• Abbie Tibbott

Keeping Fit at University: Exercise on a Budget

[[Disclaimer: This post will feature mentions of weight, exercise, calorie-counting and intuitive eating. If you are sensitive to these topics, I’d advise you to skip this blog. We are all going through different things, and I have no intentions of making anyone uncomfortable or causing distress.]]

Healthy eating and exercise are important concepts that have been drilled into us since childhood. However, maintaining a balanced diet and keeping up with fitness at university is not as straightforward as it might sound. Despite your time being your own, a lack of cooking knowledge and long periods of sedentary study can have a negative effect on your mental well-being in the long term. I’ve already written a post about protecting your mental health, so it made sense to include some tips to maintain your physical health too. Budget constraints are a factor of university life, and I understand that many people may not be in the position to join a sports society or spend money on a gym membership. This has been something that I’ve found challenging over the years, and after a pretty sedentary 2020, I’ve made a concerted effort to work on my fitness. Here are some methods surrounding keeping fit at university, and I’ve made an effort to include some low-cost options too.


Free Fitness

Walking is the obvious one, but cycling is also a great way to get around, especially if you live or study on a large campus. University accommodation will usually have secure bike sheds ,but get yourself a secure bike lock for when you’re out and about to keep your bike safe. If you live close to the nearby town, try to walk at least one way. I used to walk into Reading when I was shopping or meeting up with friends, and then get the bus back once I’d finished. I’d never personally advise bringing your car to university unless you have a legitimate need for it, as not only is it expensive to keep, but it also gives you an excuse not to walk somewhere. Get a decent pair of trainers or boots for everyday university life, then you’ve got no excuse to get some steps in.

If you live on campus, speed-walking or running can form an important fitness foundation. Lots of students run as it’s free, and campuses are known to be safe, especially when running in the dark. The NHS have a “Couch to 5K” programme which is completely free and is easy to follow, which is ideal for building in around your studies. You also don’t need any equipment for this either, just your phone and some trainers. If you decide that you really enjoy running, joining a society dedicated to trail running might be a great option for you. Running in your local area is fine too, but just make sure that someone knows where you are headed, and what time to expect you back. On campus, make sure that you report any suspicious behaviour to security so they can deal with it for you. It’s important to stay safe, and make sure that you share the path with pedestrians and cyclists.


Low-Cost Fitness

If you’re not a fan of running, or are looking for something low impact, I’d recommend getting hold of a yoga mat and a set of weights or a kettlebell. You’ll be able to order these online and set them up in your room. Exercising in the privacy of your room is a great way to get started if you feel unconfident, and it’s an easy way to get in some fitness if you’re busy studying. I used YouTube yoga and kettlebell routines that were completely free to act as a guide if I felt uninspired. Also, if you’re sitting at your desk all day, incorporating some stretching into your day will do wonders for your back and shoulders, especially if you have to suffer an uncomfortable chair. Just twenty minutes a day can make all the difference, and it’s not dependent on the weather either.

Another cheap method of keeping fit is to join a Zumba or dance class. These can range from around £3 per session and give you the benefit of working out alongside others; the possibility of making new friends and plenty of space to move around in. As a woman, these classes make me feel super empowered, and they have a fantastic atmosphere. Heading off to a class once a week holds you accountable without you having to commit to a gym membership. These classes often have taster sessions too, so you can try out a class without having to decide straight away. Some activities are linked to a society, so they may ask for a fee when you join, but many operate a “guest” system if you wan to keep your options open. I’ve found these societies are much more budget friendly than competitive sports, and buying a membership often makes classes cheaper and gives you priority booking.


More Expensive Fitness Ideas

Joining a gym or leisure centre on your university’s campus will usually be the cheapest option if you’re looking to use workout equipment or take more regular classes that require an instructor. Shop around for good deals and paying up front (if that’s possible) for a nine-month period is often cheaper than paying monthly for a service that you won’t use if you go home for the summer months. Joining a gym in your local area may offer different benefits, such as 24-hour access, but it completely depends on what facilities your university has to offer.

