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Off to college? How to stay healthy away at school

Copyright 2013 Jannis Werner

College students who are heading out on their own for the first time face a lot of exciting and challenging new responsibilities, from building a social life to tackling tough academics to managing their finances. It's also a time when young adults have to start taking responsibility for their own health care.

Many quickly discover that college life is full of temptations to indulge in bad habits and set healthy ones aside.

"Choosing what to eat, how much to sleep and how to protect themselves are the most important health responsibilities college-age people face," Dr. Angie Johansson, DO, a pediatrician in Surprise, Arizona, told CBS News.

She and other experts offer these tips for staying healthy in the dorm and beyond...

Get vaccinated

MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Make sure vaccinations are up to date before heading off to school, because communal living can put college students at greater risk of contagious illnesses. In 2014, an outbreak of mumps sickened more than 150 students at the Ohio State University; the disease can be spread through coughing, sneezing, or sharing cups and utensils. It's preventable with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine.

College campuses have also been the epicenter of outbreaks of meningococcal disease, a rare but serious illness that can lead to brain damage, limb amputations or even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a meningococcal vaccine for teens, especially before entering college or the military.

Avoid the "freshman 15"


A steady diet of pizza, carb-heavy cafeteria fare and late-night munchies can lead to gaining the dreaded "freshman 15." To avoid weight gain, make an effort to eat a balanced diet that includes whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy and protein. A balanced diet also helps boost the immune system and maintain overall health.

"College students are usually no longer getting any diet advice from their parents and making choices 100 percent on their own," Johansson said. "College eatery food choices are often high calorie, low nutrient, and highly processed."

Johansson recommends filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, plus a two-palm-sized serving of protein. Starches can then fill the last quarter of the plate. Try to stick to three complete meals a day.

Many campuses also have a dietician at the student health center who can be consulted for extra guidance and special needs.

Make time for exercise

Making time to exercise with a busy college schedule can be difficult. But exercise is an important part of maintaining good physical and mental health. Many colleges have fitness centers on site that students can use between classes or during free time. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can boost mood and improve sleep, which helps you focus in the classroom.

"Exercising for 30 minutes can help boost brain chemicals to reduce the stress response," Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., a national certified counselor and 
licensed mental health counselor
 based in Boca Raton, Florida, told CBS News.

Get enough sleep

Ekaterina Pokrovsky

Although a late-night party with friends or the occasional all-nighter to cram for a mid-term is understandable, it's best not to make it a habit. A lack of sleep can have physical and mental consequences including reduced brain function, weight loss or gain, and an increased vulnerability to sickness.

Johansson says college students need a good seven to 10 hours of sleep per night. During sleep, the brain converts short-term memories into long-term memories, which can help to retain recently learned information. "People learn and remember more when they spend a smaller amount of time studying and a longer amount of time sleeping," she said.

"Our bodies and minds grow while we sleep, and sleep is very important in the function of the immune system. People who get enough sleep therefore do better academically and are less likely to become ill due to these functions."

Manage stress

College years can be full of academic, financial and social pressures. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 15 to 24 years, according to the CDC.

Johansson says every college student needs to find a way to deal with stress that works for them. Some common methods that may be helpful for stress relief include keeping a journal, exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness or breathing exercises, and talking with a friend (social support). And don't be afraid to seek help if stress or emotional problems start to seem overwhelming.

"I think it's important that college students remember that asking for help and/or advice is not a sign of weakness, but a responsible way to deal with problems," Johansson told CBS News. "Family members, doctors, and school counselors are all there to help make college a safe and beneficial experience."

Don’t drink to excess

Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking are all too common on many campuses, which can be dangerous for young people, raising the risk of accidents, affecting health and interfering with school performance. The CDC recommends that individuals 21 and over limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per hour, with a maximum of three drinks per day.

"If you are taking medication, double check on any interactions it may have with alcohol," Sarkis told CBS News. "Drink responsibly and always be aware of what is going on around you."

Sex and relationships


College is often a time to experiment and learn about relationships and sex. If you choose to engage in sexual activity, make sure that it is responsible and safe. Close to half of the 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15-24, according to the CDC.

Talk with your partner about any health concerns you might have and take advantage of the school's health services to get tested regularly and to learn about safe sex and birth control options.

"Birth control is incredibly important, but no birth control is perfect," Johansson said. "Condoms are imperative as a method to prevent STD's, and are needed even if using another birth control method, but are only 70 percent effective," according to one recent study.