College Fitness: 5 Tips for Staying in Shape

Many college freshmen are flocking to campuses this month, in cars packed with dorm accessories--and perhaps tearful parents. After students say goodbye to their families and hello to their new roommates, the enormous lifestyle changes of college life will start setting in: Tougher classes. All-nighters. Shared rooms. Parties. Because of these newfound freedoms, distractions, and a slowing metabolism, it's common for students to become unhealthy and perhaps gain weight. Some may know it as the dreaded Freshman 15, others as the Freshman 25.

"In high school, [students] may have played sports or taken P.E. classes, so they had activity built into their lives," says Dixie Stanforth, fitness expert and lecturer in the University of Texas--Austin's kinesiology and health education department. Now, she says, students have many more decisions that they're allowed to make on their own. "Nobody's telling them to study; Nobody's telling them to exercise and eat right," notes Stanforth. "[Before college], they didn't get to choose Wendy's for lunch."

[See Why We're So Fat: What's Behind the Latest Obesity Rates.]

By exercising regularly and eating healthfully, both freshmen and older college students can stay fit. Here are some tips:

Make a plan.

Stanforth suggests students map out a specific fitness schedule at the beginning of the semester. "If all I do is think, 'Oh, I really should exercise,' [then] I'm not going to exercise," she says. "It's just not going to happen."

Students should examine their fall semester course load and determine exactly how and when they will make time for exercise. Will they bring their swim suit to that noon history class and head to the aquatic center afterward? Will they bike to and from the dining halls? Will they hit the elliptical after filing stories for the student newspaper? The trick is to be realistic, says Silvia Baage, a group fitness instructor and Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. "If you have an 8 a.m. class every day, you're probably not going to work out at 6 a.m."

Join a club (or make your own).

When students find friends who also want to exercise regularly, those friends will likely hold them to it, says Stanforth."Doing some type of team activity or intramural sport--or something in which other people are counting on you--that's very powerful," she adds.

Often, dorm lobbies and recreation center bulletin boards include flyers for like-minded exercisers who want to create cycling clubs, swim teams, rock-climbing crews, or just about anything else, says John Katsares, personal training coordinator at the Ohio State University. Students should look for these flyers, and if they don't see anything of interest, make their own club.

Joining a fitness club can also help students make friends, says Megan Alexander, a graduate assistant who works with Katsares in Ohio State's department of recreational sports. "Coming into college as a freshman, you're sort of looking for that place to belong," she says. "So having that group can help you feel a lot more supported."

[See U.S. News's Eat + Run blog, which serves up fresh diet and fitness advice daily.]

Sign up for an intramural sport.

Andrew Dubs, an assistant track and field coach at the University of North Carolina, trains and conditions varsity athletes. But for students who want to go a different route, Dubs suggests signing up for an intramural sport.

Intramurals are a great way to bond with classmates and try different sports, such flag football, dodgeball, and disc golf. Plus, he says, with a league-organized game schedule, students can more easily plan their workouts. "With intramurals, that's an hour [of exercise] at night maybe once or twice a week," he says. "Then two or three other times a week, you can do something on your own.

Embrace the dorm workout.

Ideally, says Baage, students should get out of their living quarters to exercise--be it in the gym, on a bike path, in a pool, or wherever. But with bad weather and crammed study schedules, that's not always an option.

For working out in a small space, such as a dorm room, Baage suggests using a resistance band. (They're sold at Target, Walmart, and most major retailers.) With a resistance band, which is ultimately an oversized rubber band that sometimes has handles, "you can do squats, lunges, bicep extensions, bicep curls--you can do everything," she says.

A stability ball--a large, inflatable, rubber ball--can also help students work their abs and other muscles, as sitting on the round surface requires balance."You could be sitting in front of your computer, and by sitting on the ball instead of the chair," she says, "you're working on your core at the same time."

Walk the campus.

"Students should try to walk as much of their campus as they can," says Stanforth. Whenever possible, she suggests forgoing the ride to class or cross-campus bus service, and walking to classes instead.

[See Nutrition Tips for College Students.]

Another simple, everyday fitness tip from Stanford: Take the stairs in classroom buildings instead of the elevator. "Build those routine levels of activity," she says, "All those calories add up."