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Though physical activity sometimes falls to the sidelines in college, staying fit while a student is essential to overall health. Exercise helps reduce stress, clear the mind, and enhances your level of energy and motivation for other things important to you.
Most people think about cardiovascular activities, like running or swimming, when they picture exercise. But there are actually five elements of fitness: flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular/cardiorespiratory endurance, and body composition.
When you think of flexibility, maybe you picture a gymnast or dancer. Typically these athletes are indeed able to move into remarkable positions. Yet according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), everyone needs to pay attention to his or her flexibility and range of motion.
Let’s say you’re reaching for a box of cereal on the top shelf. Unless you’re very tall, you’re likely to stretch a bit to get it. Extending your arm above your head and rotating your shoulder requires flexibility. If you’re lifting weights and going into a squat, you need flexibility in your legs to help you move the weight up and down. A lack of flexibility can stop you from doing things in your daily life and inhibit your other fitness goals; many athletes work on their flexibility despite the fact that their sport may focus on strength or endurance. A full range of motion makes cardiovascular activities feel easier, supports good posture, and enhances your overall physical health.
More about flexibility & recommended stretches
A great way to work on your flexibility is through the practice of yoga. There are various types, with some focusing on strength and balance and others emphasizing deep breathing and stretching. Yoga is a great activity for people of any fitness level, as it can be tailored to your individual needs. Classes are usually very supportive and yoga instructors are trained to help people adjust the movements as necessary. One of the major tenets is encouraging people to increase their body-awareness.
This yoga pose is a great stretch for both beginners and those with more experience.
Start on all fours with knees and hands planted into the mat or ground. This is called tabletop position. Keep a flat back and slowly stretch your legs straight, keeping your feet on the ground. You will notice that your heels will come off of the ground, and that’s fine. Use the stability of your hands to push your hips high to the sky. Relax your neck as if you’re looking past your belly button, causing your head to go down and back. This will stretch the arches of your feet, hamstrings, back, and arms. Hold for about 15-20 seconds and then return to tabletop position, or all fours.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) as the most successful form of flexibility training. PNF can be done on your own or with a partner, and consists of a series of muscle contractions followed by a deep stretch. Here is an example to try:
Laying Quadricep Stretch
Lay face down on the floor and reach back to grab one ankle. Slowly bend your knee, gently pulling your ankle and foot towards your behind. Hold for about 15–20 seconds, then switch feet. This isometric move allows you to contract the muscles in the front of your thighs.
Foam rolling is great to do when you’re feeling sore from exercise or sitting for long periods of time. Dean M., a fourth-year student at University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Canada, explains, “Foam rolling releases the fascia. It helps when you’re sore or when you can’t get a full range of motion because a counteracting muscle is restricted.” Your campus fitness center or gym likely has foam rollers. Ask a trainer or someone at the front desk. Here’s a move to try:
Turn face down and rest the front of your thighs on a foam roller, with your hands on the ground. By using your arms and hands, slowly roll your body forward and back, releasing tension and massaging your quadriceps.
Muscular Strength & Muscular Endurance
Muscular strength and endurance are similar, but slightly different. The former is generally measured based on the amount of weight that can be lifted or moved, while the latter indicates how long you can repetitively contract a group of muscles.
Eric Fredette, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer in Hartford, Connecticut, says, “While working with clients I focus on muscular strength because it is a good way to work the muscles to their full capacity. By pushing [yourself to your] limit, [you will] begin to make gains and recognize that [you] are capable of doing much more than [you] originally thought.”
People often associate muscular strength and endurance with having a “tight body” or burning calories. But overall strength also affects balance and stability, therefore helping to prevent injury.
More about training your muscles for strength & endurance
Body-Weight Strength Training
When doing strength training, you have the opportunity to target a certain area you’d like to improve. For instance, if you are looking to increase the strength and definition in your arms, you could do tricep dips on a chair.
Sit on a stable chair, facing forward with arms and hands by your sides. Grab onto the chair with your hands and slowly slide your bottom off the chair. You will find that all of your weight has shifted to your arms, and you’re using them to support yourself. Be sure to keep your elbows back and slowly dip your hips down and up. Try not to put too much weight onto your legs because then they’ll be doing the work!
Low Seated Squats
Stand up tall with your feet hip width apart, and lift your arms over your head so they are straight and parallel with your ears. Relax your shoulders and begin to bend your legs as if you are about to take a seat. Make sure your weight is in your heels; to check, wiggle your toes. Be sure to keep your arms by your ears, extended, and strong. Come back up, leading with your bottom and straightening your legs. Repeat 10–15 times. This exercise will build strength in your quadriceps.
One way to build strength is to lift weights. You can do this with traditional equipment or even at home using water bottles or a backpack as your props!
To build strength, you can use heavier weights, but do fewer repetitions. Once you get more comfortable, try finding a group fitness class that is based around weight lifting, or you can use your own body weight with exercises like push-ups or those described earlier.
To add weight, have an extra set of dumbbells (or water jugs) that you can hold during lunges or to do bicep curls.
