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Survive Freshman Year without Getting Fat, Sick or Sad

Starting school this week? Here’s how to ensure a healthy, happy, and fit college career.

At this point in your life, developing good health habits is as important as pulling down good grades. We’re not saying you have to be a completely responsible adult just yet, but if you keep these 12 core concepts in mind as you adjust to life on campus—and beyond—you’ll be fitter, healthier, and smarter, too.

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1) Make time for exercise

Whether you take a P.E. class for credit, join an intramural sports team, or just go for frequent long walks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity and two days of resistance training each week. Exercise can even improve your grades: A recent study found that students who exercised had GPAs that were 0.4 points higher than those who didn't.

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2) Eat the way mom taught you

You’re young, so you think you can get away with it, but skipping breakfast, grabbing a mediocre lunch, then ending the day with pizza and beer will eventually catch up with you. If you’re not already on a specific nutritional regimen, break your overnight fast with eggs, toast, and fruit. Eat every three hours, and keep protein bars in your backpack. College is your launching pad to adulthood, but your body needs the right fuel to get there.

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3) Take a shot of this

Vaccinations aren’t just for kids, although if you’re like most guys, you probably haven’t thought about getting any shots since your mom made you do so as a child. In addition to the influenza vaccine (which can be done yearly), you may need other shots or boosters for diseases like tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Td, Tdap), measles, mumps, rubella (MMR ), varicella (chicken pox), hepatitis B (HepB), and hepatitis A (HepA). Check with your doctor for an adult schedule.

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4) Be safe

If you’re planning on having sex (and you are), wear a condom. According to public speaker and educator Elaine Pasqua, one in four American college students is infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). “One night of sex can be a life-altering event,” she says. “Birth control pills may guard against unwanted pregnancy, but the only way to protect yourself from human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, HIV, and other STDs is to use a condom.”

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5) Do your chemistry. H2O = U

Taking into consideration the flowing-afterglow spectrometry (ask your professor what this means), your body is composed of approximately 60% water, so staying healthy means staying hydrated. Consuming a lot of caffeine and alcohol—likely your daily bookends—depletes your body of the fluids it needs to run properly. Keep your water bottle handy to make sure you get the ounces you need on a daily basis: half your body weight (in pounds).

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6) Wash your hands

While not quite as toxic as a biosafety Level 4 lab, common areas on college campuses are like petri dishes where the germs that cause influenza and rhinovirus thrive. “When an infected person sneezes,” says Dr. Sarah Blutt, a microbiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, “viruses are expelled in water droplets and land on surfaces like door handles and water fountains. If you touch them, then rub your eye or pick your nose, you’re infected.” So wash up often or keep hand sanitizer handy.

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7) Keep your shoes on

The magic of dorm life includes sharing shower facilities with untold numbers of funky-footed students whose detritus can include the fungus tinea pedis—commonly known as athlete’s foot. The scaling and dryness on the soles and sides of your feet may not bother you, but the burning will—both between your toes and inside your tighty-whities (jock itch is caused by the same germs). Mitigate the fungus among us by wearing flip-flops in the shower.

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8) Don't be sad

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a psychophysiological syndrome triggered by the onset of winter that can make you feel depressed, lethargic, irritable, or forgetful. It can also cause cravings for high-carb foods. While SAD affects only about 5% of North Americans, students at colleges in the North (areas receiving less daylight during the winter months) are particularly susceptible. Let a health-care professional know if you can’t shake the winter blues, but getting direct sunlight helps.

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9) Sleep tight

While pulling the occasional all-nighter may be necessary to cram for an exam, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with poor grades, according to a study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine. Newly acquired information, stored temporarily in the brain’s hippocampus, is fragile and susceptible to being overwritten by competing memories. To retain information, you need sleep, and your ability to remember facts declines nearly 40% when you’re sleep deprived. Get eight hours per night.

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10) Purge the binging

According to the CDC, more than 90% of alcohol consu mption by the 21-and under set happens in the form of binge drinking. Binge drinking occurs in most bars on any given Saturday night: benders that elevate your blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% or above. Five drinks in two hours, however, is all it takes to put you on academic probation. A paper published by ImpacTeen concluded that a student’s GPA is reduced by half a grade for every five drinks he has per occasion. Stick to two drinks per day, maximum.

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11) Don't let the bed bugs bite

That dorm mattress has plenty of history, and it’s potentially crawling with bugs. Newly hatched bedbugs are tiny and white. Once they start feeding on human blood, they take on a mahogany color and grow to the size of an apple seed. Before you make your bed for the first time, inspect the piping along the seams of the mattress. If you see black dots (undigested blood) or live bugs, notify your resident adviser. Bug spray will only disperse the bugs, making extermination more difficult.

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12) Relax

The “stress hormone” cortisol is labeled as such because it’s secreted by the adrenal glands into the bloodstream when the body is under stress. If you’re always in fight-or-flight mode, that chronic high level of stress—and cortisol—may also make you flunk your math test. Studies show that elevated cortisol is associated with impaired cognitive performance, decreased muscle tissue and bone density, suppressed immunity, and higher blood pressure. People with high cortisol levels also tend to eat more.

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