Following enrolment into a tertiary institution, many first-year students are exposed to new routines that are different from the ones they leave behind at home. While pressures of adjusting to a new environment often sideline the prioritisation of a healthy lifestyle, maintaining one’s fitness is a precursor to obtaining good grades.

PDBY consulted with Senior Sports Scientist and Head of Sport, Exercise, Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI) Education and Training, Ms Kirsty Elliott, to compile a list of easy lifestyle and fitness tips relevant to the university setup.

Elliot explains that “first year is a daunting experience at first and students often take the approach of, ‘let me just settle in first and get used to the studies, then I will start with the extras like sport or exercise’. This approach might look like a wise choice, however, it will make it very difficult to change your behaviours once you have settled into a routine (and some bad habits)”.

Get involved in a fitness activity

The high school routine provided embedded sources of fitness activities such as compulsory sports practices and Physical Education (P.E.). At university, students deviate from engaging in physical activity as it is no longer compulsory. This will instigate various negative physiological effects such as loss of baseline fitness which can instigate a process known as “deconditioning”. Elliot explains that “the biggest change that happens when one goes to university, especially if one moves out of the family home, is that there is no longer anybody checking on you constantly. While at school, daily routines such as getting out of bed, setting time aside to eat regularly and exercise, are all part of a daily routine set out for you. School provided a structure that was dictated to you whereas at university it is up to you to create this structure for yourself”.

UP has a range of sports and fitness activities (to read about some of these, check page 19,“Getting a kick out of TuksSports”) that complement academic timings. Elliot cites that “a good way to do this is to find out about all the exercise options during the orientation week and sign up for a sports club, gym, or res sport. This will help you to commit to exercise at the outset”. There are different levels in a sport offered at UP, with the recreational level being the go to option, should you want to partake in the sport solely for exercise as opposed to competitive sports. Elliot clarifies that “sports clubs are often mini communities within a large university where you can feel a sense of community and belonging. Joining a sports club on campus does not mean you need to be the best but rather a want to enjoy the many benefits that sport affords us”. Additionally, students have access to SEMLI, which provides services such as group classes, fitness programs and assessments, eating plans, psychological support, and radiology services. For more information on SEMLI, visit: https://www.up.ac.za/sport-exercise-medicine-and-lifestyle-institute/.

Some pointers to guide your exercise routine (as recommend by SEMLI):

– Strength training is essential to all populations, not just sporting elites.

– Include plenty of variety in the training you do to ensure sustainability.

– 20 minutes per day of high intensity bouts can be all you need to maintain a happy, healthy lifestyle, while others may need more. Figure out what you enjoy and what works for your body!

– Try not to follow fads because others are doing it and have seen results. Online fitness training has boomed recently and is an effective, affordable method to follow. Just beware that not everything available online is safe and appropriate to your needs.

– As with all university work, use reputable sources and try to individualise it to your situation as far as possible.

Eating healthily

Elliot explains that “[…] before university someone probably prepared your food for you and you just ate it when it was available. Now that luxury might be something of the past. It is very important to make good food choices from a quality and quantity perspective from the start”.

Fast food restaurants can prove to be tempting, especially because this option is convenient amidst the newfound freedom. Elliot warns that “convenience food is often high in quantity and low in quality which causes one to over eat”. While treating yourself to a takeout is not a cardinal sin, opt for food combinations that boast grains, vegetables, and healthy fats such as almonds, avocados or chia seeds in their menus, like wraps, which aid in keeping you satiated and concentrating for a longer period of time, which simultaneously saves money. Alternatively, packing small healthy snacks to consume several times a day between lectures helps to avoid binge eating on sugary or fatty food items. Furthermore, snacking on fruit or vegetable slices is advantageous in keeping the body’s basal metabolic rate consistent, fuelling a heightened sense of focus.

Many first year students who enter tertiary have previously participated in a school sport which correlates to an accumulation of a large volume of daily physical activity. Elliott cites that “when [first years] start university, although they still participate in sport or exercise regularly, the total volume they are doing decreases. However, they continue to follow the same eating habits as before. This causes an imbalance in their energy intake vs. energy expenditure. So when students begin to pick up weight, even though they are still exercising, they can’t understand it”.

Tips to eating healthy as recommended by Elliott:

Get into a daily routine as soon as possible, starting with good sleeping patterns. Without healthy sleep habits, many other habits are compromised. For example, if you do not wake up before 11h00 daily, you will miss the first meal of the day, which will compromise a balanced calorie intake and leave you lacking energy to exercise. A minimum of 8 hours of sleep daily is recommended with a fairly regular wake up time. In addition to this, a 30 min nap during the day is also a useful refresher and recovery tool during times of high stress or workload.

Avoid waiting until you are very hungry to eat. This might lead to overeating. Rather have regular, smaller meals and healthy snacks throughout the day.

Breakfast is very important to ensure your metabolism begins to work early in the day and thus, work for longer throughout the day.

Ensure you drink enough water (6-8 cups) on a daily basis as this helps keep you hydrated and feeling full. We often eat in response to a thirst craving and so regularly sipping on water can prevent this from happening.

Limit your caffeine intake, especially with the use of energy drinks. These contain very high quantities of sugar and disrupt good eating and sleeping habits.

Social eating and drinking of alcohol is a major part of student life and does not have to be completely avoided in order to remain healthy. The trick to it is all in moderation and making good choices. For example, choose grilled options instead of fried, have salad or veg instead of fries, order a starter instead of a main meal for a smaller quantity and if you feel like takeout, see if you can make the meal at home yourself, such as pizza or burgers. It is sure to be a lot healthier and definitely cheaper. When it comes to alcohol, this is the most energy dense substance we can put into our bodies. It gives us a lot of calories without any nutrition. On top of the actual alcohol, what you mix your alcohol with, for example, Coca Cola, substantially adds to the calories. Limiting alcohol consumption to social drinking can help prevent frequent energy spikes.

Keeping fit during tests, exams and online learning:

The days preceding a test or exam are crucial, with many Tuks students making use of the study spaces in the library for hours on end. Taking a jog or walk around campus between study sessions helps. The best paths to walk on are guided by the green route, which you can identify using the yellow footprint markings on the paths. Ending your study session with a jog, or punctuating your study sessions with long walks, will boost mental fitness, without making you feel bogged down. Additionally, if you prefer to study from home or your accommodation spaces, practice small space workouts such as squats, sit-ups, push-ups, and lunges. These provide sources of high-intensity workouts in small space setups during exam and test weeks, or even amidst online learning.

Campus spaces are huge, and a walk to campus or between lecture venues is ample exercise alone, however, opt to walk to locations in and around campus when given a chance (albeit with safety precautions and in a group setup if possible, as opposed to alone), rather than to drive or Uber to a location.

These first year fitness tips are recommended by Elliot to maintain a balanced and holistic fitness routine during online learning:

A good habit would be to incorporate good quality movement into your activities of daily living. For example, walk fast between classes rather than strolling, maintain your posture when you are standing around or sitting at a desk and take the stairs where you can.

Take brain breaks during studying or online lectures. This should include moving away from your desk, phone and technology, having a sip of water and possibly doing something physical such as walking or stretching.

Build support groups around yourself, such as commune housemates. Share the load of cooking so that a new person cooks each night and so you take responsibility for one healthy meal per week and the others all do the same. This will help to spread the burden of being disciplined in what you eat each day.

Getting adequate sleep

Pulling all-nighters for tests, exams, assignment due dates or even giving into social pressures are key incidents that disrupt adequate sleep. We need an adequate amount of sleep, as it plays a vital role in cognitive functioning, immune system maintenance, and regulation of emotions. According to the Sleep Foundation, a night without sleep detracts from working memory, creating a higher risk of false memories that hinder long term recall of vital information that one has studied. The Foundation also found the after-effect of pulling an all-nighter is equivalent to being drunk. Scientists equated a person’s mental performance following an all-nighter to that of an individual with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%. As per guidelines published by the National Sleep Foundation, young adults in the age range of 18-25 need between 7-8 hours of sleep.

The shift to a hybrid online learning model has led to an increase in screen time. Deviate from working on a device at least an hour before bedtime. Should you have to engage in academic work before bed, opt to use notes or textbooks as opposed to reading on a device. Additionally, stick to a routine bedtime and cultivate daytime habits of exercise and avoidance of caffeine, alcohol and water after a stipulated time in the evening.

Elliott asserts that “the key to exercise, nutrition and health, and the relationship between these components is that it is very specific to the individual”, and says that consistency is vital to reap the rewards. She advises that this consistency can be attained by creating lasting habits in first year that are tailored to the specific individual.

 

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Susanna is currently stu(dying) genetics and joined the PDBY team in 2019. She divides her time between writing and playing with plant disease samples. Her contributions span across Science, politics and all things spicy. If you are or were in the SRC, she’s probably spammed you with messages for a story. She’s got a memory like an elephant – so she probably keeps track of student promises. Picture not to scale.