However, I’d caution against dropping money on a gym membership unless you’re completely sure that you’ll use it, as it can pose a financial burden that drains your bank account each month. There may be several levels of membership with different prices, so pick the one most suited to your workout style. To get the most out of your membership, I’d say that attending the gym twice a week is the minimum. Thankfully, there will be lots of workout classes to choose from, so there are other options if you decide that you don’t like the gym environment. I will say though that university gyms do tend to attract the “gym bro” stereotype, which can be a deterrent if you’re new to the environment. Guys tend to monopolize the free weights area, messing around and challenging each other to see how much they can lift. This can be distracting and can make others feel self-conscious, but there’s no reason that you can’t use the area too! Using the gym early in the morning or late at night worked for me, as there were not only less people in general, but the people in the weights zone actually knew what they were doing.

A sports society might also be the way forward, especially if you played a team sport at school and want to carry it on. Societies have lots of hidden costs, so it’s important to price everything up to decide whether you have the time and money to commit to the sport.

Costs may include:

· A gym membership – some societies require this, as the sport is tied up in the hire of practice space.

· A society fee – this can be termly or yearly, and depends on whether you play competitively or just for fun.

· An equipment fee – this is used to pay for coaching, sports equipment, and the hire of transport to matches.

· A uniform fee – societies will have a uniform that players will wear to varsity events and matches, ranging from a hoodie to a full tracksuit.

These costs can make it prohibitive for many students to join, especially if your studies get in the way and you have to miss practices or matches. Also, be aware that you’ll be expected to audition for competitive teams, and your ranking will determine on how many matches you will play each semester, which may not make the expense worthwhile. Lots of societies have a fee for people wanting to play for fun, which usually forgoes the uniform costs, but it’s still worth having a think about the price.


Food for Thought

It’s not all about exercise, so I thought I’d include some tips on how to eat healthily at university while still keeping on budget. Convenience is key when you have a busy study schedule and varied social life, so make life easy for yourself! If you’re worried about your weight, it may be a good idea to speak to your GP to identify why you feel this way. Having a set of scales at university is not something I support unless it’s medically recommended. Developing a negative body image is easy at university as you have free reign over what you eat and how much you move. If negative thoughts are impacting your mental well-being, please reach out to student support to seek counselling or a referral to dietary services.

I’m the biggest advocate for intuitive eating, which is in a nutshell, the act of eating what you feel like fuels your body, at times that suit you. Binge-eating is something that I was frequently guilty of, especially as I was stressed, and it hasn’t done me any good in the long run. Calorie restriction can make you light-headed and fatigued which isn’t ideal for the brainwork needed at university, and crash dieting can leave you with vitamin deficiencies too.

My best advice would be to:

· Eat three meals a day, with at least two being meals that you’ve prepared yourself – that way, you’ll know exactly what’s in your food and the portion size you need.

· Take lunch with you – it reduces the temptation to buy rubbish from the shops and saves you money at the same time.

· Monitor your caffeine intake – students drink a lot of coffee, but the jitters and a racing heart are not good signs. Stay away from the energy drinks too; the momentary high is not worth it when you crash back down.

· Fuel your body with what it needs – protein is important whether it comes from a meat source or otherwise. Filling up with sugar won’t keep you full, so choose meals that taste good and fill your stomach.

· Drink plenty of water – staring at a screen used to give me an awful headache until I started drinking more water. Space your drinking out throughout the day, and remember to hydrate after physical activity.

· Never go hungry – it may be tempting to crash diet or severely restrict yourself so you can fit into a nice dress for a formal, but it doesn’t do your body any favours. Your brain needs nutrition, and you deserve to eat.

· Keep your comments to yourself – please don’t lecture people about what they’re eating because you never know what they’re going through, especially if you’ve only just met them. Try not to preach your dietary requirements too much and accept that everyone is fuelling their body that way for a particular reason. Snide comments about portion sizes and meal choices can really damage someone’s self-esteem and are completely unnecessary.

Finding the time to work on your health and fitness may be at the bottom of your priority list, but when you’re sad, homesick or simply bored, getting in just half an hour of exercise will help to boost your mood. Eating what makes you feel good and buying foods that fuel your body will assist you in staying focused for longer and being more productive overall. Your weight should not define you as a person, so try to be kind to yourself and give yourself a break! Just being at university is an overstimulating, often stressful experience, so try and find self-love in what you achieve every day.

Happy studying!