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It’s never too late to cultivate a healthy lifestyle, especially as a student. Many schools offer an on-campus gym and intramural sports. Not available at your school? Explore the outdoor settings for physical activity in your community or look into local clubs or Meetup groups. Take the opportunity to squeeze in quick workouts between classes, after work, or while dinner cooks, and they’ll not only benefit you physically, but also mentally. All you need is a fitness plan that fits you and your schedule.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need 150 minutes of physical activity weekly. Dr. Adrian Hutber, vice president of the “Exercise is Medicine®” initiative of the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana, says, “If the benefits of physical activity could be put into a drug, it would be the most widely prescribed drug in the world.”
- Improve sleep & energy
- Boost the immune system
- Reduce stress
- Help with weight management
- Prevent depression
Make It Manageable
The CDC advises breaking up the recommended 150 minutes into manageable chunks throughout the week. Bobby R., a student taking online classes at Collin College in Plano, Texas, schedules exercise. He says, “I make it a priority in my schedule. If you plan it as a priority in your day, then it becomes one.”
Try doing 20-minute exercise routines at times that fit in your schedule. Over the course of a few days, you’ll reach the 150-minute goal for your week. Just be sure to do both aerobic activities and strength training-combined into the same workouts or on alternating days.
The CDC advises strength training at least twice a week. This can include body-weight exercises such as planks and squats, or any routine that focuses on using weight or resistance to challenge your bones and muscles.
Aerobic or “cardio” activities are those that increase your breathing and heart rate. For Bobby, any movement helps to offset the hours he spends sitting. He explains, “I spend so much time at a computer or desk. The most important thing is to keep my body in motion.”
In order to get the most from your cardio workout, Dr. Hutber says you need to exercise for at least 10 minutes at a moderate level. What’s moderate? One of the easiest ways to measure the intensity of your workout is the “talk test.” Here’s how it works:
Light: You can sing while doing the activity.
Moderate: You can talk, but not sing.
Vigorous: You can’t even say a few words without pausing for a breath.
Dr. Kathleen Watson, an epidemiologist at the CDC, says biking is an easy way to combine fitness and your daily commute. Abigail B., a student at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, prefers biking as her main method of travel. She says, “I get my exercise by using my bike as transportation. I bike everywhere, so I’m getting to and from places for free and also getting exercise at the same time!”
Find Your Fitness Level
If you’re new to regular physical activity or have taken an extended hiatus, you will probably want to start out with beginner’s exercise routines. These allow you to get comfortable moving and use minimal equipment, if any.
As a beginner, you may need to first learn proper form for doing certain exercises. A trainer or staff member at your local fitness center, or even a knowledgeable friend, can offer advice. Lots of diagrams and videos are also available online. Using good technique will enhance the benefits of your exercise and reduce the risk of injury.
Before starting any new physical activity, consult with your health care provider, especially if you have any health conditions that may preclude you from doing certain exercises.
Walking or Jogging
Always make sure to warm up for 5-10 minutes before you increase your pace. Alternating between walking and jogging is a way to use the concept of interval training. Be sure to stretch when you’re done.
0:00 - 5:00
Warm up: walk
5:00 - 7:00
Brisk Walk (3.5 mph)
7:00 - 8:00
8:00 - 10:00
Brisk Walk (3.5 mph)
10:00 - 12:00
12:00 - 15:00
Brisk Walk (3.5 mph)
15:00 - 20:00
Cool down: walk
This workout can be done on a stationary bike or while cruising across campus or town. If exercising outside, watch out for traffic and always wear a helmet, reflective vest, and attach lights to your bike in front and back.
- Start by pedaling at a comfortable speed for 3-5 minutes.
- Then alternate pedaling for 2 minutes while sitting and 2 while hovering above the seat.
- As you gain cardiovascular and muscular endurance, increase the number of minutes hovering and/or bike in a higher gear with more resistance.
- Continue for a total of 15-20 minutes.
Beginner Routines: Strength
Cable Hip Abductors (20 reps x 3 each side)
- Begin by attaching one leg to a cable or pully on a weight machine. Add weight if you’re comfortable.
- Slowly draw your leg out and up to the side and squeeze your glutes. Engage your core abdominal muscles to protect your lower back and keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Lean your hand or forearm on the machine for additional support if needed.
- Do 3 sets of 20 repetitions on each side.
Cable Oblique Rotations (25 reps x 2)
- Start by holding the pulley of a weight machine on one side of your body with both hands.
- Slowly bring the handle across your body, keeping your feet planted and your legs as still as possible.
- Maintain the level and rigidity of your arms. This will help you focus on using your core to make the movement, rather than pulling with your arms or straining your back.
- Slowly return to the starting position. That’s one repetition. Do 25 repetitions on each side for 2 sets.
Good Mornings (25 reps x 2)
- Lift a weighted bar up and over onto your shoulders and make sure you are standing with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend forward at your hips, keeping a flat back and soft knees.
- Engage your core and don’t allow your back to arch downward.
- As you hinge forward, feel the pull in your hamstrings and use your back and core to lift you back to a standing position. Do 25 repetitions for 2 sets.
Dead Lifts (30 reps x 2)
- Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand.
