At LSU, you’ll learn and experience many things that can change the course of your life. An astronomy class homework assignment might inspire you to pursue the origin of a mysterious star. A summer internship on campus might turn into a new career opportunity. A student success workshop might shape how you manage your time and how you juggle deadlines far beyond your college years.
But did you know that your health-related lifestyle choices can shape not only your success in college, but also your long-term health? Healthy habits you develop during your college years, from regular exercise to a balanced diet, will help you manage your stress levels and live healthier for years to come. Similarly, poor health behaviors you don’t manage now, from staying up too late to sedentary behavior to smoking to regular alcohol use, can negatively impact your long-term health. These behaviors can also turn into bad habits that will only be harder to kick as you age.
Healthy habits you develop now will also prevent acute stresses like exams and looming deadlines (which can actually be good for you, prompting you to work harder) from fueling chronic stress. Chronic stress, or stress that is sustained over an extended period of time, can not only impact your academic performance and mental health, but also increase inflammation levels and oxidative damage in your body, put you at greater risk of developing infections and even age you.
Stressful events can have different impacts on different individuals, but common reactions include tension and irritability, sleep problems, headaches, stomach and digestive issues, loss of appetite, increased use of alcohol and drugs, trouble concentrating, loss of interest in normal activities, etc. These reactions and their impacts on your academic performance, physical and mental health are worsened by chronic stress, or when your stress is prolonged or severe.
So how can you best manage stress for both your academic performance and your health? Interventions that can help curb the inflammatory and immune suppressing impacts of prolonged stress include a well-balanced diet, a normal daily routine including plenty of sleep (the national recommendation is 7+ hours per night), regular exercise and social connection.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, to stay healthy you should 1) avoid inactivity at all costs, 2) get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity activity, and 3) strengthen your muscles, for example by lifting weights at moderate to high intensity at least two days per week.
“Movement is essential to our health. Frankly, we don’t do enough of it,” says Paul Kwiatkowski, the Assistant Director for Fitness and Wellness at LSU University Recreation. “Recently, the World Health Organization ranked physical inactivity as the fourth biggest preventable killer globally. Moving well and moving often doesn’t just promote fat loss and muscle gain, but it also improves motor function.”
What are the best times of day to exercise for stress reduction and cognitive performance? According to Paul, the answer is essentially whenever and as often as you are able to (although you might want to avoid rigorous physical activity within an hour of your normal bedtime).
“A favorite quote I’ve heard is that ‘the best [physical] ability is availability’ - whenever you are available is the best time for you,” Paul said. “You may enjoy the quiet solitude of a 6am workout or you may thrive off the energy of hundreds of fellow exercisers in the LSU UREC at 6pm. We encourage you to find what works best for you.”
While bouts of exercise, like a morning run or an afternoon weight-lifting session, are components of a healthy lifestyle, being physically active throughout the day and minimizing your amount of sedentary time are just as important. Try taking a short walk for every hour that you spend sitting and studying, for example, or try to stand up every 15 minutes or so. This “exercise snacking” may even help you better concentrate, comprehend and remember your study materials. Physical activity and exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors in your brain, which promote the growth of new connections between neurons, brain function and brain plasticity.
If you struggle to achieve the recommended weekly levels of physical activity for health and stress-busting, we recommend visiting the LSU UREC. In fact, there are research studies showing that students who visit their university recreation facilities perform better academically. In one study conducted in 2016 at NC State, researchers found that for each hour of intentional exercise students participated in each week, their GPA increased by approximately 0.06, with the relationship between exercise and academic performance being stronger for freshmen and sophomores.
“We offer over 75 GroupX classes per week, many of which can help you meet, if not exceed, your aerobic activity and muscle strengthening goals,” Paul said. “If you are someone looking for guidance with exercising, we offer Personal Training and Small Group Training.”
The LSU UREC has over 200 pieces of cardio equipment and 200 pieces of strength equipment to help you exercise, as well as various fitness and intramural sports programs, a 35-ft climbing wall and an indoor/outdoor lap pool.
What if you only have a few minutes in between classes and your evenings are full of other studying, work-related and/or other extra-curricular activities? All you have to do is move.
“Take the stairs instead of the elevator,” Paul recommends “Climbing stairs burns seven times the calories of using the elevator. Increase the pace at which you walk from class to class to get your heart rate up. Do a quick routine of three sets of air squats for 30 seconds and three sets of push-ups for 30 seconds in the morning or before your evening activities. Just find small ways to intentional add exercise into your routine.”
Paul’s favorite forms of stress-busting physical activity include walking around the LSU lakes while he listens to a podcast. He also enjoys a heavy barbell workout of either squats or deadlifts. “Nothing fires the endorphins faster than when you challenge yourself to stand up with heavy weight on your back!” he said. “I also love any GroupX class that another instructor is teaching – I get to put my thoughts on the back burner and just listen to the instructor.”
It may seem banal, but a balanced diet full of plenty fruits and vegetables, dietary fiber, whole grains and lean meats (fish, chicken and the occasional red meat) is a vital component of a healthy and stress-busting lifestyle. An anti-inflammatory diet (consisting for example of mostly plants and plant fats such as leafy greens, olive oil, fruits, nuts, legumes and fatty fish) can help lessen the physiological damage that comes with stress, particularly chronic stress.
“I recommend students eat a balanced meal within an hour of waking up, and then eat a meal or snack incorporating at least two different food groups every three to four hours during the day,” says Emily Fields, a registered dietitian at the LSU Student Health Center. “This requires planning.”
Emily sees students for individual nutrition counseling and help with eating disorders. She guides students in choosing healthier options when they eat on campus, for example choosing grilled over fried foods, getting color on their plates, and planning ahead in terms of having healthy snacks (like a container of grapes versus a bag of chips) on hand. She also recommends students check out Budget Bytes recipes if they struggle with eating healthy on budget. As a plus, the site was created by a Nutritional Science LSU alum! Check out this season appropriate Moroccan Lentil Vegetable Stew that is full of vegetables and only costs 75 cents per serving!
“Foods that are rich in antioxidants can also be helpful in minimizing oxidative stress,” Emily said. “We know that oxidative stress can provoke inflammation. Eating antioxidants, such as those in berries, leafy greens and whole grains, is part of having a balanced diet.”
The brain in particular is highly susceptible to oxidative damage because of its high metabolic load. For this reason, antioxidant activity plays an important role in the prevention of cognitive disorders; antioxidant consumption through fruits and vegetables is related to reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Nutrients with antioxidant activity include B vitamins (including B6, B12, folate), vitamins C, A, and D and polyphenols, all of which are highly present in vegetables and fruits. A healthy dietary pattern such as the Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and legumes, is associated with higher verbal learning and memory performance.
The Take-home Message
Stress can be a healthy thing when you pay attention to it in the moment but let it go quickly. A car horn can make you look into our blind spot to avoid an accident, and a poor quiz grade can make you study harder for your final exam. But if you let stress consume your waking hours and you put off eating breakfast, going to bed on time, exercising, spending time with family and friends, enjoying your favorite hobbies, pausing to enjoy a peaceful moment in the sunshine, etc., your academic performance and your physical health may suffer.
Any student entering finals week is prone to the more negative mental and physiologically impacts of prolonged stress. So, while you may have to spend some extra time studying leading up to finals week 2018, don’t forget to move, sleep and eat balanced, colorful meals in the next few weeks. And take some time after finals week to decompress, sleep, cook some meals at home, practice yoga or lift some weights before the holidays and the start of a new year. Your final grades and your health will thank you!
More Stress-Busting Health Tips
Try eating more mindfully. Turn off the TV and put down the screen, fill your plate with color, taste and savor each bite, eat with friends. Mindful eating and other mindfulness practices can help bust stress while also promoting healthier eating and awareness of what your body needs.
Restrict your intake of caffeine, sugar and energy drinks to early daylight hours. This can help prevent sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances that can reinforce the negative impacts of stress on your body.
Manage your time. Get started on projects earlier than you think you need to. Be honest with yourself when committing to activities, events and nights with friends. Managing your time and deadlines today will help prevent unnecessary stress later.
How to manage stress so that it doesn’t hurt your health, via Wellness at NBC
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, a book by John Ratey