Staying healthy important but difficult in college

By Larissa Gula

A double major in the business school, 18-credits this semester, a job as an RA — Pitt student… A double major in the business school, 18-credits this semester, a job as an RA — Pitt student Leanne Ikeda is busy. But every week, she fits exercise into her routine.

“I plan exercise,” Ikeda said, explaining that she heads out to the gym every other day when possible. “It’s an important part of my routine for me, because it’s time just for myself. I try to work out at least every other day.”

Ikeda is only one of Pitt’s more than 17,000 undergraduate students trying to find time to live a healthy lifestyle while at college. Fortunately, Pitt provides numerous resources to help students ensure their regular routines are actually healthy and effective.

The two habits required for staying healthy, eating right and staying active, prove to be especially challenging for students. To stave off college weight gain, it’s crucial to maintain a balanced diet and avoid the temptations to over eat at buffet-style dining areas and 24-hour establishments. It’s tough to squeeze in time to work out — and the U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends two and a half hours per week.

Marian Vanek, director of Pitt’s Student Health Service, encourages all students to exercise, even if they can’t do so very often.

“Research has shown that as little as 15 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per day may reduce mortality risk,” Vanek said in an email. She added that any exercise encourages healthy hearts, stronger bones, more energy, and better immune systems, and that too few people exercise even a little bit on a weekly basis.

And exercising doesn’t need to be limited to Pitt’s multiple gyms and recreation centers, Vanek said.

“Brisk walking, jogging and swimming are ways to boost your heart rate,” she said.

Take student Jennie Snyder — a senior double majoring in Spanish and communication — who’s also taking 18 credits in addition to her other responsibilities in campus organizations.

Snyder exercises four or five days every week. She can be found either using the treadmill at one of Pitt’s gyms or jogging in the park or up to Shadyside or Squirrel Hill.

By exercising, these Pitt students are also doing more than taking care of themselves physically: They’re all getting a great mental-health boost as well, according to Vanek.

“Exercise … affects the brain; it encourages a good mood and reduces stress hormones in our bodies,” Vanek said. “Research teams have found that exercise has been shown to improve memory, attention and decision-making abilities — especially important to the college student.”

Exercise also helps keep weight in check. Researchers at Oregon State University found that a quarter of students gain at least five pounds over the course of two months early in their first year of college.

But exercise isn’t the only component to healthy living — eating right factors in as well.

Snyder eats “as many fruits and vegetables as possible” during the day. She even eats a larger, well-balanced breakfast with protein, fruit and dairy products. And she avoids late-night snacking.

Ikeda has taken healthy eating further. She recently made the decision to see Meg Mayer-Costa, the nutritionist at the Student Health Service. She hopes to take her healthy living one step further by following a healthier eating regimen.

“It’s tough on a meal plan,” she said about healthy eating. “The options aren’t as widespread.”

When students visit Student Health to meet Mayer-Costa, appointments begin with certain questions about their living situations, weights, supplements, medications and daily diets. Because every student is different, each has to be approached differently when developing a healthy-living plan, Mayer-Costa explained.

What might work for Ikeda’s healthy lifestyle might not work for another student. And by going into the nutrition center, students can learn about what’s helpful for them.

For example, although Ikeda doesn’t use them, Snyder takes vitamin C tablets because they “[make] me feel better when I think I’m catching a cold.”

Snyder contributes to a $25 billion business in the U.S. by taking these vitamin supplements. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that vitamins can cure illnesses or make up for a poor diet. Recent studies released by the Archives of Internal Medicine have shown that multivitamin use does not give us the healthy boost we once thought.

Although Mayer-Costa said that multivitamins might provide a “safety net” by adding small amounts of necessary nutrition to a daily diet, the pills cannot make up for a poor diet. And she said doctors don’t prescribe them to treat a disease because taking Vitamin C during cold season isn’t going to cure those sniffles faster.

Plus, multivitamins and the medications individuals take don’t always mix well, so everyone should consult their doctors about taking multivitamins in relation to their health needs, Mayer-Costa said.

“Students … can take too much, too often, and [the supplements] can also interfere with each other and other medications,” Mayer-Costa said. This is why vitamin pills come in low dosages that are supposed to be taken once or twice a day.

Ikeda and Snyder keep in touch with their respective doctors and visit every year or two to make sure nothing is wrong with their physical health. They agreed that Wikipedia and WebMD aren’t substitutes for taking care of yourself. And thanks to their efforts and doctor’s visits, both have found a formula that works for them.

The best way to determine a great personal exercise routine or diet is by consulting a doctor and seeing what works best for the individual, Mayer-Costa said. Personal trainers and doctors can recommend sound work-out routines in addition to nutritional advice.