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Personal mixology: Your body, your life, your limits

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Not all of us can handle the same amount of alcohol. Different body types, genes, minds, and experiences affect our tolerance. Here, five students talk about their relationship with alcohol in the context of their own risk factors: A family history of alcoholism; fatigue and stress; small body size; medication interaction; and diabetes. Two experts suggest customized strategies for managing their alcohol consumption.


  • Dr. Nathilee Caldeira is a licensed clinic psychologist at the Student Mental Health Center at Columbia University Medical Center, and the founder of Let’s Talk Psychological Wellness PC. (NC)
  • Dr. Scott Lukas directs the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and the McLean Imaging Center. He is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. (SL)

* All students’ names have been changed for privacy. All students featured are age 21+.

Drinking while small-bodied

Callie’s story:
“I’m 4’11”, 87 pounds. It’s difficult when friends don’t think about the fact that I can’t drink as much as they can. I become intoxicated quicker. I drink occasionally, two drinks at most.”

Why is being small-bodied a risk factor when drinking?
Callie* is a female fourth-year student at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York
  • People with lower body weight have a slightly higher Blood Alcohol Content [BAC] after drinking the same amount as heavier people.
  • Most women have a lower ratio of muscle to fat than most men, meaning they have less blood and water to dilute the alcohol.
  • Women typically have less alcohol dehydrogenase (an enzyme that breaks down alcohol).
  • The sex hormones interact with alcohol: Alcohol is often more intoxicating just before menstruation.
How Callie handles it
“I make it known before everyone is under the influence that I’m either not drinking or will only have one alcoholic drink. I stick to what I say, so I’m taken seriously the next time.

“I avoid situations where I will feel pressured. Although this didn’t used to be the case when I was younger, I never go out in social situations where there is drinking on a whim. Sometimes I tell everyone that I’m the designated driver. More often than not, my friends are understanding.

“When I do drink, I pre-plan: I have plenty of fluids afterward, and make sure that I eat and get a good night’s sleep.”

Expert view
“Callie has high awareness, knows her limit, and already practices strategies to say no and reduce her drinking. She is managing her risk factor very effectively.” —NC

Red flags for small-bodied drinkers
  • Hanging out with people you don’t know very well
  • Hanging out with anyone who drinks excessively
Strategies that work
  • “Being firm and sticking to a plan is the best strategy.” —SL
  • “Practice saying ‘no’ prior to going out, maybe role-playing with a friend or counselor. Ask and remind friends to support your decision about drinking limits.” —NC
  • Drink more slowly: Use a larger glass with added seltzer or soda.
  • Choose lower-alcohol drinks, e.g., light beer, mixed drinks with only 1 shot of 80-proof liquor, or regular wine.
  • Alternate with non-alcoholic drinks: “A ‘virgin’ pina colada or ‘virgin’ daiquiri often looks exactly like the mixed drink, which may take some of the pressure off.” —SL

Drinking while medicated

Junot’s story:
“I take Lamictal every day for manic depression [bipolar disorder]. I have been taking it for seven years. If I drink too much, the medication will not work properly for the next day or so.”

Why is medication a risk factor when drinking?
Junot*, male, first-year student at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Interactions between alcohol and medication are common. Alcohol can amplify or reduce the effects of medication, and worsen your driving.
  • “Alcohol does not mix well with any medication that is used to treat a psychiatric condition. The interactions are not always predictable, and they can change over time in the same person.” —SL
  • Talk with your prescribing doctor or pharmacist about interactions between alcohol and medications, whether they are prescribed, over-the-counter, or herbal.
  • Check for drug and alcohol interactions.
How Junot handles it socially
“I drink every weekend or every other weekend, usually locally-brewed wheat beers and white wines. I normally only have one or two, sometimes a little more if I’m not driving. Every once in a while I’ll have a lot to drink around close friends.”

Expert views
Junot is right to be very cautious about driving: “If you drink while taking Lamictal, you can have increased dizziness, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, and impaired judgment. Also, he still needs to set limits before he goes out with friends. If Junot enters a manic phase, he may not be able to control his drinking. Drinking at a bar is still risky unless he has a non-drinking buddy to watch over him. The effects can creep up quickly.” —SL

“Junot’s consistent medication use shows high commitment to his health and managing his mood symptoms. Nevertheless, he continues to practice habits that may put this health goal at risk (e.g., sometimes drinking in excess of two drinks).” —NC

Red flags for drinking while medicated
  • Deciding to drink more than usual without close friends nearby
  • Drinking unfamiliar alcoholic beverages, which may interact with your medication in unexpected ways
  • A depressive phase, which raises the risk of self-medicating with alcohol
Strategies that work
  • Brief counseling sessions can help you decrease the frequency and amount of alcohol use, and help you strategize around the conflict between good health and risky habits. —NC
  • Instead of relying on your instincts about what’s a safe environment, come up with a written safety plan that addresses if, when, where, and how much to drink; e.g., “Two alcoholic drinks diluted with extra seltzer, drinking only if the environment seems safe, and leave by 12:30 a.m.” —NC

Family history of alcoholism

Sam’s story:
“Both my parents were alcoholics. When I was growing up, my parents fought all the time and we were super-poor. I bounced between their homes, and my dad abused me. I’ve moved 38 times in 35 years. I have perhaps three alcoholic drinks a year, and I’ve been drunk three times in my life. There are a hundred other more fun things I can think of to do.”

Why is family alcoholism a risk factor when drinking?
Sam* is a transgenderqueer student in the professional program at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York
  • Alcoholism can run in families, according to an extensive body of research.
  • “If people in your family struggle with alcohol abuse, you’re not doomed. Up to 30 percent of an individual’s risk of alcoholism is genetic. The environment and your own experiences contribute 70+ percent.” —SL
  • Researchers’ estimates of the genetic influence on alcohol use disorders is somewhat mixed. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says genes are responsible for about 50 percent of the risk for alcoholism. The quality of parenting, which can be impaired by alcohol abuse, also affects children’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder later.
How Sam handles it
“This has absolutely influenced my relationship with alcohol, as has watching people do stupid things while drinking. I refused to drive with anyone who has had even a sip. I am often the designated driver. I’ve called the cops on an ex who got behind the wheel while drunk.”

Expert views
“Both parents have a known alcohol-use disorder and there’s a history of interpersonal trauma. This places Sam at high risk for alcohol misuse, abuse, or dependence. However, Sam shows high awareness of how personal history contributes to risk and practices preventive habits, and is doing an excellent job.” —NC

“We often see the children of parents with an alcoholic-use disorder go to the extreme and never touch any alcohol, because they’ve lived through the devastation that excessive alcohol causes.” —SL

Red flags for people with a genetic susceptibility
  • You may be especially sensitive to environmental triggers. “The smells of preferred alcoholic beverages are the primary cues. People, places, and even events are secondary cues. Seeing a drinking buddy unexpectedly can trigger the craving for alcohol.” —SL
  • If there’s a history of trauma, you may be at greater risk for difficulties and stress in intimate relationships. —NC
Strategies that work
  • “Knowing that you have a family history of alcoholism is key. And know your cues, which are specific to individuals: One person may crave beer and have no reaction to whiskey or vodka. If you used to go to a specific bar to drink, then go to a different establishment for dinner.” —SL
  • “If you can’t easily cut down, switch to a different beverage; perhaps pick one that is not so tasteful. This strategy will help reduce the number of drinks per night.” —SL
  • Put a limit on your drinking: Figure out your limit.
  • Drink slower: “‘Savoring’ the drink spreads out the absorption over a longer period so that blood alcohol levels do not get dangerously high. Avoid ‘chugging’ or any drinking games. Drinking games are designed to have you fail, and they promote more drinking.” —SL
  • Seek support from an individual therapist or a support group such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, or Alateen.

Fatigue + stress + alcohol

Briona’s story:
“I love to have my friends over and throw back a few beers. I’ve been fatigued and stressed due to school. How much I drink depends on my mood. I’ll have a beer at least two or three times a week, but other times I’ll lose count.”

Why is fatigue + stress + alcohol a risk factor?
Briona*, female, second-year student at a public university in Michigan
  • Alcohol is a depressant. Its effects can be exaggerated when you’re fatigued, depressed, anxious, or stressed.
  • “Alcohol can reduce the ‘perception’ of stress. But with increased use, continued drinking actually dampens your stress response mechanisms, and it becomes a cycle of dependency because heavy alcohol use causes a good deal of stress (worrying about withdrawal signs, getting sick, having an accident, etc.).” —SL
How Briona handles it
“I’m a pretty casual drinker. I have a beer at least two or three times a week when school is in session. During breaks from school, it’s not unusual for me to go on three- or four-day benders. Summertime is full of vacations that I take with friends, and we always have alcohol on us. If I’m stressed, drinking helps me forget about that stressor for a while. Alcohol doesn’t have that much of an effect on either my stress or fatigue levels.”

Expert view
“While Briona is aware of her stress levels and the conditions that exacerbate it, she doesn’t seem aware of the risk of managing stress through alcohol, and she demonstrates inconsistent behavior when trying to do this. She is not managing her risk factor very effectively.” —NC

Red flags for drinking while stressed or fatigued
  • Increased stress, post-exam periods, breaks and vacations
  • “Excessive drinking places you and your friends at greater risk for driving while intoxicated, getting into cars without a designated driver, arguments and fights, and poor sexual health decisions.” —NC
  • “Thoughts like ‘Having a few drinks makes my troubles go away’ predict future alcohol dependency problems.” —SL
  • Anxiety: “If you have an anxiety disorder, you are more than twice as likely as someone without an anxiety disorder to develop an alcohol dependency.” —SL
Strategies that work
  • “Try counseling sessions with a specific focus on stress and alcohol misuse, healthy strategies, and stress-management tools.” —NC
  • “To develop more consistent habits, monitor your alcohol use by keeping a diary. Set a goal for alcohol use, including places, frequency and amount, and how friends can help.” —NC
  • “I know this sounds corny, but get plenty of sleep! The cycle of being tired all the time will increase stress, blood pressure, diabetes risk, depression, and a whole host of other problems that an individual might try to self-medicate with alcohol.” —SL
  • Guide to managing your stress

Drinking while diabetic

Christophe’s story:
“I use insulin and check my blood sugars three or four times a day. My friends know I’m diabetic, so they always watch out for me. I drink anything, really, but I try to drink low-carb beer and mixed drinks with diet pop.”

Why is drinking while diabetic a risk factor?
Christophe,* male, fourth-year student at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada
  • Most people with diabetes can safely consume alcohol in moderate amounts, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
  • It is very important to monitor your blood sugar and be alert for symptoms of hypoglycemia, which can be similar to those of intoxication.
  • The ADA recommends a limit of one drink a day for women, two for men.
  • “Alcohol increases triglyceride levels [a risk factor for diabetes and complications of diabetes] and can interfere with the positive effects of oral insulin products.” —SL
  • Consult a doctor about managing your own situation.
How Christophe handles it
“I usually drink twice a week. Since alcohol brings down blood sugars, I will occasionally have a drink made with real sugar. I always carry sugar pills. My friends can tell if I look shaky and sweaty, and they come and ask if I’m OK.”

Expert view
“Christophe is aware of his health condition: He monitors it regularly, and he’s willing to adjust his behavior, but he is not managing the risk factor very effectively. Alcohol lowers blood sugars, but it’s more complicated than that. Over time, alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of insulin and raise glucose levels. He should consult his own health care providers about his. Christophe seems to act on good information when he has access to it.” —NC

Red flags for people with diabetes
  • Socializing with people who may not know about your health condition.
  • Deciding to drink more frequently and consuming increased amounts of alcohol.
  • “Signs of hypoglycemia include: blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, pale skin color, sweating, shaking, and skin tingling. Other signs that will be apparent include: sudden mood changes, nervousness, fatigue, extreme hunger, and eventually a quick loss of consciousness.” —SL
  • Drinks may have more hidden calories than Christophe realizes, and then he could be thrown into a dietary imbalance, increasing the risk of complications.”—SL
Strategies that work
  • Talk to your doctor about safer alcohol use while managing diabetes.
  • “Adhere to a rule about what types of drinks can be consumed safely, and then follow a strict limit.” —SL
  • “Only individuals who have their diabetes and blood sugar well under control should consider social drinking. The calories provided by a single drink should be counted as two fat exchanges. Alcohol also stimulates appetite in many people; that can cause overeating and is a problem for people with diabetes.” —SL

Strategies for managing your alcohol consumption

Practice saying “no” to a drink

  • Role-play with a friend or counselor.
  • Ask and remind friends to support your decisions about drinking limits.

Alternate and/or dilute your drinks

  • Ask for “lighter” alcoholic drinks with less alcohol, or in a larger glass with added seltzer or soda.
  • “Ask for a ‘virgin’ pina colada or ‘virgin’ daiquiri. These drinks look exactly alike, which may take some of the pressure off.”  —SL
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with water, seltzer, or soda.

Shake up your habits

  • Switch to a different beverage—one that isn’t your favorite.
  • “Avoid ‘chugging’ or drinking games. Drinking games are designed to have you fail, and they promote more drinking.” —SL

Know your cues

  • Cues or triggers are specific to individuals. Know what yours are. One person might crave beer and have no reaction to whiskey or vodka.
  • “If you used to go to a specific bar to drink, then go to a different establishment for dinner.” —SL
More strategies here:

Drink slower

  • “Increasing the duration that it takes to finish a drink—‘savoring’ the drink—spreads out the absorption over a longer period so that blood alcohol levels do not get dangerously high.” —SL
  • Impose limits, e.g., “I know I can handle one drink an hour after food, and I max out at two drinks a night.”

Try strategic counseling

  • Brief counseling sessions can help you decrease the frequency and amount of your alcohol use, and address specific risk factors.
  • Consider a support group, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, or Alateen.

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The job prob: How (and why) to get that internship

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Internships are the “new interview”—your most likely route to a job, according to surveys of students, graduates, and employers. Here, experts say why.

Question: How much does an internship matter to employers?
Answer: A whole lot. “Practical experience is probably the number one thing that will move a resume toward the top of the pile.” — Jeff Reep, director of career services at Cedarville University, Ohio, and a certified professional career coach.

Question: What exactly can an internship do for me?
Answer: Provide essential experience and contacts. “Internships are oftentimes not only a learning experience but also a networking pathway to your first job. The more people you know in an industry, the better your chances.” —Lainee Beigel, attorney and founder of career coaching company Career Esquire, New York.

Question: I’m not sure what career I’m aiming for, so how can I choose an internship?
Answer: Think skill development. “Internships do not need to match up exactly with the job you apply for after school. Many practical skills are transferable across various industries.” —Lainee Beigel

Question: I can’t afford to take an unpaid internship.Am I doomed?
Answer: No. “Career-focused internships are preferable. However, it’s important to think about what skills and qualities you can emphasize. For example, as a waiter, you had to employ people skills and problem solving skills that can be applied to any job in any industry.” —Lauren Griffin, senior vice president at Adecco, a recruitment company in Boston.

Question: How can I make my summer serving ice-cream sound like a UN position?
Answer: You can’t. “Do not lie or embellish your resume or the jobs you did. You will be busted.” —Dana Manciagli, career coach, and author, based in Washington State.

Seven out of ten companies with 100+ employees offered full-time roles to their interns in 2012. They expected to hire more interns going forward.

Two in three employers say relevant work experience and interview performance are the most important factors in hiring (well ahead of academic performance).