Strength endurance is great in terms of getting stronger and building lean muscle mass, rather than bulk. You can increase muscular endurance by doing more repetitions of a given exercise, without stopping, perhaps with a lighter weight.
To begin strength training, identify the form of resistance you’d like to use. People usually use weights (i.e., dumbbells or barbells), but you can also use materials you have at home.
People often have images of Hulk-like body builders when they picture the dead lift. In fact, it’s great for anyone’s hamstrings, inner thighs, and calves.
Begin by standing with feet hip width apart and lean forward with a flat back. Be sure to push your hips back, push your chest up, and keep soft knees. You should instantly feel a little pull in your hamstrings. Let your arms hang low with dumbbells (or cans of beans) in your hands and lift your upper body up, squeezing your back muscles and keeping your core tight. Remember to keep your body weight in your heels. Lower down again and repeat the maximum reps you can with small rest periods, staying attentive to how you feel.
Sometimes it seems like everyone is talking about “cardio,” and it is an essential part of developing overall fitness. Andy Butler, the club soccer coach at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says, “Cardiovascular endurance is arguably the most important physical aspect for a high-level [athlete] in that they need it to carry them through a game. Even those who are not [competitive athletes] should work on their endurance for health benefits, the most important being a strong heart.”
Why is heart health at the root of overall fitness? Your cardiovascular system is responsible for delivering oxygen and nutrients to your cells and works in coordination with your lungs. Exercise that raises your heart rate helps strengthen its ability to pump blood efficiently, and when the vascular and respiratory systems work smoothly together, your muscles are able to best utilize the energy available to them.
There are practically as many forms of cardiovascular exercise as there are people, so try out a few until you find the ones you most enjoy. You can play a sport like soccer or basketball, run or speed walk, swim, dance, row, or do interval training, just to name a few options!
More about cardiovascular activities
One activity that is beneficial and easy to fit into a busy schedule is power walking through campus. Between classes, walk at a fast pace. Walk as if you are in a rush to get somewhere and continue this for 10–15 minutes.
Another way to include cardio in your day is by using Mother Nature! If you live near hills or mountains, utilize trails that surround you. Not only is this great to do with friends, but you will be strengthening your legs and heart. Carry a backpack or some water bottles to get your back, shoulders, and arms involved too.
Speaking of the heart, it is a muscle and needs exercise too! Heart rate is a big component of cardiovascular training.
To see the CDC’s tools to help you determine your optimal heart rate, CLICK HERE.
This element of fitness is often misinterpreted as simply weight or physical size. In reality, body composition takes into account total body mass, muscle-to-fat ratio, and regional fat distribution (where fat cells are concentrated, such as around the middle of the body), which may be correlated with risk for heart disease and diabetes.
You may know about BMI, the acronym for body mass index. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BMI is calculated from a person’s weight and height, and “Provides a fairly reliable indicator of body fatness for most people and is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems.”
Used alone, though, measuring BMI may not tell the full story. Frankie R., a personal trainer and student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says that since the formula only takes a person’s height and weight into consideration, it may not be accurate. “For instance, a short and muscular collegiate football player could be considered obese based on his BMI, which doesn’t account for fat mass versus muscle or lean mass,” he says.
A more accurate way to assess health is leanness, the ratio of muscle to fat. Sufficient muscle mass is vital for the well-being of your bones and to keep your heart healthy. So rather than focusing solely on the weight you see when you step on a scale, consider your muscle-to-fat ratio.
Information about the muscle-to-fat ratio
Joint Mobility and Body Awareness
These last two elements are not always included in descriptors of fitness, but are nonetheless essential. The American Council on Exercise explains that joint mobility is, “The degree to which an articulation (where two bones meet) is allowed to move before being restricted by surrounding tissues (ligaments/tendons/muscles etc.).” Joint stability is, “The ability to maintain or control joint movement or position. Stability is achieved by the coordinating actions of surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system.”
Frankie says he thinks joint mobility is the most important element of fitness, noting, “Mobility is a part of the foundation for a fitness program and strongly correlates with injury susceptibility.”
Body awareness is also at the root of physical health in that it is a strong influencer of how you move your body, your confidence in its abilities, and your appreciation for your unique strengths and challenges. Don’t be afraid to stand in front of the mirror and be proud of yourself. Try keeping a journal of your fitness goals and progression, and even include days when you are struggling with a physical or emotional obstacle.
Katrina F., a senior at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, says that exercise keeps her mind sharper and helps her stay energized, relaxed, and lively. You can feel that way too by integrating the essential elements of fitness into your life, working yourself from head to toe, inside and out.
- Focus on how exercise makes you feel, physically and mentally.
- Find activities that you enjoy and that allow you to work on the various elements of complete physical fitness.
- If you usually focus on one specific form of exercise, branching out will enhance your overall fitness and athletic performance.
- Concentrate less on the number on the scale and more on developing a lean muscle-to-fat ratio.
- Try yoga classes to enhance your flexibility, clear your mind, and reduce stress.
Get help or find out more
American College of Sports Medicine
American Heart Association, American Heart Association Guidelines for Physical Activity
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology