Ahh, college. The mix of a structured schedule with unstructured living. The infinite and conflicting capacities to get food and exercise at two facilities that might be practically next door. The opportunity to leave behind the monotony of high school and build the habits that will serve you well (or crash and burn you) well into adulthood.
Been there, done that – both the downside and the upside. As I discuss in Running Ahead of the Sun,my road-running ways (and racing) originated in college (but I’m only now getting anywhere near what I weighed before the freshman 15 nabbed me). I wasn’t a predawn runner then, but rather used running in the afternoon to avoid working on my Dynamics or Fluid and Thermal Engineering projects at Case Western Reserve University (yes, the often-spoofed-by-The-Onion institution) in Cleveland (also often a target of The Onion).
Metabolism can carry you through a lot of meals and parties in college. But at some point that card gets played out. And, I’m sad to report, it does begin to diminish in any event after college. So healthy habits become an increasingly important part of having the energy to complete a challenging curriculum, not to mention manage an active social life. And the key habit to develop is making the time.
You will never “find” time for anything. If you want time, you must make it. – Charles Bruxton bit.ly/TYydQC
— cyktrussell (@cyktrussell) December 31, 2012
Easier said than done? Well, then let’s start doing instead of talking. But there are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind. Let’s start with 5 do’s.
- Start as a freshman. Oops, sorry – too late for that? Then start today. Don’t plan, don’t come up with the perfect scheme, don’t go and read more about it – just start doing it.
- Do it early. In the day, I mean. If something is important to you, get it done before other things can get in the way. Or maybe even before your mind is fully aware of what’s happening.
- Set a goal and measure results. That which is measured improves. This doesn’t have to be complex, and it should be something you can directly control quickly. Start by just committing to a number of minutes per week, and measuring how well you do. Don’t try to make each week better yet. Just make each week meet the goal. Alternatively, if you’re motivated by the big picture, sign up for a race – just like for your schoolwork, the fear of a deadline can be a powerful motivator.
- Get social. Make your commitment known, and report on it weekly – use Facebook, Twitter, two cans and a string (sorry, we didn’t have the Interwebs when I was in college!) – whatever will make you feel accountable for results. Better still, actually talk to real-life friends and see if you can find someone to join you in your journey. If you have trouble keeping commitments to yourself, make commitments to others. Who wants to stand a friend up at 7AM, then have to face their harassment (or cold hard stare) the rest of the day?
- Recognize that you can do a lot of good in a little bit of time. Only got 30 minutes to run? No problem, you can squeeze in a mini-workout with valuable tempo or intervals (and they don’t have to be very structured). Won’t have time to shower? There are plenty of bodyweight strength training routines during which you don’t (or barely) break a sweat. You can even gain some fitness while your working thorough a good desk setup or small breaks. The one thing to avoid doing – nothing.
And now for 5 don’ts:
- Don’t make it hard. The temptation is to make sure each workout is a little better than the last one. There’s no need to do that. Get good at the starting level before you advance. Here’s a tip – you can’t improve your time on that running route forever. So don’t be in a rush to do so right away. Health and fitness (in the form of aerobic gains and better fat metabolism) comes from keeping things mostly easy, with the occasional hard spurt if only to make things more interesting.
- Don’t waste money on expensive gear. I’m not even sure I had running shoes when I started in college. If I did, I didn’t put a lot of thought into what type – so long as they fit. I also didn’t have “technical t-shirts” or GPS watches. And iPod’s didn’t come along for another 10 or more years. Expense can quickly become an excuse. Start simple and earn your way to the better gadgets and attire.
- Don’t aim for perfection. You’re not training for the Olympics (I suspect). So don’t beat yourself up if a workout doesn’t go well, or you need to miss one. Just take it as positive motivation to make the next one better.
- Don’t count on intramurals to do it for you. You need to aim for short & regular – not long and unpredictable. Yes, intramurals, walking to class, pickup basketball games all count – but it’s hard to count on them becoming “habitual”.
- Don’t forget your diet. Successful weight loss takes both exercise and an improved diet. Don’t fall to the temptation of assuming that your exercise means you can eat more. In all likelihood, you are already taking in too many calories. Follow the same advice as above – keep it simple, recognize every little bit matters – plus don’t weigh yourself daily, too many factors contribute to a fluctuating weight.
Don’t trust the advice of someone for whom cable TV in the dorm room was a novel concept? I happen to have two coaching clients who are recent college graduates, so I asked for their thoughts.
Madelynne, who recently finished grad school at Georgetown, says:
“In retrospect, it should have been easier for me to stay in shape in college than it is now. I had a flexible schedule, downtime between classes, and easy access to the gym and running trails. Now, I often have no choice but to squeeze in my runs at the crack of dawn before a long day at the office. But the lack of a structured schedule made it really easy for me to procrastinate and never end up running. Most of my friends were more interested in hanging out and watching television than going to the gym. And I, in turn, was more interested in being social than working out by myself.
During the latter half of my second year, I had a friend who was trying to lose 30 pounds. I started going to the gym to keep her company. We scheduled regular gym and run dates. Additionally, I joined a sorority in which all of the girls happened to be runners. My college boyfriend was also a runner. Suddenly working out, running, and staying fit became part of my social life and I loved it. I also realized that going for a run was a great way to break up long stretches of study.”
Sarah, a recent College of William & Mary grad, adds:
“I actually struggled with staying fit in college for the first 2 years. In high school, I swam 12-16 hours/week, so I was in great shape and didn’t quite understand that I could eat anything and everything I wanted because I exercised so much. With little exercise and unlimited food, I gained a lot of weight by the end of sophomore year.
I think one of the biggest challenges was going from a very structured routine in high school to having to balance classes, studying, activities, and social life. Exercise was not a priority because I felt stressed out about schoolwork. Now I know that running would have been a great way to take a study break and manage some of that stress. And I didn’t realize how quickly the calories added up in the cafeteria.
When I realized that I needed and wanted to get fit again I signed up for my first half marathon. I thought that running would be the easiest thing to do because all I had to do was put on my running shoes and step out the door. I had never run a race before, but I knew that if I signed up and told people about it, then I would be more committed to running. Following a consistent schedule helped. Other things that worked for me were joining the school’s running club and making exercise dates with friends to go to fitness classes. I also started eating better when I stopped buying the school’s meal plan and prepared my own food.”
You have your whole life ahead of you to worry about perfecting your fitness routine. The one thing you don’t have a lot of time to do is figuring out how to make it a habit. Trust me – it never gets easier. Jobs, marriage, kids – if you can’t figure out how to work with the time you have now, it will only get more challenging later.