Have a plan
5 steps to an intriguing internship & how they apply to two examples:

Have a plan: Artsy business student

Steps to a dynamic internship

Example: business major aiming for theater internship
  1. Start searching for opportunities 3-6 months in advance. Applying your skills in unexpected contexts can broaden your appeal to employers. Research local theatre companies, upcoming production schedules, and contacts (e.g., theatre directors, set coordinators).
  2. Identify two realistic ways your current skills could benefit the organization.
    • Generate some extra ticket sales
    • Reduce set costs
  3. Email the contacts you identified. Include a cover letter and your résumé. Explain why you are interested in this field and their business specifically. Let them know of your love of theater, how much you admired their recent production, and how you could contribute.
  4. Prepare for a phone conversation. Know what you could contribute to the organization, and ask what they need. Be flexible. You want to reduce the production budget, they need you to work on publicity? Adjust.
  5. Discuss a particular goal for your internship. A goal (e.g., reviewing expenses or identifying inefficiencies) will provide focus and add marketable skills to your résumé.
Have a plan: Green PR student

Steps to a dynamic internship

Example: public relations major aiming for organic farm internship
  1. Start searching for opportunities 3-6 months in advance. Applying your skills in unexpected contexts can broaden your appeal to employers. Check out farms locally and further away (some may provide housing).
  2. Identify two realistic ways your current skills could benefit the organization.
  3. Social media campaign:
    • Raise awareness of benefits of organic food production
    • Attract customers
  4. Email the contacts you identified. Include a cover letter and your résumé. Explain why you are interested in this field and their business specifically. Outline briefly your communication experience, why you care about organic farming, and how you could contribute to their business.
  5. Prepare for a phone conversation. Know what you could contribute to the organization, and ask what they need. Be flexible. While you may be fired up about a Twitter campaign, the farmers may be more interested in website content.
  6. Discuss a particular goal for your internship. Establish realistic metrics in for social media engagement, page views, etc., and ways to measure your impact on farm sales.
The Art of Change

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Does your spending need a reality check?: How to budget better

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The college or university years are typically our first experience of managing (or blowing) adult finances. The responsibility can be empowering, but greater control over our finances calls for conscious planning. In a recent CampusWell survey, 91 percent of student respondents thought keeping a budget would help them better manage their personal finances. But wouldn’t most of us rather drink the latte and eat the pizza than track their prices?

Our spending habits have consequences that go beyond our immediate financial dilemmas (can I afford to go out tonight?) and reverberate through our futures. “You either have enough to pay the rent or you don’t. The payment either arrives on time or it doesn’t,” says Gail Cunningham, chief spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, based in Washington DC.

We asked three undergraduates to estimate their weekly expenditures during the semester. Then we crunched the numbers to see what they’d actually spent and how that matched up with their own estimates.

Financial expert:
Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., attorney specializing in debt-related services, New York City

Which would you cut? utlities v. celebrations

Category Estimate Reality Difference
Academics $180 $190 $10
Utilities $30 $60 $30
Personal $10 $24 $14
Transportation $40 $40 $0
Health & fitness $5 $5 $0
Rent $100 $100 $0
Food, socializing, & entertainment $70 $60 $10
Total $435 $479 $44

Korena H. is a fourth-year student at California State University, Sacramento.

If this were a typical week, Korena’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $2,300.

Korena’s reaction
“I was really surprised with my personal expenses. I did not take into account all the birthdays I buy for. I don’t generally handle the utilities bill so I’m not super-familiar with it.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Tracking costs

“This student is living close to the edge and over budget on some things. Try and break it down to see where you’re spending the most money. With your utilities, if it’s your electric, see if you can conserve power by unplugging things you aren’t using and turning off lights and electronics. If it’s other areas, consider calling the companies and asking for a student discount. You may be surprised at their response.”

