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How to stay healthy in college and beyond

Part of adulting is taking care of your physical and mental health. Your well-being is nothing you want to take for granted, even if you’re young. Heather Nash, family nurse practitioner at Vancouver Clinic, boils down the most important considerations—things you need to know as you head off to a new school and new adventures.

Make sure you’re covered by health insurance

Health insurance makes preventive care (such as routine checkups) more affordable. That’s important because keeping up on your wellness allows providers to catch issues early, before they become serious. It also makes the bills from an unexpected medical event, like appendicitis or a sports injury, easier to handle. Individuals 26 and under can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan. Many schools also offer student health plans that provide basic coverage. Learn about your insurance options before you become sick.

Check your vaccination status

Vaccines keep you from contracting serious, preventable diseases. While you may have received most or all of your vaccines as a kid, it’s important to check. Some shots are particularly relevant to college-age individuals:

  • The meningococcal conjugate vaccine protects against meningitis, which is easily spread in shared living situations, such as dorms and apartments, and can be deadly.
  • The HPV vaccine protects against genital warts and cancer later in life and is important for anyone who is or will be sexually active.
  • The yearly influenza vaccine prevents the flu, which kills between 12,000 and 79,000 people each flu season.

Protect your sexual health

If you choose to be sexually active it’s important that you protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. Here are the basics:

  • If you’re a woman, talk to your doctor or provider about reliable birth control options. Many females find long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and implants to be easy and effective. The pill, the patch, and the shot are also popular options.
  • Use condoms to protect against STIs.
  • Get tested for STIs and have your partner get tested before having unprotected sex.
  • Get tested for STIs if you’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner or partners or if you think you’ve been exposed to an STI. Many STIs are silent and testing is the only way to know if you’re infected.

Stay in the habit of routine care

It can be easy to fall behind on wellness checkups in college, whether it’s because you’re far from home and your provider or because no one is prompting you to make an appointment. However, it’s important to continue to receive regular care. Schedule a physical annually and dental cleanings every six months. Women should start receiving Pap smears at age 21, and every three years thereafter, to screen for cervical cancer.

Drink responsibly—or not at all

Most college students know the basic rule: Don’t drive drunk and don’t get in a car with a driver who is drunk. Beyond that, aim to drink in a way that allows you to enjoy your beverage and the company you’re with. Eat plenty of food and drink water to avoid dehydration. Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones to drink less. Until we live in a world where everyone understands and respects the idea of consent, drink only with people you know and trust or travel in pairs. Exercise your right to say “no thanks” and “no more.” If you are worried about your drinking habits, ask for help from your provider. It’s always okay to choose not to drink.

Exercise regularly

The American Heart Association recommends adults fit in 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week. Most colleges offer a variety of physical education classes, student sports clubs, and low-cost gym passes, in addition to formal athletic programs. Regular exercise lowers your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It can decrease stress levels, improve sleep, and help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.

Eat lots of plants

Good nutrition is vital to your health. Eating the right foods in reasonable proportions helps fuel your studies, maintain a healthy weight, and ward off serious diseases. Food doesn’t have to be complicated. Focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Whole grains (like oatmeal and whole-wheat bread), lean proteins (like beans), and healthy fats (like nuts and avocados) can round out your plate.

In college, easy access to the campus food hall can result in unwanted weight gain. Try these strategies to limit added pounds:

  • Avoid the pizza and fried foods area of the cafeteria
  • Skip dessert at lunch
  • Stock your dorm room with healthy snacks
  • Limit sweetened coffees, sports drinks, and other beverages
  • Eat a salad or veggie soup before your entrée.

Wear sunscreen no matter the weather

Put sunscreen on exposed skin every day, even if it’s cloudy. Clouds filter out sunlight but only a small percentage of the rays that cause skin cancer—the most common cancer in the U.S. Sunscreen keeps your skin looking young and protects it from damage. The goal with sunscreen isn’t just to avoid a sunburn, but to shield skin from daily UVA and UVB exposure. Indoor tanning is never a good idea as it increases your risk of developing melanoma.

Take care of your mental health

Stress can cause depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other physical concerns. If you struggle with any of these issues, you should seek help from your primary care provider, a mental health specialist, or a counselor. Most college campuses have mental health services available.

Develop healthy habits

The choices you make in your 20s can have a long-term impact on your health. While trying new things and experiencing the world is an important part of striking out on your own, it’s important to do so in a way that sets your body up for a lifetime of wellness. Cultivating good habits now can help you live a longer and healthier life. If you have questions about how to stay safe, healthy, and active in college, talk to your provider.

Heather Nash as a family nurse practitioner at Vancouver Clinic. She has a special interest in equipping adolescents and young adults with the information they need to make healthy decisions.