How do college students stay fit and motivated?

By Rebecca Guldin
April 23, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s a stressful time of year on college campuses. Final projects, exams and searching for summer jobs and internships are at the forefront of every student’s mind. One of the last things many students may be concerned about is going to the gym.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults should exercise for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week coupled with strength training. With packed class schedules, project meetings, extracurricular activities and time to sleep, is this a realistic goal for college students?

College is the perfect time to get serious about fitness because campus gyms have many options and are accessible to students at a more affordable cost than the average gym membership, according to Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics Fitness Program Coordinator Jill Garrigan.

It is even harder to schedule exercise time when you are new to balancing college life. Taylor Buchta, a freshman studying art education at Penn State, started the semester strong but found that going to the gym consistently was harder than she expected.

“I tried to go twice a week or more, probably three times a week,” Buchta said. Though she focused on cardio and strength training, Buchta found that an “increasing workload over the semester and time-consuming projects” edged gym time off her schedule.

Pilates students White building

Students, faculty and staff at Penn State attend a variety of fitness and strength training classes weekly at White Building facilities.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

That is pretty typical, according to Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics Fitness Program Coordinator Jill Garrigan. She is responsible for programming and managing fitness instructors on Penn State’s University Park campus.

In general, traffic to the fitness centers on the University Park campus, including exercise classes, sees a huge participation increase in January, even more so than in September, Garrigan said, adding that there is a sharp decline in participation right after the Super Bowl in mid-winter.

Although it may be difficult to pinpoint from among many possible reasons why there is a decrease in participation, students can persevere in taking control of their health and plan realistic goals. Garrigan knows staying motivated involves three components: setting realistic fitness goals, doing what you like, and having an accountability buddy.

“Don’t go all-in in January,” Garrigan said about starting up a fitness routine. “Five days a week is unrealistic.” Instead, she recommends looking ahead in the semester, assessing your schedule, and structuring your workout schedule around busy times to prevent frustration and burnout.      

“Understand that in January, you can do it, but even hold back,” Garrigan said, adding that at the end of the semester, even if you can only exercise one time a week, “it’s better than zero.”

Some students may stop exercising because they’re bored with their fitness routine. Garrigan suggests going to a new fitness class or trying a new activity. Power Remix, a class at Penn State’s White Building, is one of the most popular because it’s held in a large room, hit songs are broadcast through the speakers, and there’s no right or wrong way to participate, she said.

The White Building schedule is filled with interesting and unconventional classes. Enjoy Yogalates, a combination of yoga and pilates that improves balance, core strength and stability with attention to the mind and body. Need something a little more upbeat? Try Full Body Workout, a blend of cardio and muscle conditioning.

Liz Elberfeld, a senior studying nutrition and marketing, has been motivating her peers to get healthy through her job as a fitness instructor. Elberfeld thinks the end of the semester is the toughest time of the year to motivate herself to work out. “We are all human and we all struggle at times,” she said.

Elberfeld also recommends that students add variety to their routine whenever possible. “The more variety you have, the less likely you'll get bored,” Elberfeld said.

Fitness class- Liz Eberfeld

Liz Eberfeld, a senior majoring in nutrition and marketing, is a fitness instuctor at Penn State. Ebefeld feels that motivation is the key to keeping fit and healthy.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Though finding the right balance may be difficult, it is not impossible. Garrigan has a few tips to help college students exercise through challenging times during the semester.

An accountability buddy can come in many forms. Even if you do not go to the gym with your accountability buddy, it is important to text a friend to let him or her know that you exercised today and to see if he or she did, too, Garrigan said. Additionally, it is easy for students in a college setting to lose track of how much they actually go to the gym. Garrigan suggests marking a calendar after a workout to acknowledge those accomplishments.

“For my own workouts, I set goals for myself, like signing up for races,” Elberfeld said. She relies on her friends for accountability, too. “We all motivate each other to keep going to classes and keep running.”

Above all else, Garrigan stresses the importance of finding a fitness routine that you enjoy. “Take out the obstacle. Do whatever you like,” Garrigan said.

A bit of indulgence can motivate students to go to the gym, too, such as watching entertaining TV during a workout. “If you like watching ‘Pretty LIttle Liars,’ watch that while on the Stairmaster,” Garrigan said.

“You’re laying down some lifelong habits. Why not become that person that says, ‘I need to work out today’?”

— Jill Garrigan

Most of all, it is important to simply make the effort to exercise. According to Garrigan, college is the perfect time to get serious about fitness because campus gyms have many options and are accessible to students at a more affordable cost than the average gym membership.

Penn State students can register for a fitness pass for $54 per semester or $103 for two semesters. With a membership, students can access the exercise classes and fitness centers at the White Building, the Hepper Fitness Center at Rec Hall and the Intramural Building. Fitness centers are located near all on-campus housing.

The newly renovated Intramural Building is outfitted with new equipment including up-to-date exercise machines and free weights, accompanied by views of Beaver Stadium and Mount Nittany. Currently, two fitness classes are offered, including Summer Shape Up and Washboard Abs.

Though college life is busy, it should not be too busy to exercise. “You’re laying down some lifelong habits," Garrigan said. "Why not become that person that says, ‘I need to work out today’?”

Last Updated June 20, 2014