Typical college lifestyle might be hazardous to later health

By Lynn Rogers

The following mini-exam won’t affect your GPA, but it could affect your entire life and health.

Are you:

a.) stressed out over exams and papers?

b.) juggling schoolwork with a demanding job on the side?

c.) smoking packs of cigarettes a day to relieve pressure?

d.) drinking cases/bottles of alcohol for the same reason as c”?

e.) suffering from a lack of sleep or living on coffee and Jolt?

f.) eating poorly due to Mom’s absence, laziness or a lack of cash flow?

If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, your college lifestyle is not unique. Common as they are, however, today’s bad habits can cause unforeseen and unlimited problems in the future.

From the beginning, college life is usually associated with stress, and vice versa. Homework piles up, five exams are uncannily scheduled for the same week and the ever-growing threat of maintaining grades to find a scarce job hangs over your head.

“If you want to succeed in the business school, you have to work,” said junior, business management major Michael Petrak, adding, “There’s a lot of pressure, anxiety..you’re always afraid you’re going to fall into the horror stories of not getting accepted or succeeding. You always feel rushed.”

Petrak is not alone in his sentiments. Steven Lux, health educator for NIU’s Health Enhancement Services, said stress is a normal, albeit difficult, aspect of college life. “For most people, the stress of college is a temporary thing—they cope with it as best they can and when they leave, the stressors are gone,” he said, adding other stressors replace them.

“College is a unique kind of stressor,” Lux explained. “It’s how people have learned to deal with it that’s important. We try to encourage people to recognize particular things that cause them the most stress, then recognize how they respond to that stress.”

Kathy Hotelling, director of the Counseling and Student Development Center, agreed stress is an integral part of student’s lives. “Most people tend to let more things go as stress becomes greater. Stress is both a psychological and physiological problem. It makes us more susceptible to catching viruses,” she explained.

To reduce stress, Hotelling advised taking study breaks. “No one can study five hours straight,” she pointed out. In between studies, students can exercise, talk to friends or just relax.

On and off-campus jobs also add to the pressures of success and schoolwork. The financial burden of attending college leads many students to seek employment to offset expenses. Some students work up to 30 hours a week, plus classes, homework and clubs.

Junior Theresa Rodriguez works part-time at Burger King and maintains a high average in the business school. “Sometimes it can be hard. But when I have a lot of tests, they’re real flexible,” she said, adding she works 25 hours a week. Dave Kuszynski also puts in 25 hours a week at his job at J.P. Hannagans. “It definitely affects my social life,” he said, adding he works Thursday, weekend and Sunday nights.

Smoking and drinking are common outlets for pressure and can lead to serious health problems later in life, including heart disease, liver problems and alcoholism. They also tend to prematurely age people. Responsible drinking and cutting down (or eliminating) cigarettes can ease potential health hazards.

“From studies we’ve looked at, we don’t seem to have a high degree of regular smokers on campus—those who smoke one or two packs a day. Apparently, we have a lot of episodic smokers, who only smoke when they drink or study,” Lux said.

“It’s a learning process, a way to cope with stress and a way of appearing older. We still participate in the Great American Smokeout and try to provide tips for people to quit,” he said, adding, “It’s a popular problem with faculty and staff as well as students.”

Drinking among college students is also a pressure escape. “The drinking people do tends to be geared to their situation now. While we understand a lot of it is normal, we want to show them it’s not the optimal way to live,” he explained. “If students are going to drink and drink to excess, we show them how to do it responsibly.”

Hotelling concurred, “Things are stressful after students leave college. If you find it relaxing to drink or smoke, you’ll continue that way.”

Students often complain they don’t get enough sleep, staying up until early hours of the day studying or partying. The body generally needs eight hours of sleep a night to keep functioning normally. “People who normally need eight hours of sleep and get four find they’re more irritable and can’t study effectively,” she explained.

At exam time, students can be seen chugging caffeine, leading to another health hazard: caffeine overload. A moderate intake of caffeine can lessen fatique and increase efficiency, but can also cause side-effects such as agitation, irritability, insomnia, stomach irritation and minor tremors. To keep caffeine levels low, she advised to not exceed 200 mg. daily.

Being away from home also shifts diet habits dramatically. “Once you get into poor diet habits, it becomes more difficult to break. It’s easier to go to McDonald’s and get a hamburger than fix a salad at home,” Hotelling said, adding, “It fits with our lifestyles which are already rushed. I think it has longer-term ramifications.”

Lux agreed. “It’s normal, when students are in college, to eat junk food and high-fat foods. If you’re here four, five or six years, that may be long enough for poor diets to become entrenched.”

Stress, diet habits, drinking, smoking and a lack of sleep are common to most, if not all, college students. But be warned: they may come back to haunt you.