Health & Wellness

Student Health 101

Your guide to feeling great and staying well on campus.
Published May 9, 2018

Each year the American College Health Association (ACHA) surveys college students on the state of their physical, psychological, and sexual health. Most college students—83.9 percent—report being in good, very good, or excellent health, according to ACHA’s latest National College Health Assessment.

Does this mean everyone on campus is healthy and happy? Not so fast. Here’s what your classmates are saying on staying fit and healthy, and how you can stop from making some common mistakes.

Practice prevention

One of the best ways to deal with getting sick is to not get sick in the first place. Use the following actions for stopping sickness in its tracks.

  • Hand washing is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick. But most of us don’t wash our hands properly. Luckily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers this hand-washing primer so you can keep fingers squeaky clean and germ free.
  • Vaccines are your first line of defense against serious infections. recommends the following for college students: meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY), Tdap vaccine, HPV vaccine, and the seasonal flu vaccine; 48.4 percent of college students reported getting the flu vaccine; 68.9 percent the meningitis vaccine, and 55.7 received the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

Another ailment that may affect you is back pain, thanks to all that time sitting in class or in the library. In fact these things can make it worse, according the to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Check out some of their tips on how to prevent and treat low-back pain.

Get quality sleep

Focusing on sleep may be the first step to managing issues that can interfere with academic performance, such as mental health issues. Of the respondents, 31.7 percent said stress affects their grades and ability to complete coursework. Anxiety comes in at 25.1 percent, followed by sleep difficulties at 21.4 percent, and depression at 16.8 percent.

Part of the problem is the logistics of college life itself, says Shelley Hershner, MD, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Collegiate Sleep Clinic at the University of Michigan. Factors like deadlines, neighbors, and other things can all take their toll.

As an example, one issue out of students’ control is the timing of assignments. “Most students are going to work on something up until the minute it’s due. So if something is due at 8 in the morning, they may be pulling an all-nighter,” says Dr. Hershner.

In addition, the amount of time you spend in front of a screen—whether it’s finishing assignments or relaxing—especially before bed remains a major obstacle to getting quality sleep. The blue light emitted by electronics suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep. “Probably the biggest thing they are doing to hurt themselves is that downtime is on electronics,” she says.

Dr. Hershner’s research on the causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students and other studies have found that electronic use can also affect mood, exacerbating anxiety and depression. “In the college population, we really have to worry about the mood effects. The rates of anxiety, depression, suicide are frighteningly increasing,” she says. “It’s like a three-legged stool, the stress and anxiety are affecting sleep, and the sleep is affecting stress and anxiety, so they’re all intertwined.”

RELATED: Can Screens Make You Sad?

Dr. Hershner advises her college students to choose something to study before bed that doesn’t require use of electronics. At the very least, aim to get off devices at least two hours prior to bedtime. You may want to follow a screen time diet. 

While it may be almost impossible to maintain a regular sleep schedule, consider making small changes, instead, she says, such as going to bed 10 minutes earlier than normal, or not sleeping in past 10 a.m. on weekends.

RELATED: 12 Reasons Why You're SO Tired

Eat better

With the seemingly infinite choices in the dining hall, chances are you aren’t getting an adequate nutritional diet, and you’re not alone. Only 24.8 percent of college students say they eat three to four servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

Most young adults need 2,200 calories or more daily, depending on their activity level, according to nutritional guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At that caloric intake, you should be eating a minimum of four vegetable and three fruit servings daily. Simply put, half of your plate should be produce. Fruits and vegetables provide much needed vitamins and minerals. The fiber in whole produce has been linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease and may play a role in obesity prevention. So top your pizza with vegetables and add a large salad on the side.

In addition, look into whether your campus offers free cooking and nutrition classes to help you prevent that Freshman 15 and eat healthier all around.

RELATED: How to Eat Healthy at College

Stay active

Only 47.4 percent of all college students are meeting the recommended weekly guidelines of moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity exercise. For overall health and fitness, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days or more per week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three or more days per week.

How can you do that? Many campuses offer world-class fitness facilities, and often student registration fees cover the cost of gym admission and most classes. Some even offer personal training and massage and spa services at a minimal cost. Or maybe your good intentions never become a reality. In that case, enroll in a fitness class for credit, so working out will be part of your planned schedule. 

Know where to go when you do get ill

Most campuses maintain their own student health services center. Check their website regularly for notices of health outbreaks, such as the mumps, on campus. Also, take advantage of any health fairs offered.

One thing that you will want to check into prior to a visit: how services are paid. Some schools have students pay a fee that provides access, without costs, to services in the health facility and the family’s insurance is not billed. Other schools will bill the family’s insurance when the student accesses services at the facility. In these cases, the family may have out-of-pocket costs and should know if the on-campus facility is a participating provider with the family’s health insurance plan. In many instances schools can require a student to pay a fee for access to services. This allows students to use important services (e.g., urgent care, mental health services) regardless of whether the person’s insurance covers the visit. This is particularly important for students who attend school out of state and may have HMO coverage.

Taking control of your health may seem daunting (especially during such a transitional time in your life), but it is so rewarding. You’ll feel so much better and be ready for all of the fun (and stress!) that comes with life on campus. Take everything one step at a time. You’ve got this!