54 Nutrition and Exercise

David Evans


What you’ll learn to do: explain key factors in health including nutrition, exercise, and sleep

Photo of a college cafeteria. Students push lunch trays past a pile of Doritos and pizza.

Just imagine, how much easier our lives would be if we were born with a “user guide or owner’s manual” which could tell us what to eat and how to live healthy.

―Erika M. Szabo, author

By the end of this section, you will be able to define healthy eating habits, identify techniques for making healthy food choices, especially in college, and describe physical fitness and the major types of exercise. You will also identify the benefits of regular exercise, for both body and brain. In addition, you will identify benefits of sleep for both physical and mental health and ways to ensure good sleep habits and high-quality sleep, especially during periods of stress.

Healthy Diets:

Learning Outcomes

  • Define healthy eating habits

A diet is anything that you consume on a regular basis. If you drink Diet Coke for breakfast every day, that’s part of your diet. When people talk about “going on a diet,” they usually mean changing their existing dietary habits in order to lose weight or change their body shape. All people are on a diet because everyone eats! Having a healthy diet means making food choices that contribute to short- and long-term health. A healthy diet means getting the right amounts of nutrient-rich foods and avoiding foods that contain excessive amounts of less healthy foods. The right mix can help you be healthier now and in the future.

Developing eating healthy eating habits doesn’t require you to sign up for a gimmicky health-food diet or extreme lifestyle. The simplest way to create a healthy eating style is by learning to make wise food choices that you can enjoy, one small step at a time.

Infographic of the healthy eating guidelines. Appropriate alternative text can be found in the text on this page.

Make every bite count with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020–2025.[1] Here’s how:

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
  4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
  5. Limit alcoholic beverages.

USDA Healthy Eating Guidelines

Infographic showing a picture of a plate divided into four segments: One segment is labeled "Fruits," one is labeled "Grains," one is labeled "Protein," and the last is labeled "Vegetables." Next to the plate is a circle (suggesting a cup or glass) that's labeled "Dairy."Make half your plate fruits and vegetables: Focus on whole fruits, and vary your veggies

  • Choose whole fruits—fresh, frozen, dried, or canned in 100% juice.
  • Enjoy fruit with meals, as snacks, or for a dessert.
  • Try adding fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables to salads, side dishes, and recipes.
  • Choose a variety of colorful veggies prepared in healthful ways: steamed, sautéed, roasted, or raw.

Make half your grains whole grains

  • Look for whole grains listed first or second on the ingredients list—try oatmeal, popcorn, whole-grain bread, and brown rice.
  • Limit grain desserts and snacks, such as cakes, cookies, and pastries.

Vary your protein routine

  • Mix up your protein foods to include a variety—seafood, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, soy products, eggs, and lean meats and poultry.
  • Try main dishes made with beans and seafood, like tuna salad or bean chili.

Move to low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt

  • Choose fat-free milk, yogurt, and soy beverages (soy milk) to cut back on your saturated fat.
  • Replace sour cream, cream, and regular cheese with low-fat yogurt, milk, and cheese.

Drink and eat less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars

  • Eating fewer calories from foods high in saturated fat and added sugars can help you manage your calories and prevent obesity and being overweight. Most of us eat too many foods that are high in saturated fat and added sugar.
  • Eating foods with less sodium can reduce your risk of high blood pressure.
  • Use the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to compare foods and drinks. Limit items high in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.
  • Use vegetable oils instead of butter, and choose oil-based sauces and dips instead of those with butter, cream, or cheese.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Eat the right amount

  • Eat the right amount of calories for you based on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. Some people use calorie counting apps, which can help you plan, analyze, and track your diet and physical activity.
  • Building a healthier eating style can help you avoid obesity and being overweight and reduce your risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

The following short video recaps the USDA’s current healthy eating guidelines:

You can view the transcript for “How to Follow the USDA MyPlate Dietary Guidelines” here (opens in new window).

Healthy Eating in College:

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify challenges for making healthy food choices in college and techniques to overcome these barriers

Woman sitting in a campus dining hall

College offers many temptations for students trying to create or maintain healthy eating habits. You may be on your own for the first time, and you’re free to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Cafeterias, all-you-can-eat dining facilities, vending machines, and easy access to food twenty-four hours a day make it tempting to overeat or choose foods loaded with calories, saturated fat, sugar, and salt. You may not be in the habit of shopping or cooking for yourself yet, and, when you find yourself short on time or money, it may seem easier to fuel yourself on sugary, caffeinated drinks and meals at the nearest fast-food place. Maybe you played basketball or volleyball in high school, but now you don’t seem to be getting much exercise.

On top of that, it’s common for people to overeat (or not eat enough) when they feel anxious, lonely, sad, or stressed, and college students are no exception. It’s incredibly important, though, to develop healthy ways of coping and relaxing that don’t involve reaching for food, drink, or other substances. It’s also important to eat regular healthy meals to keep up your energy.

Kidshealth.org offers the following advice on ways for college students to adopt a healthy food attitude:[2]

  • avoid eating when stressed, while studying, or while watching TV
  • eat slowly
  • eat at regular times and try not to skip meals
  • keep between-meal and late-night snacking to a minimum
  • choose a mix of nutritious foods
  • pick lower-fat options when you can, such as low-fat milk instead of whole milk or light salad dressing instead of full-fat dressing
  • watch the size of your portions
  • resist going back for additional servings
  • steer clear of vending machines and fast food
  • keep healthy snacks like fruit and vegetables on hand in your room
  • replace empty-calorie soft drinks with water or skim milk

Another hurdle to healthy eating for many college students is food insecurity, which is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.[3] Research conducted before COVID-19 illustrated high rates of food insecurity amongst college students that likely increased during the pandemic and will continue to present problems as people return to college and countries deal with economic recovery.[4] Food insecurity can affect students’ grades as well as their physical and mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and threatens to widen the educational gap. Research has shown that students of color, students who were receiving multiple forms of financial aid, or those who were experiencing housing problems were more likely to be food insecure or at risk of food insecurity.[5] Community college students, financially independent students, Pell Grant recipients, and student parents are all more likely than their peers to experience basic needs insecurity.[6]

The USDA provides tips on how to eat healthy on a budget, which involves making a plan to stay organized and save money, getting the most for your dollar, and tricks on making healthier meals to fit your schedule. The USDA also provides tips on eating right when money’s tight as well as governmental and local food assistance programs, which include the following:

Students can also check if their college has a food pantry or stigma-free food access options on campus as well as mutual aid networks in their communities.

Regular Exercise:

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe physical fitness and the major types of exercise

Three young men playing "bike polo" on a brick-paved campus courtyardThe importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established: regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep better.

As a busy college student, you may be thinking, “I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life!” What you may not know is that precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule, now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life. Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. As you’ll see in the section on brain health below, exercise is a powerful tool for improving one’s mental health and memory—both of which are especially important when you’re in school. Florida Southwestern State College is committed to your health and provides an on-campus fitness center for those who chose to use it, provided you have a valid Bucs Card.

The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. The following video describes how much activity you need:

Physical Fitness and Types of Exercise

Physical fitness is a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded. It also means being in good enough shape to handle unexpected emergencies involving physical demands—that is, if someone said, “Run for your life!” or if you had to rush over and prevent a child from falling, you’d be able to do it.

There are many forms of exercise—dancing, rock climbing, walking, jogging, yoga, bike riding, you name it—that can help you become physically fit. The major types are described below. FSW offers a plethora of different physical activities, make sure to check the weekly event calendar to see what’s going on in person and over Zoom.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles, and raises your breathing rate. For most people, it’s best to aim for a total of about thirty minutes a day, four or five days a week. If you haven’t been very active recently, you can start out with five or ten minutes a day and work up to more time each week. Or, split up your activity for the day: try a brisk ten-minute walk after each meal. If you are trying to lose weight, you may want to exercise more than thirty minutes a day. The following are some examples of aerobic exercise:

  • a brisk walk (outside or inside on a treadmill)
  • dancing
  • a low-impact aerobics class
  • swimming or water aerobic exercises
  • ice-skating or roller-skating
  • playing tennis
  • riding a stationary bicycle indoors.Strength Training

Strength training, done several times a week, helps build strong bones and muscles and makes everyday chores like carrying heavy backpacks (or grocery bags) easier. When you have more muscle mass, you burn more calories, even at rest. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Join a class to do strength training with weights, elastic bands, or plastic tubes (if your college has a gym, take advantage of it!)
  • Lift light weights at home

Flexibility Exercises

Flexibility exercises, also called stretching, help keep your joints flexible and reduce your risk of injury during other activities. Gentle stretching for 5 to 10 minutes helps your body warm up and get ready for aerobic activities such as walking or swimming. Check to see if your college offers yoga, stretching, and/or pilates classes, and give one a try.

Being Active throughout the Day

In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. Being active helps burns calories. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity level:

  • walk instead of drive whenever possible
  • take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some housecleaning every day
  • park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class.

The Benefits of Exercise:

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the benefits of regular exercise, for both body and brain


Exercise, even after age fifty, can add healthy, active years to one’s life. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly lower the risk of death. Simply walking regularly can prolong your life.

Moderately fit people—even if they smoke or have high blood pressure—have a lower mortality rate than the least fit. Resistance training, also known as strength training, is important because it’s the only form of exercise that can slow and even reverse the decline of muscle mass, bone density, and strength. Adding workouts that focus on speed and agility can be especially protective for older people. Flexibility exercises help reduce the stiffness and loss of balance that accompanies aging.

Avoiding Diabetes

Diabetes, particularly type 2, is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the world as more and more cultures adopt Western-style diets (which tend to be high in sugar and fat). Aerobic exercise is proving to have significant and particular benefits for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes; it increases sensitivity to insulin, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, and decreases body fat. In fact, studies show that people who engage in regular, moderate aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking or biking) lower their risk for diabetes even if they do not lose weight. Anyone on insulin or who has complications from diabetes should get advice from a physician before embarking on a workout program.

Brain: Mood, Memory, Creativity

In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. The following video explains why and challenges you to give it a try:

You can view the transcript for “Exercise and the Brain” here (opens in new window).

If you still aren’t persuaded, check out this slightly longer but excellent Tedx Talk, which describes how aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning, memory, and creativity:

You can view the transcript for “TEDxOrlando – Wendy Suzuki – Exercise and the Brain” here (opens in new window)


healthy diet: the beneficial outcome of making food choices that contribute to short- and long-term health

food insecurity: limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain access to acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways

physical fitness: a state of well-being that gives you sufficient energy to perform daily physical activities without getting overly tired or winded

  1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dec. 2020, 9th ed., www.dietaryguidelines.gov/.
  2. "Beating the Freshman 15." Kidshealth.org. 3 Mar 2016.
  3. "Food security in the U.S." U.S. Department of Agriculture, www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/measurement.aspx. Accessed July 23, 2021.
  4. Laska, M. N., S. Fleischhacker, C. Petsoulis, M. Bruening, and M. J. Stebleton. "Addressing College Food Insecurity: An Assessment of Federal Legislation Before and During Coronavirus Disease-2019." Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2020, vol. 52(10), pp. 982–987. www.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2020.07.001.
  5. Payne-Sturges, D. C., A. Tjaden, K. M. Caldeira, K. B. Vincent, and A. M. Arria. (2018). "Student Hunger on Campus: Food Insecurity among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions." American Journal of Health Promotion, 2018, vol. 32(2), pp. 349–354. www.doi.org/10.1177/0890117117719620.
  6. Dennon, A. "COVID-19 Worsens Food Insecurity among College Students." Best Colleges, 9 Mar. 2021, www.bestcolleges.com/blog/food-insecurity-college-students/.


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Nutrition and Exercise Copyright © 2023 by David Evans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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