This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the Telegram & Gazette.
For a student, going to college is amazingly similar to a runner competing in a marathon. There is a start and a finish, lots of steep hills and terrain to climb, plateaus that require much less effort, and the exhilarating feeling of accomplishment when you cross the finish line and get that diploma! Similar to running a marathon, being successful at college takes preparation and training. Athletes focus on the way the body and mind can help them achieve their goals, and students must focus on preparing and caring for their body and mind to obtain their goal of graduating.
As a college counselor, I see many students who are feeling stressed and finding it difficult to make it to the end of the semester. I always ask students to think back to a time they were feeling good and what were they doing differently? Usually they talk about when they were working out and eating healthy, which is followed by “but now I don’t have time to exercise or think about what I am eating.” The funny thing is if those habits continued along with a couple of other ones, not only would their stress levels be significantly lower but more than likely they would have a more successful academic semester.
Eating healthy might not seem important for studying but research shows the brain benefits from good nutrition increasing cognitive function and memory. Students who ate breakfast had better school attendance and better test grades than those who didn’t, according to a study published in the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association.” Preparing hard-boiled eggs the night before class or stocking the refrigerator with yogurts makes it easier to grab a quick bite on your way out the door. I have worked with many students who added breakfast to their test preparation routine and came back saying how much better they performed on their exam and how much better they felt.
Along with healthy eating comes healthy movement. Regular exercise helps a student get in shape not only physically but cognitively. Almost daily, we hear about the benefits of exercise for the brain including quicker learning and better memory. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t mean you have to follow a marathoner’s regimen. A simple 30 minute walk per day has shown to be beneficial to the brain and has the added benefit of stress relief. We are fortunate at Mount Wachusett to have lovely grounds to walk and an affordable fitness center.
However, there are numerous free exercise videos and apps that make it far easier to squeeze in some form of movement than ever before. I often will recommend to a student that before they sit down to study for the exam or work on a difficult homework assignment they try a short stint of exercise to give the brain a boost.
But as important as nutrition and exercise are to the brain, sleep is essential! Sleep may seem trivial to a student but everything our body and mind needs to replenish for the next day is done during sleep. Athletes are rigorous about their sleep schedule and students should be too. It is far more productive for your brain to function at full capacity after seven hours of sleep than decreased capacity due to lack of sleep. The all-nighter makes sense to students because you would think the more you study the more you’ll absorb. However, we all know more is not necessarily better.
If you’re so tired and you have to read the same line in your text book 10 times, you’re not studying efficiently. Be mindful of your sleep environment as too much blue light from phones, computers, and television can make it difficult for your brain to recognize that it is night and time to sleep. There are wonderful free apps that address sleep difficulty such as Insight Timer. Frequently students who are sleep deprived and finding life overwhelming come see me after getting six to seven hours of sleep and they seem like a different person, capable of handling the demands of academics.
Last but not least, an athlete has a support system that includes connecting with coaches and other athletes for encouragement, motivation, and support. Students need a support system too; connecting with their fellow classmates, faculty, and staff who can encourage and motivate them when the race course becomes rocky. We all need some sort of connection in our lives and being connected to others while you’re pursuing your academic dream might just be the one thing you need to make it all the way.
So remember, college is not just about “hitting the books,” it is about being in the necessary shape to last the distance – mentally and physically.
– Melissa Manzi, MSW, LICSW, is the mental health counselor at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner.