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Avoiding the Freshman 15 at CU Boulder: Our Hot Take


When starting college, there is so much to be excited for and overwhelmed by. It’s normal to feel pressure around social expectations, academic success, and so much more. What shouldn’t be on that list? Concerns like “the freshman 15.” All of the aspects that make up the freshman 15 are symptoms of an issue—they don’t actually address the root causes.

Instead of stressing about weight gain, let’s shift our focus to getting the brain ready to learn and getting the most out of your experience at CU. When you prioritize your learning and overall well-being through exercise, sleep, and mental health needs, you’ll find that other things, like maintaining a healthy weight, tend to take care of themselves.

Let’s look at strategies and resources available in Boulder to help you learn, manage stress, and make the most of your freshman year. 

The Power of Movement: 

Studies consistently demonstrate that physical activity plays an important role in improving your attention, learning, and memory. Movement is a part of the learning process and will keep you healthy. Engaging in movement before class can yield numerous benefits:

  • Boost your memory: Increased blood flow to the brain and heightened neuron activity help your mind learn and retain information more effectively (more free time). Regular exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells and strengthens the connections between them, leading to improved memory function.
  • Sharpen your focus: Physical activity has been shown to improve attention span (especially in those with ADHD) and concentration, making lectures and studying sessions more productive. By increasing oxygen flow to the brain, exercise helps you stay alert and focused, allowing you to absorb and process information more efficiently.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety: Physical activity triggers the release of feel-good endorphins, which help you better manage the pressures and challenges of college life. Exercise acts as a natural stress reliever, promoting a sense of well-being and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Keep you healthy: While the “Freshman 15” weight gain is often discussed, focusing on regular movement and exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, boost your immune system, and improve your overall physical health. By prioritizing physical activity, you set yourself up for success not only academically but also in terms of your general well-being.

Moving Your Body will Maximize your Learning: 

CU Boulder offers endless opportunities for movement, which include: 

  • Intramurals: Joining a sports league is an excellent way to meet new people while staying active. Not only will you foster new friendships, but you’ll also get the benefits of regular exercise without needing to find the willpower to workout on your own.
  • Outdoor adventures: Take advantage of the stunning natural beauty surrounding CU Boulder’s campus. Hike the Chautauqua or Sanitas trail, explore the Pearl Street Mall, or take a longer and more scenic route to class. 
  • Workout classes with friends at the CU Rec Center: Sign up for yoga, HITT, or spin classes. This structure and accountability from an exercise class are useful if you are struggling to find the motivation to get to the gym. 

The Importance of Sleep: 

Late nights are an inevitable part of the freshman-year experience at CU. Enjoy the experience but understand the importance of sleep to learning and your physical health.  

Getting Enough Sleep Helps:

  • Improve focus and memory: Sleep is needed for consolidating and processing the information you learn throughout the day. During sleep, your brain strengthens neural connections and transfers short-term information into long-term memory. By getting sleep, you’ll be able to focus during lectures, retain material from class, and perform well on exams.
  • Boost your mood: Sleep deprivation can significantly impact your emotional well-being, leading to increased irritability, mood swings, and heightened anxiety levels. Prioritizing a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate your mood and improve your quality of life in Boulder. 
  • Stay healthy: Lack of sleep weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses that can disrupt your academic progress. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been linked to hormonal imbalances that can contribute to weight gain. You’ll be better equipped to fight sickness and maintain a healthy weight by getting enough rest.

Importance of a Consistent Weekday Sleep Schedule 

  • Consistency: Do your best to create a regular sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each weekday, even if your class schedule varies. Consistency is key in regulating your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm. 
  • Bedtime Routine: Create a relaxing bedtime routine that signals to your body that it’s time to wind down. Establishing a calming pre-sleep ritual will facilitate an easier transition into restful sleep (needed for your first semester away from home). 

Remember, prioritizing sleep is not a luxury but a necessity for optimal learning, emotional well-being, and overall health during your freshman year and beyond. 

