First year students aren’t known for being a picture of good health. The lifestyle of college students in general is characterized with “Freshman 15”, sleep deprivation, midnight junk food feasts and hours of sedentary studying. I’d say it’s a rite of passage, at least for the students I’ve seen at Cornell, to get a bit flabbier, a bit slower, a lot more stressed and acquire a taste for the bottle. They do get killer calf muscles from the hills though.
As a first year, I wasn’t spared from the temptations of Cornell’s dining hall food, now ranked #2 in the nation. Gluttonous and greedy, I feasted on the newly available unlimited pizza, fried food, pasta and ice cream. Elaborate brunches complete with gooey bread pudding, crispy tater tots, heaps of eggs, bacon, lox bagels and dim sum reliably fattened me every Sunday morning. Confident that my teenage metabolism could handle it, I balled out and chowed down.
My downfall was forgetting to partake in the two hours of daily sports I had been enjoying in high school — replaced by occasional, increasingly slower and shorter jogging that didn’t quite cut it. I eventually abandoned exercise altogether in favor of catching up on sleep and trying to just survive my first semester of college. The effect wasn’t as savory or sweet as the causes had been. An incident involving split pants on the Arts Quad (On Pi Day, ironically) was, well, the kick in the pants I needed.
As I sheepishly waddled back to North Campus, a sweater clutched around my waist, I resolved to change.
Getting flabbier wasn’t even the worst part of being so unhealthy — my poor choices across the realm of exercise, diet and lifestyle were catching up in every other way, physically, mentally, emotionally, academically. I felt mentally astray without the reset that daily exercise gave me, and lost a sense of identity that had been integral to me my entire life. Being a fraught, poorly nourished college student was making me stressed and unhealthy. And I know my experience is hardly unique among students everywhere.
Despite ample motivation from the Pi Day Pants Splitting, sustainable change was difficult to achieve. Dorm life isn’t conducive — at all — to a healthy lifestyle. You’re crammed in a tiny room, with another person or two, in a building with students stacked on top of one another. It’s loud somehow, even when it’s quiet; light somehow when it’s dark; and your quality of sleep is awful, just based on the sheer density of the environment. Like every other college first year, I was constantly sick from the cramped conditions and non-stop exposure to germs. Furthermore, I had no easy way to cook or acquire my own food, totally dependent on a routine involving numerous trips to a buffet, multiple times every day. In general, I felt a loss of control in the dorms, one that many can relate to, that was very demotivating.
Things got a bit better sophomore year; but I was finally able to make a real, impactful change junior year when I moved off campus with my friend. For the past few months, I feel as though I’ve finally found a way to sustainably integrate healthy habits into my college life. Besides being able to cook my own meals, which have been much more moderate and healthy than my hoggery at the Cornell buffets, I’ve also reintroduced consistent exercise into my routine which has been life-changing for my mental and physical health. Here are some tips that I’d consider essential, and recommend to anyone trying to be more active in college or beyond.
Habits and Scheduling
Key to making exercise or any form of self-care long-term is making it a habit. For most of my life, I thrived on spontaneity, but in my first year of college that turned into spontaneously ditching my exercise time for less active pursuits.
Figure out when your schedule allows time for exercise. For example, I’m on an intramural soccer team that meets mainly on Sunday nights. Sunday night is my tightest study crunch time in the entire week so I miss a lot of games and practices. Monday nights are also tough so that’s usually a designated “off” day for me. However, toward the latter half of the week and on Saturday mornings I have more flexible time. This is when I do most of my exercise.
So keep your classes in mind, your work schedule, your extracurriculars and determine when you’re least likely to abandon your fitness activity and schedule it like you would a class or meeting. At Cornell, you will always be busy with something, and if you don’t purposely schedule what needs to be done it usually doesn’t happen.
Numerical Goals but Make It Fun
Everyone has goals and things they want to accomplish by exercising more, usually in the form of something that isn’t exactly measurable or satisfying to track along the way. What made me get genuinely enthusiastic about running more was when I found a validating way to track my progress. Since the beginning of the semester, my friend and I run every Sunday morning, adding a mile each time we do it. Having that challenge waiting each week, combined with the feeling of accomplishment with each passing week, is incredibly motivating and gets me to run more without dreading it.
Give yourself challenges, both long and short term, and track your progress. That’s a lot more satisfying than just comparing yourself to an idealized, finalized standard.
Joining a Club or Gym Class
Most days, I have certain clubs/activities and people that I meet up with depending on the day of the week. Having variety is important, to not get bored and prevent stress injuries. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I rollerski with the Nordic Ski Club, Wednesdays I run with the Triathlon Club, and I try to mix in other activities such as strength training or swimming on the weekend. It can be intimidating to join club sports at Cornell because they often function at an unclub-like elite level; coed sports often being male dominated can add to joining apprehension. I can understand, as it took me until my junior year to start regularly participating in club sports. I’m not as speedy as the average club sport athlete, but it’s important to accept your level of skill, put away the pride and chug along at your pace.
If you want to get P.E. credit while you’re at it, even better. I’ve never taken a P.E. class at Cornell before, but they offer so many and I’ve heard from others it’s a great way to learn a new sport or activity in a consistent environment. After all, if you skip, you fail and don’t graduate. Quite motivating.
The gyms at Cornell are always so crowded. I purchased a gym pass and have only used it twice this semester as it’s so unpleasant, grimy and packed. So although it gets chilly in Ithaca, it’s worth bundling up and going outside for your exercise. Besides, nature is good for your mental health, and Ithaca is gorgeous. I know so many students who try to be fit by going to the gym, but lose motivation by how yucky the gyms are. If you’re also turned off by the Cornell gyms, but still want strength training, don’t give up. I recommend getting a yoga mat, or even a towel, and doing bodyweight exercises and stretching in your own space.
Build a Support System
After a long day of classes, I struggle to motivate myself to be active. Sometimes, knowing that I have people depending and waiting on me to show up is the only thing that gets me moving. Having that kind of accountability is essential in the long-term, once the initial spurt of motivation runs its course. It’s also just wonderful to have a community of other students supporting each other being active, and you can make lifelong friends along the way. This kind of positive connection can create a genuine fondness for exercise that has been the critical element for my success.
Also, find role models and allow yourself to be inspired. There’s plenty of fast and fit people to be in awe of, but aim to embody someone attainable and relatable. I’ve found that worshiping idols who are at the top of their game can be discouraging. So, for the past year I’ve been following the weight loss and fitness journey of an obese beagle from Thailand, and seeing his progress genuinely inspires me.
Those are my tips. Its what helped me, and what didn’t. Since becoming more active, the effect on my mental health has been incredible. I feel like a new person, and I know plenty of Cornell students could also use the mental boost. It was hard to create these new habits, but it only gets easier after those wheezy first steps. You don’t have to be an unhealthy college student, I promise. Start out small, doing something you like, keep going and don’t stop.
Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life. She can be reached at [email protected].
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