Balancing Higher Learning and Healthy Living: 9 Small Steps, 1 Massive Reward

Growing up, I never thought of my favorite pastimes – such as biking, roller blading, basketball, football and baseball -- as forms of exercise but, instead, as enjoyable activities that I could engage in with my family and friends. I participated in them for one simple reason: I found them fun. Whether I realized it or not, however, these activities played a huge role in keeping me fit throughout my teenage years.

Then I became an undergrad student.

I had classes from around 8a.m. to 4p.m. Then I’d study for the rest of the day and go to bed at 9p.m. My free time came at night. With no daylight available, I’d watch TV to relieve the stress of the day and, once my eyes grew heavy, climb into bed, prepared to start the undergrad student cycle all over again in the morning.

Finding time to meet with friends and family to go on trips became a challenge. I began to eat unhealthy foods to cope. I ate out for lunch and dinner (it was convenient and fast). I had donuts for breakfast.

Soon I was 5 lbs. heavier. Then 10.

By the end of my first semester I had gained 15 lbs., but I was too stressed out to include the burden of staying healthy into my schedule.

Then I gained 20 lbs.

The day after I watched my scale ring in at +20 lbs. was the day I decided to find little ways to increase my physical activity.

Something needed to change.

I knew I needed to adjust my lifestyle, but understood that the changes – at least initially – would have to be gradual. Over time, however, I was able to incorporate nine small habits into my daily life which, although seemingly insignificant, made all the difference. 

1. Taking the Stairs

I began to take the stairs up to my classes instead of taking the elevator. Over time, I started coming to school a bit earlier to climb up to our top floor and back a couple times before class would start. Soon, I found that the climb increased my heart rate AND made me feel more attentive for class.

2. Parking Further Away

A few weeks after I started to take the stairs, I decided to park my car in a high school parking lot about a half-mile from my university. I started to time the amount of minutes it took me to get to school and set a goal to decrease that time over a week. Furthermore, I convinced one school friend to park in the same location. Now the activity was not only physically rewarding, but fun, challenging and competitive.

3. Increasing Water Intake

I rarely drank water. I would normally drink some type of juice instead. However, as I started to increase my daily physical activity, I upped my water intake. To create another fun challenge, I began by counting the amount of times I would fill up my water bottle. The goal started at two fill-ups a day. Soon, however, I was returning for a refill around 8 times per day. I found that my increased water intake not only hydrated me, but also made me feel less hungry and more energized.

4. Eating a Healthy Breakfast

Cutting donuts out of my diet was originally difficult for me. However, as I increased my physical activity, I realized that donuts made me feel tired faster. I began with replacing donuts with half of a whole wheat bagel, fruits, oatmeal and orange juice. Over time, I replaced the orange juice with protein shake. My energy and stamina increased with my improved fuel source, and every physical activity started to feel more effortless and enjoyable.

5. Having Washed Fruits and Veggies in the Fridge

The donuts created a domino-effect and, inspired by my newfound energy, I began replacing unhealthy cookies, ice cream and other fatty snacks with healthier options. My grocery cart started to fill with fresh fruits and veggies. Those fresh snacks not only tasted better than the processed junk that once filled my fridge and cabinets, but made me feel better throughout the day, both physically and mentally.

6. Decreasing Serving Size

I decided to get rid of most of my larger plates, opting instead for smaller ones. Using smaller plates not only decreased the amount of food I was eating, but made my servings look bigger. This simple optical illusion helped me feel full, even with the decreased amount of food I was consuming.

7. Making Food at Home

Quitting fast food may have been the best thing I did for my health. As my workout routine increased I found that fast food only weighed me down. I decided to try making quick dishes at home for lunch and dinner. It began with simple hummus sandwiches with veggies for lunch and soup for dinner. Over time, with a bit of research, I discovered a ton of recipes that were not only quick, but easy to make and healthy.

8. Decreasing Sweetened Beverage Intake

As I mentioned earlier, I was big on drinking juice. My morning would start with orange juice, then I’d have mango juice and Starbucks coffee around snack time. For lunch and dinner I would drink pomegranate juice. As I started reading the “grams of sugar” label on those beverages, however, I decided to cut down. I made the switch to water, but found myself missing the flavor variety that juice provided. To balance this, I decided to try my hand at making homemade, freshly squeezed lemonade, and it was delicious! After further research, I found ways to add natural and unsweetened flavored beverages into my daily life, cutting down on my sugar intake while still satisfying my flavor cravings.

9. Joining the Gym

This step was the biggest and took me the longest time to commit to. I started going to the gym the summer after my first year, initially spending 2 hours of my day there. I hated it. I mean, two hours!? Over time, however, I got some friends involved and discovered some fun and unique exercises to do. I also realized that I wasn’t using the full 2 hours efficiently. I changed my workout routine to one that made every second at the gym matter and, by my second year, I was able to go into the gym for 45 minutes and still achieve a great workout. 

It was challenging, and even daunting, at first, but through those nine simple steps I was able to completely change my mood, both physically and mentally, improving on every aspect of my life. School can be a challenging time, but I’ve found that if we use our time wisely we can make the best out of even the most difficult parts.