plan, track, and analyze the results of your workout. Resources include a food tracker, social media integration, and planned routes in some cities.|
|Primarily a calorie counting app, MyFitnessPal delivers free access to an enormous nutrition database and a user-friendly food journal. Bonus features include an exercise log and calorie calculator.|
|Based on a wearable device, Fitbit offers apps that track and log all levels of fitness. The device is customizable to your needs and activity level, and data is analyzed so that you can optimize your health.|