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Worried about your health? UNC faculty offer advice on balancing school and wellness

lifestyle effects
Noah Shore eats lunch on Saturday afternoon at Wendy's.

Junior Lindsey Hoover wasn’t raised in a home that prioritized nutrition. Her diet consisted of Tastykakes and Toaster Strudels. But now, she starts her mornings with a bowl of cereal and almond milk, and tries to work out every day. 

“What makes me prioritize it is I know it’s something good for me, in a lot of different aspects and it’s not really going to ever hurt me,” she said. “It’s going to relieve some stress or benefit my health. It’s a win-win situation.”

It’s not always easy. For lunch, she typically snacks on granola bars. She doesn’t have time to eat a full meal.   

She’s not the only student who feels this way. 

“The expectations of a college student are exponentially growing and that means things are going to fall by the wayside,” said Kyle Harmon, Campus Recreation fitness and wellness outreach intern. “Eating healthy, exercising, sleeping — just all those healthy habits that allow you to achieve more in the long run — are the first to go.”

Although aspects of a college lifestyle can make it difficult for students be healthy, Sarah Richardson, Campus Recreation group fitness intern, said the problem isn’t that students aren’t aware of their unhealthy habits. The problem is students think they can change their unhealthy habits after college.

“This generation is very profession-minded,” she said. “They focus so much on the future that they’re not taking care of themselves now. It’s like, ‘I’ll be happy once I get there. I’ll stop these habits once I get to where I want to go.’ I think that’s the disconnect. Maybe this isn’t the best way to get there. Maybe taking care of yourself is the best way to get there.”

Richardson, who graduated from UNC in 2017, said she understands the pressure to push physical health aside to prioritize school. 

“That’s why we’re especially hard on ourselves. We come here and think we have to be perfect. We don’t realize how hard it is,” she said. “It’s OK to get a C, and it’s OK to take a day away from the gym.”

Richardson recognizes that most students, between jobs and busy schedules, feel like they don’t have time to focus on health. She says that’s not true. 

“We just feel so stressed about other things,” Richardson said. “That’s what you learn throughout college, is just balancing and fitting things into your schedule to balance ‘you time’ — whether that’s the gym or just sitting or a Netflix show.” 

If students do choose the gym, Harmon said it’s important for students to look at it as a way to get their body moving, rather than as a chore. 

“If some sort of movement makes you happy, then do it,” she said. “That’s why we offer so many fitness classes. That’s why we have intramural sports. That’s why we have a pool and swim lessons.”

Harmon graduated from UNC, too, and said she felt pressured to give up ‘me time’ in favor of study time. But she doesn’t remember the times she studied harder.

“I don’t remember the times when I was like, ‘Oh, thank God I studied that extra hour because I got an 92 instead of a 90,’” she said. “I don’t remember the grades.”

These healthy lifestyle habits will continue after graduation, said Kelli Wood, a CDS registered dietitian. She also said it’s important to start establishing them in college.

“It’s important to make the time to work out or do what is best for your wellbeing,” she said. “You’re not really setting yourself up for success if you’re just waiting for a time slot to fall on your lap.”

But it’s also important to consider your own physical limits when trying to incorporate a healthier lifestyle. Stephanie Zerwas, clinical director at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, said risky dieting kicks into high gear in a college setting. This can be perpetuated by peer comparison.

“When you are in college, 99 percent of your day is being around people who are exactly your age,” she said. “You’re not really seeing a wide variety of different ages, body styles. Everybody is sort of in the same boat. It’s really easy to fall into this, ‘How do I compare to that person?’”

Zerwas said if students find themselves experimenting with a risky diet or an eating disorder, the first step to take is start a conversation.

“The more quickly that you recognize it and the more quickly that you bring it up to friends and the faster you get into treatment, the shorter you will be struggling with it,” she said.

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It all comes back to self care. 

“If I could tell the student body anything, it would be care about school a reasonable amount,” Harmon said. “But care about yourself 10 times more.”