Reminder: There is so much to experience at CU. You won’t miss much if you put your phone on airplane mode 30 minutes before bed. If you don’t get quality sleep, you will miss much more. 

Take it Easy on Sugar: 

The cafeterias at CU will have plenty of sugar. Obviously, sugar is ok in moderation, but excessive sugar intake can negatively impact your learning and attention. High sugar consumption can lead to: 

  • Memory Challenges: Consuming large amounts of sugar can impair your brain’s ability to retain and recall information. By being mindful of your sugar intake, you’ll be better equipped to absorb and retain the information needed for your classes.
  • Decreased focus: While a sugar rush may provide a temporary burst of energy, it is often followed by a sudden crash, leaving you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy. This crash can make maintaining concentration during lectures or study sessions challenging. 
  • Increased stress levels: Excessive sugar consumption can contribute to mood swings and increased anxiety. The rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels associated with high sugar intake can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to emotional instability. 

Everyone has unique dietary needs, so always consult with your family or healthcare provider to determine the best approach for you. However, focusing on nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains is generally considered beneficial for learning and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as these foods provide the building blocks for cognitive function and overall physical well-being.

Tackling Anxiety: 

Being independent for the first time is stressful. During your freshman year you will experience anxiety. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming, it can significantly impact your ability to learn, perform academically and your health. 

Consequences of High Anxiety: 

  • Difficulty concentrating: When your mind is preoccupied with worries and fears, it becomes challenging to focus on lectures, assignments, or study materials. Anxiety can lead to a constant state of mental distraction, making it harder to absorb and process new information effectively.
  • Memory problems: Anxiety can impair your brain’s ability to encode and retrieve information. When you’re in a heightened state of anxiety, your brain is focused on perceived threats rather than school work. 
  • Increased procrastination: High levels of anxiety can create a mental barrier that makes it challenging to start and complete tasks. The fear of failure, perfectionism, or feeling overwhelmed can lead to avoidance behaviors, such as procrastination. 
  • Impact on physical health: Chronic anxiety takes a toll on your physical health and contributes to weight fluctuations. When you’re anxious, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which can lead to increased appetite and cravings for comfort foods.

Managing Anxiety at CU: 

  • Understand the Typical Peak Times of Stress: Know the times of the year when freshmen historically begin to feel more anxious (midterms, the beginning of October when homesickness might hit, final exams). It is not uncommon to be anxious during these times.
  • Practice Self-Care: Make time for activities that help you relax, such as exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, and connecting with friends. 
  • Utilize resources: CU offers many different support services for students. We have found these to be helpful:
    • Office Hours: Make time to visit your professors during office hours. They are there to help you and can offer guidance when you’re struggling with the content. Also, this structure will reduce procrastination, which is a significant source of anxiety.   
  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): CAPS provides free, confidential counseling services for all CU students. This resource should be used if you begin to feel highly anxious or have other mental health concerns. 

Focus on Learning and Enjoying Freshman Year: 

Instead of fixating on weight gain, focus your energy on maximizing your learning and having a fantastic freshman year. A healthy lifestyle will naturally follow. Embrace the exciting opportunities at CU, make new friends, explore your interests, and, most importantly, enjoy the incredible journey that awaits you! 

Remember: Your well-being is more important than 15 pounds. Focus on the basics of movement, sleep, structure, and nutrition. The rest will follow. 

Welcome to the Buff family! We are thrilled to have you here.

Need help creating a healthy lifestyle? Untapped Learning offers individualized coaching to help students optimize their learning strategies, manage stress, and make the most of their CU experience. With over 30 graduates on staff, we understand how to manage the ups and downs of CU. 

Parenting a child who struggles with executive function can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Let Untapped help!

For More:

Using Physical Movement to Increase Student Engagement and Learning

The Compelling Link Between Physical Activity and the Body’s Defense System

Attention Improves During Physical Exercise in Individuals With ADHD

The Effects of High-Intensity Aerobic Exercise on Cognitive Performance

Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety

The Importance of Sleep for College Students

About Sleep’s Role in Memory

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