While scrolling through Instagram a few weeks ago, envying those who already had returned to Ann Arbor before Welcome Week, I laughed at a picture of the words: “Some days you eat salads and go to the gym, some days you eat cupcakes and refuse to put on pants. It’s called balance.” Five minutes later, I received a text from my older sister with a screenshot of the same exact post, followed by a “hahahahahahahaha” and a couple of crying-from-laughter emojis. The reason we were laughing so hard? Those 24 words pretty much sum up everything that I can say about staying healthy in college.

In all seriousness, personal health — regarding physical activity and nutrition — is an area that I have grown into over time. As with many other people, I grew up athletic. From figure skating to 10 years of competitive gymnastics and a few short stints in ballet and diving, I spent anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week in a gym. After high school, I rode my accelerated metabolism for at least a year before I felt any different. I’ve never trusted scales or counted calories because, for me, it is a lot more than how my clothes fit or what I see in the mirror or any number that represents how “healthy” I am. Instead, it is the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach after knowing I am not fueling my body in the correct way or moving enough to keep my muscles strong.

At first I wholeheartedly resented the idea of forming new eating habits, and maybe this was because my sister was overly strict about what she ate. Her habits made me believe the concept of a healthy diet involved things like cutting out entire food groups. At this point, she and I were on polar-opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum, and I believe that together, we helped each other meet in the middle. Eventually, I found my way back to a fitness routine that now keeps me excited to go back to the gym. Full disclosure: I had a giant bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream for lunch today, so I cannot claim to have it completely figured out. No one does, but as a wise Instagram photo once said, “It’s called balance.”

Balance can be a tricky thing to find in college, especially at a university as difficult as Michigan. Classes are tough, and finding a place to study during finals is even tougher. For a long time, I used the excuse that I didn’t have the time to exercise. Time to do anything other than eat, sleep and study was a precious resource that, when I found, I sometimes forgot what to do with. If I had time to exercise, didn’t I actually have the time to study more? Exercising must be a waste of that precious resource. And nutrition? How can I be expected to make healthy eating choices at 2 a.m., when I’m staring into the case at Bert’s, deciding between the double chocolate chip muffin and an apple? Muffins go better with coffee; that’s all I have to say about that.

The thing is, this all-or-nothing health and fitness attitude is not in anyone’s best interest. There’s a time for salads and there’s a time for cupcakes, we just have to be self-aware enough to know which time is which. It’s true, however, that a cupcake a day will certainly not keep the doctor away. In order to physically and mentally stand up to the tasks presented in the classroom, steps toward a healthier lifestyle need to be taken outside of it.

A 2015 study conducted by Maite Pellicer-Chenoll et al. demonstrated that high-energy expenditure and good physical fitness of students was associated with low BMI and high academic performance. It is true, however, that better academic performance may not be solely explained by physical activity and that there are other variables involved. One perspective is that attitude and motivation toward physical activity also, in a larger sense, play a role in determining an individual’s outlook on academics. The catch is that physical activity can perpetuate this motivation, which, in turn, can lead to better academic performance.

Although scientific evidence can be reassuring, I believe that to see the positive results of healthy decisions, we don’t even have to look as far as research. I recommend this: Instead of using your study break to watch reruns on Netflix, work out for an hour. Before you go for a third cup of coffee, try going to sleep and waking up an hour earlier to finish your paper. Take a few seconds to reflect on what your body is telling you, and compare it to how you’ve felt in the past. When are you more efficient? When do you feel less stressed? When do you feel happier about where you are academically, socially, mentally and physically? Maybe today it’s a cupcake, but tomorrow it’s salad and the gym.  

Grace Carey can be reached at gecarey@umich.edu. 

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