Back to school health hints

Starting healthy habits at the beginning of the year helps prevent future problems

The start of a new school year is exciting, but can also lead to an increase in stress. Whether they’re worried about the so-called freshman 15 or developing senioritis, college students should be aware that developing good habits at the start of the year can save them headaches down the line.

“There will be many new experiences, but trying to stay centered and aware of your mental health as well as your physical health from the beginning will keep you from being blindsided later in the year,” third-year college student Maura Zurfluh said.

Sleep — Falling behind on sleep can be like falling into debt. You should try to avoid it, and if you do accumulate some, you should try to repay it as quickly as possible, because it can really add up over time. Some studies suggest you can never truly catch up on sleep. Others suggest you can, but you’ll have to make up for your missed sleep plus interest. Also, it’s not well known why we need the amount of sleep that we do, so different people may find themselves needing different amounts of sleep. However, constantly feeling tired or lethargic may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Stress — In small amounts, stress can be a positive motivating force, but it can become debilitating if not properly dealt with. Stress, like sleep deficit, can be felt acutely, or can build up over time. Also like sleep deficit, it can be dealt with more easily if caught early. Establishing a routine, rewarding yourself for accomplishments and maintaining an emotional support network are all effective methods of dealing with stress. But, if stress is constant, reoccurring or too much to deal with one’s own, professional psychological help may be needed. And, like sleep deficit, different people may be able to handle more or less stress than others.

“Don't be afraid to prioritize your health (physical and mental) when picking a major or area to study,” fourth-year College student Katie Lang said. “It's not weak to choose something that allows you to take care of yourself and not burn out, it's smart.”

Homesickness and struggling to fit in — Moving into a new dorm, a new apartment or a new social circle can make people feel disoriented or out of place, whether they’re first years or grad students. Someone who feels out of place may be experiencing homesickness, feeling they would rather be somewhere else or they may be experiencing imposter syndrome — feeling they don’t belong because they’re not good enough, that they were admitted by mistake. Both of these situations can be trying — especially when isolation is added to the mix.

“I think students have to realize they’re all feeling pretty similar in that aspect,” Holstege said. “It’s great to be able to talk with other student about it, or an RA.”

Talking to others can help normalize what students are going through, but it can also help distinguish issues that have become more serious.

“With any thoughts of self-harm, any similar concerns, then there’s a question of talking with a counselor,” Holstege said. “This goes for any thoughts of harming one’s self [physically], but also ‘I’m just not being able to get the work, because I’m really depressed and really lonely.’”

Diet — It’s important not to overeat, but it's also crucial to recognize that dieting is not the same as maintaining a healthy diet. The key is to look for balance — eating a mixture of food groups and looking out for nutrients.

“It’s a balance,” Student Health Executive Director Christopher P. Holstege said. “And you have to be careful of the bad diets that are out there too, that aren’t necessarily healthy.”

In other words, it’s okay to count your calories, but it’s better to make your calories count.

“I loaded up on fruit to keep in my dorm every time I went to the dining halls, so I was snacking fairly healthily,” Zurfluh said.

Exercise — Exercise doesn’t necessarily only mean working out at the gym, but can also include walking counts, dancing, swimming or running outside. The National Institutes of Health reports that exercise can regulate the hormones that cause changes in mood and sleep patterns in much the same way that it regulates metabolism.

“It depends on you as a person and what type of exercise that is, but certainly getting out, getting daily exercise is great for your mental health as well as your physical health,” Holstege said.

Allergies / air quality — People with allergies, asthma or other lung problems may want to check out the Air Quality Index, which looks at the temperature, humidity and level of air pollution to rank each day’s air quality. Seasonal allergy sufferers should be aware that over-the-counter allergy medicines usually contain antihistamines, which can interact negatively with a lot of other drugs, and can cause drowsiness and lack of concentration. It’s always best to talk to your doctor, but you can also see a list of interactions and side effects on the FDA’s website.

Dental hygiene — Brushing your teeth seems like a simple task, but it’s important to not forget. The mouth is full of good and bad bacteria, and the bad can be really bad — causing gum disease and tooth rot, and sometimes spreading to other parts of the body, including the heart. Long-term swelling or pain in or around the gums, which can often be a symptom of a larger problem, especially in people who have diabetes or autoimmune disorders. Also, two dental check-ups a year are generally recommended. The Charlottesville Free Clinic offers basic services to those without dental insurance.

International students — Claire Corkish is a third-year College student from the UK who lives in the IRC. She said that staff, students and health organizations like the PHEs have been very helpful, but that she still finds accessing health care here a bit more challenging than in the UK.

“Being from the UK, where socialized medicine and free healthcare is the norm, I definitely found the privatized system in the U.S. confusing and difficult to navigate at first,” Corkish said. “As a low income student living in the U.S., I have to make more careful choices about services I choose — I sometimes feel afraid and confused about the extra cost of going to see a health specialist, even though I have insurance.”

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