HEALTH: What shape will you be in?

If your current exercise regime consists of jogging to the pub and back, university or college is an excellent chance to get fit
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The Independent Online

You're meant to have fun at university or college, but the experience can be much more enjoyable if you put some effort into looking after yourself. It doesn't take an exorbitant amount of time nor a crippling dose of self-discipline: it's mostly a case of common sense and a bit of forward thinking – two of the skills you're supposed to be developing during your studies.

You're meant to have fun at university or college, but the experience can be much more enjoyable if you put some effort into looking after yourself. It doesn't take an exorbitant amount of time nor a crippling dose of self-discipline: it's mostly a case of common sense and a bit of forward thinking – two of the skills you're supposed to be developing during your studies.

KEEPING FIT

Long hours in the library or in cramped lecture halls are just the things to put unnatural stress on the body and make your mind sluggish. And most students will tell you just how easy it is to put on an extra stone in the first term through too much beer and too little exercise.

You don't have to turn into a gym bore to get the benefits, however; three to four half-hour bouts of aerobic exercise a week will do the trick. It might sound a lot, but you can incorporate them into your daily routine relatively easily. Think about how you get to college, for a start. If it's within a half-hour walk, you can burn off quite a few calories (and keep them off) with a 30-minute brisk walk every day. And if you live in an area in which you don't risk certain death on the roads, then it's worth taking your bicycle. If you already enjoy a particular sporting activity, join one of the sporting clubs you'll see advertised during freshers week.

Find out what the university or college's sports facilities are like, and also check out the local sports centres in your area, most of which offer student discounts. If even this sounds too much like hard work, then try something like yoga. Local sports centres often offer yoga classes, but you can just buy a video and do it at home either alone or with friends. The breathing and relaxation techniques you'll learn will certainly come in handy at exam time.

REGISTERING WITH A DOCTOR

Some of you might prefer to stick with your GP from your home town (especially if you haven't moved too far away). But if you don't fancy saving up your medical problems until your next visit home, it's best to register with a local doctor. Most universities will have their own health centres, and if they haven't got regular GPs on staff, then at least they will be able to recommend a local one. To avoid paying the £6.50 prescription charge, apply for an exemption through your GP.

MENINGITIS

There have been several frightening stories in recent years concerning outbreaks of meningitis in universities. Most of you already will have been immunised against meningitis C, but if you haven't, you should go to your GP before term starts because there is a slightly higher risk of being exposed to the infection in your first year at university or college.

The vaccine for meningitis C, unfortunately, doesn't protect you from all forms of meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia. Although many people do recover from these diseases, they are still extremely serious. It's important to watch both yourself and your friends for the symptoms – if there is any doubt whatsoever, get straight to a hospital. Symptoms of meningitis include a severe headache, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights, repeatedly throwing up, severe sleepiness or confusion, a rash which doesn't disappear when you press a clear glass against it. Symptoms of septicaemia include a fever, repeatedly throwing up, rapid breathing, very cold hands and feet, pains in joints, limbs, stomach and muscles, difficulty walking or standing, stomach pains (including diarrhoea), losing consciousness. Bear in mind that not everyone gets all of these symptoms, nor do they arrive in any particular order. The rash is usually a late symptom.

ALCOHOL

It's easy to get seduced by the drinking culture at university or college, but try to show at least a little restraint. Prolonged excessive drinking will wreak havoc on your body and mind, and it won't take long before you notice the effects. Feeling terrible in the mornings, too much greasy food to make up for it, a lack of concentration later in the morning, a pint at lunchtime to make you feel 'better', a severe slump at around 4pm as your blood sugar levels nosedive, starchy cakes to get you going again – and that's just in the short term!

Binge drinking is worse for you than regular, moderate drinking. Government guidelines have changed recently to reflect this: they used to say that men should drink no more than 21 units a week and women no more than 14 – in other words, a typical Friday night. But now the thinking is that men could have, on average, three to four units a day and women two to three. It still sounds a bit miserly, but if you're already in the habit of exceeding these limits by a huge margin, stop and think why.

SEX

Unless you're spectacularly unlucky, university or college usually means being surrounded by an overwhelming amount of "temptation". Whatever you do, keep yourself safe. There are no excuses for not using condoms when sleeping with a new partner. Don't wreck your university or college years (or the rest of your life) by not protecting yourself against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Chlamydia, for example, usually shows no symptoms but can lead to infertility. Syphilis has been on the rise, and gonorrhoea has never gone away. These can all be treated with antibiotics, but the last thing you want to do is to ring up your ex-lovers and pass on the bad news. Then there are genital warts (as nasty as they sound) and herpes, which sounds so very Eighties but who wants sores in the genitals? And we can't forget HIV and Aids which, despite life-prolonging treatments, is still fatal.

If you do find yourself worrying either about pregnancy or an STD, you've got several options. Go to your GP, who can prescribe a morning-after pill or arrange blood tests for STDs. If you want complete anonymity, go to the genito-urinary (GU) clinic at your nearest hospital. If you suspect HIV, you've got an agonising (and celibate) three-month wait ahead of you as the antibodies won't show up before then. Again, a GU clinic can give you an HIV test if you don't want this on your medical records. Contact the Terrence Higgins Trust for more detailed information about HIV/Aids.

DRUGS

Students are supposed to be skint, but many manage to find the funds to buy drugs. They're not the cleverest things to use when you're meant to set aside some brain cells for your expensive education.

While cannabis loosens you up, it also affects your short-term memory and makes you apathetic and more susceptible to outside influences. If you're the depressive sort, it only adds to the psychological distress. And animal tests have led some scientists to speculate that heavy, long-term use can lead to the production of abnormal sperm.

Then there's cocaine. Thanks to Danniella Westbrook and her infamous nose, we know what can happen to excessive coke users. The drug can also lead to death from heart or respiratory problems, and the immediate come-down is both fatiguing and depressing. Amphetamines work in a similar way, raising the heartbeat and eventually leading to anxiety and irritability.

Crack cocaine has been in the news recently as a drug used by the more affluent middle classes, not just by deprived kids from estates. But that doesn't matter – it's still a highly addictive, insidious drug which induces an extreme high but it's all over in 10 minutes.

Another stimulant is Ecstasy, which will get you going for up to six hours. This might sound like fun, but your heart rate will be going like the clappers and the come-down will be miserable. And like many illegal drugs in tablet form, you're never sure what exactly you're getting.

Although its heyday was in the Sixties and Seventies, LSD is still the drug of choice for those who enjoy up to 12 hours of distorted vision and hearing, not to mention paranoia. LSD has an organic, milder version – magic mushrooms – which work in a similar way but often induce a fit of vomiting. Bear in mind that, while people do go through periods of experimenting with these drugs, they remain illegal – some more so than others. Getting caught is not the best way to launch your new adult life.

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