As someone who played softball for 10 years and always enjoyed exercise, the transition to college was rough on my workout routine. I didn’t have the space, comfort or privacy of my makeshift basement gym. For the first time in my life, exercising became a chore that caused more stress than it relieved.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Physical activity can improve brain functions like memory and cognition both immediately after a workout and in the long-term.” For college students, this is a valuable benefit. A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety and inability to focus, whereas participating in at least some form of exercise a few days a week could improve those symptoms and even help students perform better in their classes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not necessarily as easy as just deciding to work out.
College is full of commitments, and as most students quickly realize after the first semester of freshman year, they tend to pile up on each other. Between classes, extracurriculars, and social events, prioritizing one’s physical health becomes increasingly difficult. Fitting exercise into such a busy schedule is a struggle, especially with the pressure to achieve consistency. A common misconception about exercise is that without rigorous consistency, working out is relatively unproductive.
One study referenced by Healthline found that roughly 73% of people who make a resolution to start an exercise routine give up before achieving their goals. People feel pressured to achieve a high level of success in exercise that is incredibly difficult to sustain, especially when starting from an inactive lifestyle and setting an impossible goal. Burning out on exercise is easy when you set yourself up for failure from the start. So how do students start exercising in a way that becomes productive and beneficial, without making it just another task thrown onto the pile?
First, it’s most important not to set an unreasonable goal. Unlike the unforgiving nature of grades, exercising should never feel unsuccessful. There is no “one” way of how to properly work out, and if all you can fit into your day is 10 minutes of jumping rope, that’s a win. Exercising should feel like a fun break from regular stressors, not another thing to feel bad about not accomplishing in the way you originally planned to. Missing a workout because of sickness, schoolwork, or a coffee date is not a cause of punishment or regret. Exercise is productive if it makes you feel better, so trying to fit it in out of guilt is not worth it when you could just fit it in at a less busy time.
Which leads to the second most important point: finding a workout that you actually enjoy doing. Some people run, some people lift, some people dance. The types of exercise are practically infinite, and college students tend to have access to many different kinds through recreation centers and student organizations. Many college towns have businesses that offer classes geared toward students specifically and offer special promotions. Whether you enjoy something fast paced, like spin cycling, or slower paced, like yoga, there is no harm in trying every option available if it gets the body moving and the heart working just a little bit harder.
Personally, I set a goal for myself. I signed up for a half-marathon with eight months to prepare. All I wanted to do was finish. So, I took my time training, building my mileage slowly and fitting in my runs whenever I could. I found that running in the morning made me feel more alert in my classes and running at night made me sleep more soundly. I enjoyed exploring campus on my runs, and sometimes my roommate came with me, and we would end up walking and talking our way through the last mile.
When the time came for the half-marathon, I finished last in my age group in almost three hours. Still, in crossing the finish line I accomplished the goal I set out for myself in the beginning, and I felt great. Making running into a hobby, not a competition with myself or with anyone else, helped create a kind of consistency, both by literally running at least three times a week, and mentally, by learning to be less hard on myself and enjoy the runs themselves.