Working Out In College: Getting Started and Staying Motivated

threes students stretching and working out in college

It’s common knowledge that workouts are good for you. But did you know they’re important for your mental wellness as well as your physical fitness? It’s true! Working out in college can help support your academic endeavors.

How can you get started on a college workout program when you’re already busy with classes, study sessions and new friends? It’s easier than you might think, and the rewards are numerous. Just browse this quick and easy guide on how to work out in college and get started on achieving your fitness goals.

Exploring the Physical Benefits of Getting Fit

Along with eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise is crucial for your overall well-being. It can improve your current health as well as reduce your risk of developing serious or chronic medical conditions in the future. Among the many physical health benefits of getting in shape are the following:

  • Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight
  • Stabilize blood sugar levels
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Improve your quality of sleep
  • Lengthen your lifespan
  • Reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, certain cancers and other health problems

Understanding the Mental Health Benefits of Physical Fitness

Exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s also good for your mind. Exercise triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals in your brain, otherwise known as endorphins, that boost relaxation and improve mood. People who exercise regularly are more likely to handle stress well and less likely to develop mental health disorders, such as depression and generalized anxiety.

Physical activity is particularly helpful for college students, as it increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, thereby improving brain function and health. It can even increase the size of the hippocampus in the brain—the area responsible for learning and memory. In other words, working out can help you excel academically.

Finding the Time for Working Out in College

Even if you’re motivated to reap the physical and mental health rewards of regular exercise, it can be difficult to carve out time from your busy schedule. However, most of us have more time than we think we do. Chances are you’re wasting at least a few hours per week on frivolous activities, such as browsing social media.

Consider keeping a time journal for a week. Each day, write down what you’re doing and how long you spend on it. At the end of the week, tally up the amount of time you’ve spent on activities that do not help you achieve your goals.

You’re likely to find that if you cut back on those activities, you’ll have more free time in your schedule than you thought. Start by setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier a few days per week, and dedicate that time to fitness.

You can also multitask while exercising. Some of your college textbooks may be available on audiotape. You can listen to them while working out, or you might listen to educational podcasts that help you develop a deeper understanding of your course material.

Alternatively, you might have your workout time pull double duty as a brainstorming session. If you’re working on an essay, you can plan your main argument and rough outline in your head while you’re on the treadmill. You might want to bring a small notebook and pen to jot down brief notes while you work out.

Above all, treat your workout like a responsibility you can’t ignore. If you schedule your workouts just like you schedule your study time, you’re more likely to find sufficient time for exercise.

How to Work Out in College: Exploring the Types of Exercise

It’s commonly thought that there are two main types of exercise: cardiovascular (also known as endurance training or aerobic exercise) and strength training (also known as anaerobic exercise). However, there are, in fact, four main categories of exercise. In addition to endurance and strength training, there are balance and flexibility exercises. Each of these types of workouts offers different benefits for your health. As such, it’s important to undertake all four types.

First, let’s take a closer look at endurance exercise. These activities elevate your heart and breathing rates. Aerobic exercise is important for conditioning your heart and lungs, as well as keeping your blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol and blood pressure at healthy levels.

Some examples of aerobic exercise include the following:

  • Rapid walking/hiking
  • Running
  • Stair climbing
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Cycling

Next, strength training exercises will condition your muscles while also supporting good balance. Incorporating strength training into your routine can help to stimulate new bone mass growth, support weight management and stabilize blood glucose levels. Some strength training exercises, such as lunges, squats and push-ups, rely on your body weight. Others rely on resistance from equipment, such as a weight machine or resistance band.

At the end of your strength training routine, you should feel some fatigue and soreness in the muscle group you were exercising. This is a sign that your workout is working.

Balance exercises are commonly recommended for senior adults; however, people of all ages can benefit from them. As you improve your balance, you’ll also boost your coordination, strength and body awareness. You can start with simple exercises, such as standing on one foot for as long as possible and walking a straight line from heel to toe.

You may also have access to workout classes that build better balance. These include yoga and tai chi.

The fourth type of essential exercise is stretching for improved flexibility. It’s best to warm up your muscles before stretching, such as by walking briskly for a few minutes. Then, stretch again after the main portion of your workout.

Try to stretch all your major muscle groups. When you do a static—or stationary—stretch, try to hold that pose for about 30 to 60 seconds. Don’t stretch so far that it hurts; stretching should never be painful.

How Much Exercise Do College Students Need?

Every person has different needs. If you’re a student athlete, for example, you will get more exercise than most other college students. In general, most adults should strive to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, plus at least two strength training sessions per week that work all the major muscle groups.

If your preferred exercise is more intense than this, you should strive to get at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity, and at least two days of muscle-strengthening activity every week. These recommendations were established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); however, the CDC notes that more exercise is always better.1

How can you tell if you’re exercising moderately or vigorously? It’s simple: If you can talk relatively easily while working out, it’s moderate-intensity exercise. If you are panting and you have to pause after every couple of words to take a breath, it’s vigorous-intensity exercise.