Student budget tools

More budget strategies

Strategies that force daily savings and build that habit for life

  • Do a version of this exercise, estimating your expenses per month on food, transport, health and fitness, academics, socializing and entertainment, rent, utilities, and personal expenses. Then review your bank records.
  • Create a monthly budget for yourself using student budget calculators.
  • To keep track of cash expenses, hold onto your receipts or write down every time you spend money.
  • Carry your student ID and routinely ask for discounts.
  • Use public transit and student gyms for little or no cost.
  • Leave your ATM card at home. “If you go to Target with $50 in your hand, you won’t spend $51,” says Andrew Krouk, a financial planner in Philadelphia.
  • If you’re not eating in a cafeteria, make a weekly meal plan and follow it. Planning ahead (and teaming up with roommates) helps you save money. Buy in bulk, avoid rumbly-tummy grocery store splurges, and prevent food going to waste.
  • Get creative with socializing and entertaining. Instead of going out and spending $50 each, invite friends over for a potluck.
  • Practice “Starbucks Theory”: Instead of going out for coffee each day, make coffee at home to bring with you. “Planning ahead with coffee, snacks, water, etc., will drastically cut down your expenses,” says Andrew Krouk.
  • Save. “You pay your groceries and your rent, but instead of paying everyone else first, pay yourself first. You’re working hard: Pay yourself for it!” says Andrew Krouk. Then live off what’s left. If you put away $2 each day, that’s $60 a month for your savings or leisure activities. “There’s no cost in saving money. You can always use it at a later time. People think of saving as an expense, but it’s a reward.”
  • Give yourself a margin for error. “Set aside 10 percent of your income for contingencies/emergencies. This will help you recover if you go over budget one week,” says Kuljeet Notay, a financial aid counselor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Can you afford school supplies and eating out?

Category Estimate Reality Difference
Food $30 $48 $18
Academics $0 $26 $26
Utilities $8.75 $8.75 $0
Rent $81.25 $81.25 $0
Personal $5 $25 $20
Total $125 $189 $64

Alice R. is a fourth-year student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

If this were a typical week, Alice’s extra spending per calendar year would be around $3,330.

Alice’s reaction
“I was surprised by the amount I spent on food. I didn’t take into account that I went out of town, forcing me to purchase more meals at restaurants. It is shocking to see how eating out can add up.

“This is a reality check about where my money is being spent. The amount that one overspends in a year could be enough to pay the bills for several months.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Budgeting for variable expenses

“This student has a great sense of fixed expenses but is not budgeting for the variable expenses, such as academics, personal items, and food. This can result in her having less money to pay fixed obligations such as rent. It’s also important to keep some money aside for the unexpected.

“I suggest budgeting each week and trying to break down the categories and see where you are overspending. Maybe you can switch to generic for certain items or cook more at home.”

How many students keep a budget?
Of 750 students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey… 47% said they keep a budget and plan to continue 27% said they plan to make a budget in the near future 14% said they plan to make a budget at some point 8% said they’d like to but were not sure they’d get around to it 2% said they didn’t intend to keep a budget

The case study no one expected

Category Estimate  Reality Difference
Transportation $50 $50 $0
Utilities $20 $20 $0
Rent $98 $98 $0
Food $80 $65 $15
Socializing & entertainment $30 $22 $8
Personal $30 $20 $10
Total $308 $275 $33

Charlie R. is a fourth-year student at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

If this were a typical week, Charlie’s savings per calendar year would be around $1,700.

Charlie’s reaction
“I think I spend more than I actually do, which is surprising. On average my costs are low, but when I’m busy, I tend to get fast food or buy food more often, increasing my spending. Overspending, especially on a limited income, makes everything more stressful and definitely makes purchasing even food tough. Saving helps relieve that stress but can also open up temptation to spend on things that aren’t required but just wanted.”

Expert’s reaction
The key issue Making the most of savings

“This is great! This student is really cutting costs and able to save money. My suggestion would be to put all this money aside in case you go over on expenses one month or something unexpected comes up. Any money left over can be put towards loans or saving for the upcoming semesters.”