- With a flat back, reach down toward your knees (but not past them). Your knees should naturally bend a little, and you should feel a long stretch down your legs. This will work the quads, hamstrings, and upper back.
- To advance, add more weight. Do 30 repetitions for 2 sets.
Incline Crunch (15 reps x 3)
- Lay back onto an incline/decline bench; secure your feet.
- Hold the pulley with both hands or use a medicine ball.
- Tighten your core muscles and flatten your back against the bench to protect your lower back.
- Slowly bring your arms up and back over your head, making sure not to overextend, then draw the pulley or ball up and toward your feet, crunching your abdominal muscles.
- Exhale each time you reach up. Do 15 repetitions for 3 sets.
Walking Lunges (15 reps x 3)
This exercise will activate your quads and glutes.
- Stand with feet hip width apart.
- Step your right foot out and bend your right knee so it is over your foot, but not past your toes. Your left knee should also bend and hover over the floor. This is one repetition.
- By keeping the weight in your right heel, drive your left foot forward for a step and repeat, moving progressively forward. Do 15 repetitions for 3 sets.
- To challenge yourself, hold weights or a medicine ball.
If you’ve been active regularly and are looking for a bigger challenge or to renew your routine, intermediate exercise is probably for you. As someone with more experience, you can up the ante in a number of ways:
- Perform beginner’s routines but add repetitions and sets, or exercise for a longer time period.
- Use beginner’s routines for warming up and cooling down, adding more advanced exercises in between.
- Combine various exercises to create a circuit-training routine.
- Use weights when performing basic exercises.
- Explore workouts that require special equipment or increased endurance.
- Try out intense fitness trends, such as CrossFit™ or boot-camp-style circuits.
Kyle L., a student at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, prefers high-intensity, full-body cardio training as a way to really pump up his workouts. This type of routine uses compound movements to target multiple muscle groups at once and is easy to do in your living room or even outside. It can easily be adapted to your personal fitness level.
Talk with friends, family members, or a personal trainer for more suggestions, and find the combination of activities that best suits your interests, fitness level, and schedule.
Warm Up: Jumping Jacks (30 reps)
- Begin by standing with your feet together and palms facing forward.
- As you swing your arms overhead from the sides, simultaneously hop and land with your feet farther apart.
- Reverse the movement by swinging your arms down from the sides and hopping your feet back together, returning to the original position. Try to use fluid movements.
Burpees (10 reps x 5)
- Begin in a standing position.
- Bend your knees as you lower your hands to the ground.
- From this crouched position, hop your feet back into a pushup-ready position. Here, only your hands and feet are touching the ground while your back and legs are straight.
- Reverse the movement by hopping your feet back towards your hands.
- Return to standing.
High Knees (10 reps x 3)
- Hold your hands out in front of you at hip level with your arms bent.
- Raise each knee to your hands in an alternating fashion-similar to running in place.
- Keep an upright posture and continue holding your hands in the same position throughout the reps.
Intermediate Routines: Strength
Warm Up: Jump Rope (60 seconds x 3)
- Start by finding a rope of the correct length: It should reach your armpits when you stand on its center.
- Start with the rope resting behind your feet while you hold each end with one hand.
- With your thumbs pointed outward, rotate your arms bringing the rope up and over your body.
- Hop over the rope when it reaches your feet!
- As you become more skilled, try hopping on one foot or alternate your feet.
- Rest for 30 seconds between each set.
Pushups (10 reps x 3)
- Get into a pushup-ready position with only your hands and feet touching the ground and your back and legs straight.
- Bend your arms to lower your body while maintaining its straight position.
- Press your body back up after your elbows bend 90 degrees.
- If this is very difficult for you, rest your knees on the ground.
Plank (30 seconds x 3)
- Begin with your forearms, hips, and feet against the ground.
- Press your heels back, tighten your legs, raise your hips, and feel the burn!
- Hold your core tight to prevent your hips from raising or sinking.
Squats (10 reps x 2)
- Stand with your knees shoulder-width apart with your arms out in front of your chest.
- Rock back onto your heels, tilt your hips backward, and lower into a squat position with your thighs parallel with the ground. This movement is similar to sitting down into a chair.
- Keep the weight on your heels by lifting up your toes.
Lunges (10 reps x 2)
- Start in a staggered-stance position with one foot in front of the other.
- Lower your back knee toward the ground, keeping the majority of your weight on your front heel.
- Your front knee should form a 90 degree angle and not go past your toes. Keep your hands on your hips to help maintain an upright posture.
Bird Dogs (10 reps x 3 each side)
- Get down on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips.
- Raise one arm in front of you and the opposite leg behind you, as if being pulled apart in opposite directions.
- You can either repeat the exercise on the same arm and leg before switching or alternate sides by switching arms and legs.
- Break exercise into 20-minute chunks, totaling 150 minutes per week.
- Be creative. Even cleaning can be a cardio workout.
- Work out and watch TV for two benefits in one.
- Go for a walk with friends instead of sitting around.
- Schedule it! Treat your workouts like an appointment you don’t want to miss.
Get help or find out more
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Physical Activity, How much physical activity do adults need?
Mental Health America, Live Your Life Well, Get Physically Active
American Heart Association, Getting Healthy, Physical Activity
American Council on Exercise, Fitness Programs, Workouts & Programs
Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source, 20 Exercise Tips