Finally I’ve finished my three years studying biology at Bristol University! I get messages from people all the time asking for advice of how I balance uni and fitness, and I thought that (slightly ironically) there’s no better time to share how I balance uni and fitness than just after I’ve finished – after three years of learning to get it right.
I understand when people say it’s hard to balance fitness, health and uni, and I get that it can be time consuming, but in all honesty, I think that if you can’t prioritise keeping healthy when you’re at university (or at least while you’re still young), when are you going to? For me I saw university as a good three years where I had a set routine, I didn’t have to worry about real life problems, and therefore it was actually the best time for me to focus on me.
I started university with quite a good baseline of fitness – I played squash competitively at school, but took a year out afterwards, so wasn’t very fit (comparatively) when I started university.
Year 1 – routine, routine, routine
Year 1 is when you want to start making good choices. If you’re on a budget (who isn’t), I would advise trying to get the best deal for the whole of your time at university – I got a 3 year contract with my university gym for three years for £550. The big one off payment is so worth it if you’re serious about your fitness! But definitely have a look around – the uni gym might not be the cheapest in your city. Make sure you get the best deal in the long run.
Being in a new place with new people is tough, but I really would recommend setting aside an hour 4-5 days a week to head to the gym – at this point routine is everything. It’ll also help you settle into your new life, as sometimes everything can seem a bit up in the air when you’re starting something new. This is the time when you’ll have the least work to do and the least pressure to do well, so make the most of it! Joining sports clubs at this time is also a great idea – it’ll help you meet new people, you might find a new sport you love and it’ll stop you getting bored of the gym.
In my first year I did two athletics sessions (one long run, one track session) and three gym sessions a week. I also met some of my closest friends at this time, so even if you’re a gym bunny, it can’t hurt joining cheerleading, boxing or netball even just for a term 🙂
Year 2 – achieving balance
Things start to get academically serious in year 2. You’ve met most of your uni friends, got yourself into a routine and found a sport you enjoy. In my second year I continued running cross-country and track, but became more flexible with my sessions as I started to gym more. As work started to increase (I had 25h of lectures and practicals a week in my first term), I made sure to push myself to gym. For me, once I was on campus it was a lot easier to go to the gym, so I tried to work 10am-5pm every day and then head to the gym. If you make it a routine it’ll be easy. In my second year my old school friend came to Bristol on placement and we started to gym together, which was perfect because it forced me to head to the gym even if I wasn’t feeling it.
In terms of eating, I was much better in second year than first year, making my own food far more often and going out less. Remember if you’re going out: alcohol does contain calories, lots of sugar, and might make a 2am kebab/burger/whatever seem like a good idea (in my experience it rarely is). If you know you’re likely to have food after a night out, remember to budget for it – having a smaller lunch is ideal, as you don’t want to skimp out on dinner if you’re drinking. Again, planning is everything – eating after a night out is ok, but either plan by reducing your daytime meals, or make sure you have something healthy and carry waiting for you when you get back, like a bowl of oats instead of something fatty. And if you don’t eat it, you can just have it for breakfast!
Year 3 – continuing the habit
Although work was a lot harder in my third year, the content was less diverse and there were fewer hours of lectures, allowing me to structure my day as I liked. I’m much better when left to my own devices but I know some people can find routine difficult without structure. I always worked 9/10-5 and then gymmed, since that was the routine I was used to. My housemate used to work until 10pm and then gym, but if you need 10h sleep like I do, it’s no use gymming late – the exercise will keep you up later. If you need to work late, either gym in the morning or gym before dinner and then head back to work afterwards.
My eating over the last year has been mostly good. I have proats or 2 eggs on wholemeal homemade bread most mornings, a protein shake or coffee at around 11, and try to make lunch (although realistically I am terrible and always buy a salad with some protein). I usually have to have something sweet mid afternoon before the gym and either go for a protein smoothie or 3 chocolate topped rice cakes (those Metcalf dark chocolate ones are the bomb). Dinner varies a little bit – either an omelette and veg, a stir fry with quorn or white fish or pan fried salmon and mixed vegetables (roasted or stir fried). All my dinners are very quick to make – after going to the gym at 5pm, I want to eat as soon as I’m home, so aside from roast vegetables nothing takes longer than 15 minutes!
Having some meals you know are simple to make but super good for you is the key to eating healthily when you’re exhausted from a long day at uni. If I know I’m going to be too busy to cook, I’ll make a veggie lasagne over the weekend and store it so I can literally just heat it up and have it with an egg when needed!
The busier you get over your time at university, the more you need habits and planning. Realistically, you’re not going to be able to do everything you want to do to keep healthy, but setting up a good routine in your first year and then planning your food week by week (I don’t necessarily mean meal planning, but having a rough idea) will keep you on the straight and narrow.
I definitely think having friends who are also into health and fitness has helped me throughout my time here – not only for heading to the gym, but also having healthy food in the fridge and not being grilled (no pun intended) about why I am eating fish and vegetables instead of a bacon sarnie. It can be really isolating being healthy if your friends don’t understand. Surround yourself with people who support you and encourage you and university can be an amazing time, without getting in the way of your fitness goals.
Most of all, university is supposed to be one of the best times of your life. Enjoy it!