10 tips for having a blast on a budget

  1. Carry cash
  2. Necessity or luxury?
  3. Carpool, bike, bus
  4. Separate checks
  5. Student ID
  6. Group discounts
  7. Clubs
  8. Community events
  9. School events
  10. Plan ahead
Does your spending need a reality check

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Team up: Why working out in groups work

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Having trouble sticking to your power-walk schedule? If you don’t have a workout buddy or group, it’s time.

College students love the buddy system

What are college students’ top motivators for being physically active? Having an exercise partner and having a friend who works out, according to a 2013 study (along with wanting to look physically fit). Fifty-five percent of participants said buddying up makes it easier for them to work out, and 26 percent listed not having an exercise partner as a barrier to fitness, said researchers in the Archives of Exercise in Health and Disease.

Why it works

Working out in a pair or group introduces multiple elements proven to help us develop healthy habits—like these:

  • Cues to action Your friend is showing up whether or not you’re in the mood for aqua spinning.
  • Accountability Bailing is not an option.
  • Reward Chat, catch-up, laughs, encouragement, and coffee afterwards.

To organize your own group challenges, try SOCIALWORKOUT.COM

Group workouts get us into the habit

Social support is key to improving our physical and mental health and establishing enduring habits, research shows. Physical activity habits at college carry over to midlife, according to a 2009 study. The “supportive social atmosphere” of college exercise programs is likely a key factor, says the Journal of Exercise Physiology.

Activity is contagious

“Social support from friends can be a strong influence on how students spend their leisure time, so the group environment can be a great avenue for improving fitness,” says Dr. Cherilyn McLester, professor of exercise science and sport management at Kennesaw State University Georgia. Make sure your crowd includes some active types. “If our friends work out regularly and support our exercise goals we are more likely to exercise,” says Dr. Xiaomeng (Mona) Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho, who co-authored a 2011 study on the topic in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Four ways to help friends get active
By Dr. Xiaomeng (Mona) Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University in Pocatello
  1. EXERCISE Help establish a social norm and model active behaviors to your peers. Regular exercise (which doesn’t have to be strenuous) can replace less healthy behaviors and become a habit.
  2. PROVIDE APPROPRIATE SOCIAL SUPPORT when asked. Be more careful if it’s unsolicited. If your roommate says he’s thinking of working out, it is not necessarily helpful to constantly send him exercise tips.
  3. TALK Discuss what sort of support is helpful (e.g., workout buddy, cheerleader, etc.). Try to match the support you provide with the support that is actually needed. If they can’t exercise because they’d need a ride to a gym, offer that if you can.
  4. PROVIDE INVISIBLE SUPPORT If your roommate doesn’t have time because she has a lot of errands and chores, do some of these things for her. Don’t say, “Hey, I’m doing this for you so you can go to the gym,” or, “Look how helpful I’m being; you owe me now.” Give her the benefits without bringing attention to it.
In conversation, instead of saying, “You should do xyz,” say, “When I was in a similar situation, I did xyz and it was really helpful”—so he’s getting all the information but you’re not telling him what to do. You might also provide him with useful information in casual conversation—e.g., “Hey, I use this workout app and find it really motivating” (rather than “Here, you should use this right now”).
Six ways to get into group workouts
By Joy Keller, executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal
  1. Choose an activity you already enjoy or one you’re interested in discovering.
  2. Join online groups, forums, or communities that center on your interest.
  3. Start your own walking, hiking, biking, or running club.
  4. Look for fitness flash mobs—instances where people announce (via Twitter) that they are meeting at the last minute to exercise.
  5. For good deals at local studios and fitness facilities, take advantage of Groupon, Living Social, and other internet coupon marketing.
  6. Your college facilities and classes might be the best in town. Go for it.

Why does this work?

Dr. Xu offers three likely explanations:

  • Connection and interaction “For example, I go hiking with my best friend, or, My partner and I both play soccer, and this is something we enjoy talking about even if we don’t play together.”
  • Exposure to people like us  “Maybe we select friends and significant others who have similar exercise profiles as us. I’m likely to develop friendships with my team members.”
  • Exposure to example “Best friends and partners might model exercising behavior for us.”