Getting Started on a College Workout Program

Exercising is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body, but it’s important to start a workout program safely. If you have any underlying health conditions, consider going to the campus nurse and asking if it’s safe for you to work out. The nurse or your primary care doctor will let you know if there should be any restrictions on your workouts due to a medical condition.

Even if you lack underlying medical conditions that might affect your exercise program, safety is still important. For students in a hot climate, it’s best to exercise indoors in the air conditioning during hot days. Alternatively, exercise outdoors during the early morning hours.

Remember to dress appropriately for your workouts. Stay well-hydrated before, during and after your workouts. If your exercise program is particularly intense, you should replenish your electrolytes, such as by drinking a low-sugar or no-sugar sports rehydration beverage.

If you aren’t accustomed to working out, it’s best to start slow and gradually build up your endurance and strength. First, aim for one strength training and two aerobic workouts per week, and keep your sessions relatively short. Gradually increase the length of time of each workout, as well as its intensity, and add more workouts per week.

Tips for Staying Motivated With Your Workout Plan

When you’re working out in college, it can sometimes be challenging to stay motivated. Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to build your motivation back up.

First, remind yourself of your fitness goals—or set new goals if you don’t have any yet. For instance, you might sign up for a 5K footrace that’s scheduled for a few months away. The goal to run a 5K can help you stay motivated as you gradually increase the distance you run each week.

You can also periodically reread information about the physical and mental health benefits of working out to remind yourself of why you’re determined to exercise regularly. Make it personal; perhaps your family has a history of heart disease, for example. Remind yourself of that to strengthen your determination to reduce your own risk of heart disease.

One of the best ways to stay motivated is to find a workout that you truly enjoy. If running on the treadmill isn’t your thing, grab a friend and go hiking outdoors instead. Try a variety of exercise activities to find a few that you enjoy. Additionally, it often helps to listen to music with a fast beat while you work out.

You can hold yourself accountable to your workout goals by exercising with a buddy. Ask your roommate to join you for a sweat session at the fitness center. Alternatively, you can always make some new friends in an exercise class or club sport.

Lastly, keep track of the days that you work out. Buy a wall calendar and put a big checkmark on the days that you exercise. This is a visual indicator of your success, and as your checkmarks accrue, you’ll feel more motivated to keep on adding more of them.

Keep in mind that it can take time to form a new habit. One study found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days until a new habit becomes virtually automatic. The same study discovered that not participating in the new habit once or twice did not significantly interfere with habit formation, so even if you miss your workout occasionally, you can get right back on track again.2

What Beginners Should Know About Gym Etiquette

If you’ve never worked out in a fitness center before, it might seem a little intimidating. The most important thing to bear in mind is that everyone who works out at the gym was a newbie at one point in time.

When you work out, keep the following rules of gym etiquette in mind:

  • Read the rules of the fitness center if they are posted.
  • Put any movable equipment (e.g. dumbbells) back where it belongs when you’re done with it.
  • Wipe down the equipment with a towel to remove sweat (and use a disinfectant spray, if provided) after your workout.
  • Share the equipment. If someone is waiting to use the bench press, either let them rotate in or finish your routine and move on.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. If someone near you is swinging a kettlebell around, give them plenty of space.
  • Use the designated area for warming up and stretching, rather than a walkway. If you can’t find the designated area, ask a staff member.

If you’re ever in doubt or you’re having trouble figuring out how to use a machine, you can always ask a staff member for assistance. It’s better to ask for help than to violate an unwritten rule or risk an injury.

Tips for Working Out for Weight Loss in College

If you decide to start working out in college with the main goal of losing weight, you might start by establishing a target weight you want to reach. However, this can be counterproductive. If you don’t start losing weight right away, you might get discouraged and be tempted to stop working out.

Instead, do what professional athletes do: Focus on the process, rather than the results. For example, a baseball batter who walks up to the plate with the goal of hitting a home run every time is likely to strike out. On the other hand, a batter who focuses on the process of identifying pitches, judging distance and speed, using correct biomechanics and hitting the ball with the barrel is more likely to get a hit.

It’s all about your mindset. Focus on what you can change, such as the duration of your workout program, rather than the number on the scale. When you do weigh yourself, remember that it’s normal for your weight to fluctuate from day to day due to water gain or loss. This can help you stay the course.

Grand Canyon University is a Christian learning community with many health and wellness resources for our students. Our team athletics include baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and many others. We also offer a diverse range of club sports* and intramurals, as well as three fully equipped student fitness centers complete with workout classes.

Students are also invited to join the GCU Outdoor Recreation Program, which builds physical fitness and spiritual health. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about preparing for your exciting future at GCU.

* Club sports are not regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and do not have varsity status at the intercollegiate athletic level. However, club sports are organized and administered by their respective national sport governing body.


Retrieved from:

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, Dec. 20). Physical Activity for Adults: An Overview. Retrieved May 31, 2024.

2 Wiley Online Library, European Journal of Social Psychology, How Are Habits Formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the Real World in June 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.