I expected a lot of things to change during my freshman year of college, but to be honest, my body wasn't one of them. I'd been an athlete my whole life and my weight was one of the few things I hadn't been self-conscious about growing up. Once I wrapped up my final high school softball season, I started running every day, dodging tourists on the boardwalk by the beach and flying down the canyon trails in my neighborhood.
At school, for a while, the whole running thing worked. My new roommate and I bonded by jogging around the campus in the perfect Fall weather. I joined my school's recreational running club and ran my fastest half-marathon ever that December: an hour and 39 minutes. It was a gold standard that, a few weeks later, I realized I would never beat, because suddenly my body didn't feel so good anymore.
I'd done the stupid runner thing and sprinted headfirst into overuse injuries: knee pain and shin splints. Defeated, I turned to the gym, but only knew how to use the simplest cardio machines, which were boring and made my knee issues worse. Meanwhile, I continued to enjoy endless dining hall food and late-night burritos to their fullest extent.
Slowly, I started to notice changes in my body. My legs started getting thicker and there was some extra weight around my belly. I only gained a few pounds, and really, the changes were small and probably nothing out of the ordinary. I knew my body was bound to change after high school, but I could tell that I was getting out of shape. I could feel it. I was tired and lethargic, my body felt weaker, and I compensated by eating, especially at night, keeping myself awake to finish papers and problem sets. Without running as my outlet, my stress levels mounted, compounded by feelings of self-consciousness about my body.
I stayed on campus after school let out in June, working two jobs. It was a long, scorching Summer, and with almost all of my friends gone, I used the huge new chunks of free time to revive my tired, ineffective workout routine. Besides the running, I was starting more or less from scratch.
My College Fitness Routine
By some miracle, I stumbled into a well-balanced fitness routine that helped me tone my body, stabilize my mental health, and not only get back into shape but become stronger (and more confident) than I had been before college. This was my weekly schedule:
- Monday: rest day.
- Tuesday: swim. My 45-minute swim workout consisted of 100 yards of freestyle, 100 yards of breast stroke, and 100 yards of backstroke, repeated for four sets with 200 yards of kickboard (freestyle and breaststroke-style kicks) at the end.
- Wednesday: dorm room bodyweight HIIT strength workout. I did Insanity, starting a long love affair with workout videos that tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. Similar options would be this 30-minute HIIT workout with weights or this 20-minute bodyweight HIIT video.
- Thursday: hill run and core workout. I rushed back to my Summer dorm from work, did a 10-minute ab workout in my room, and took off for a seven-mile run, including hill intervals for extra burn.
- Friday: dorm room bodyweight HIIT cardio workout. I liked HIIT cardio workouts that worked up a ton of sweat, like this 30-minute no-equipment HIIT video.
- Saturday: swim. I did the same 45-minute workout as on Tuesday.
- Sunday: run and core workout. I didn't want to overwhelm my knees and risk injury, so I kept this run flat and at a relaxed pace.
What I Would Change About My College Fitness Routine
Did my fitness routine work? Yes. I firmed up my body, lost some fat, and for the first time in my life, started getting abs. The best part was that I liked my weekly schedule, so much that I actually continued doing this same exact routine until I graduated three years later. It kept me in shape and, more importantly, helped me deal with stress and stay sane as the workload ramped up.
But my routine wasn't perfect, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to other people without one main change: more strength training, which not only builds muscle but can also boost your metabolism and help you lose weight. I would replace my bodyweight cardio workout with another strength session, and might swap out a run or swim session, too. And once I'd built up a strong foundation through bodyweight workouts, I would've started adding weights. This is one of my current favorite strength workouts, a full-body dumbbell session that I like to do at least once a week.
Still, from my bodyweight HIIT workouts, I got a taste of what feeling strong physically could do for me mentally. Suddenly, I had upper-body strength. I could do push-ups! I could do tuck jumps! I felt strong and capable in my workouts, and it actually made me more confident academically and socially. I had more energy. I was more present. I just felt really, really good.
I had a long way to go and a lot left to learn, but I realized a few key things that Summer, which I'd offer to anyone else trying to create their own fitness regimen in college.
- Take breaks. Classes, extracurriculars, jobs, social obligations, trying to sleep for a decent amount of time, and the looming Mount Everest of homework: you are BUSY in college. I skipped workouts when I was too overwhelmed, especially during finals and midterm weeks. Give yourself a break, relax, finish your work, and get back to your workouts when you're done.
- Find workouts you actually enjoy. I can't stress this enough. There are so many things to do in college that are 10 times more fun than working out, so you have to find something you love, otherwise you'll never stick with it. Go for walks or bike rides around campus or try a new workout video or machine. It's so not worth it to spend that much of your college experience doing workouts you hate.
- Try new things. I didn't, and I kind of regret it. Take advantage of your school's gyms and lap pools. Don't be afraid to ask how to use the machines or the weights. Try yoga classes, rock climbing courses, golf classes, dancing. If you don't want a rigid schedule like mine, pop around and do a bunch of stuff. If it makes you sweat, it counts.