Calmness in numbers

People who exercise together are calmer and less stressed than those who exercise alone, according to a 2001 study in the International Journal of Stress Management.

Novelty in numbers

“A very common reason for not exercising is boredom,” says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, a non-profit organization promoting physical activity.

“The wide variety of group exercise class formats, music, instructor teaching styles, and interaction with other class participants can help keep you motivated.”

Group of students running outdoors

Safety in numbers

Working out with an experienced instructor helps us develop safe exercise habits. “The instructor monitors the class participants to ensure that they are using proper technique and are exercising at an appropriate intensity,” says Dr. Bryant.

What are the options?

Communal workouts aren’t hard to find. Check out community walking programs, Meetup.com, and local fitness classes—which are increasingly likely to include strength training and personal training in groups, as well as outdoor options like park boot-camp and paddleboard yoga.

The November Project—famous for its mass workouts—was designed to encourage New Englanders to stay active during dreary winters, and has spread to 17 locations throughout North America.

Find out more about the November Project.

Online socializing

The dynamism and popularity of social media can help us develop and sustain healthier habits. “Online communities can…promote behavior change,” wrote Dr. Damon Centola, in the journal Circulation last year. “People stay accountable to their fitness goals through Twitter and Facebook, and post fitness selfies to show progress,” says Joy Keller, a group exercise expert and certified personal trainer with the IDEA Health & Fitness Association in San Diego, California.

Check out the Twitter Exercise Motivation Team.

Team up

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Getting wild with no regrets

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Settling into campus life comes with tons of things to do. Be sure to add “experiencing wilderness” to your list.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is a necessity” — said the naturalist John Muir. Okay, so that was 113 years ago. But if wilderness was a necessity then, what is it now, with all the pressures of technology, social media, midterms, roommates, assignments, and internships?

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which permanently protects millions of acres of wilderness — and your space to exercise, de-stress, bond with friends, and experience the gorgeousness of America (and yourself) in different ways.

Take a few minutes now to learn about nature getaways near you. Then when you really want a break, you’ll know where to find it. Admission at national parks is free on September 27 (National Public Lands Day) and November 11 (Veterans Day).

What’s your nature?

Find your local wilderness and events honoring 50 years of the Wilderness Act.

Lifting the haze on hazing

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More than half of students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing, according to StopHazing.org, a hazing prevention and research initiative based at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Hazing is any activity associated with joining a group that involves degrading, abusive, risky, or illegal practices—like drinking games, sleep deprivation, paddling, or verbal abuse. Hazing has hit the headlines for causing physical and emotional harm (and, in some cases, death). Students with histories of mental health issues, abuse, and trauma are particularly vulnerable.

Student Health 101 talked with Susan Lipkins, PhD, a psychologist and author of Preventing Hazing (2006).

Here’s what you need to know:

  • A typical hazing perpetrator is simply a senior student who had it done to him or her as a freshman.
  • Hazing is rarely called hazing. You’re more likely to hear “rights of passage,” “ritual,” “tradition,” “pledging,” or “this is what we do.”
  • Rumors of what goes on in a sports team or fraternity are usually true. But if you ask members, they are likely to lie, and you might get a worse hazing.
  • As individuals, students who resist or object tend to get it worse.
  • As groups, new students can arrange in advance that they will say “enough” and leave. This is effective only when the group sticks together.
  • Don’t try to stop a hazing ritual unless you are in a position of social power.
  • As groups, bystanders can moderate a hazing ritual. These lines are useful: “We don’t want to lose our team or scholarship”; “We don’t want to end up in jail or the hospital.”  Effective intervention can end with bystanders escorting the newcomers out.
  • Is hazing a bonding experience? “It is bonding—in the same way that you can bond in a car accident together,” says Susan Lipkins.
  • Most important: If you are in a position to report hazing, anonymously or not, do so.