5.1 The Basics of Self-Care

Craig Keaton

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Learn basic strategies for self-care (sleep, exercise, diet).
  • Review how they currently perform self-care activities.
  • Begin to engage in planning self-care by evaluating personal needs.

Definition of SELF-CARE

If you were asked to describe self-care, what would you say? Most often, people talk about the health trinity: sleep, exercise, and diet. If you think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, those are certainly very important components of self-care. However, self-care can be so much more –  an idea that is explored in more detail later in this chapter. The most useful definition of self-care may be: self-care is anything that makes you better. To explore this idea, let’s first look at self-care through the lens of the health trinity.


Why Is Sleep Important?

Sleep is an essential part of your daily routine. Sleep allows your brain to “reset” and your body to remain healthy. The sleep-wake cycle consists of roughly 8 hours of nocturnal sleep and 16 hours of daytime wakefulness. This cycle is controlled by two internal influences: sleep homeostasis and circadian rhythms. More than 25% of the U.S. population report occasionally not getting enough sleep. Nearly 10% have chronic insomnia (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2009). These can be serious problems for a college student.

Sleep loss results in a “sleep debt.” Sleep debt is the accumulated loss of sleep that is lost due to poor sleep habits. Like any other debt, sleep debt must eventually get repaid, or there will be consequences to personal health and well-being. For example, staying awake all night results in a sleep debt of 7 to 9 hours. Our bodies will demand that this debt be repaid by napping or sleeping longer in later cycles. Even loss of one hour of sleep over several days can have a negative effect.

Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. As well, daytime sleepiness can affect mood, performance, and memory. One research study found that students who stayed up all night simulating “pulling an all-nighter” studying scored 40% lower on a general test compared to students who got the recommended amount of sleep (Walker, 2019). That means that getting a good night’s sleep can be the difference between making an A and a D on an important test.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

NOTES FOR NURSING SUCCESS! Sleep deprivation is one of the most significant burnout risks for nurses, due to the long shift hours required to work. Starting to work on your sleep health now can help you prepare for your clinical schedules and beyond!


The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • young adults aged 18–25 years sleep 8.5 to 9.5 hours every night
  • adults should sleep 7–9 hours every night (National Sleep Foundation, 2009).

The National Sleep Foundation has many resources including sleep facts and tips for restful sleep: www.sleepfoundation.org

Sleep Hygiene Tips

  1. Avoid caffeinated drinks after lunch.
  2. Go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning.
  3. Avoid bright light in the evening. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and relaxing.
  4. Avoid arousing activities around bedtimes such as heavy study, text messaging, prolonged conversations, and heavy exercise.
  5. Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  6. Avoid pulling an “all-nighter” to study.
  7. Sleeping in on weekends is okay. However, it should not be more than 2 to 3 hours past your usual wake time to avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm.

National Sleep Foundation, (2009)


Sleep Activity: What’s your Chronotype?

All of our bodies follow a 24-hour sleep-wake circadian rhythm. However, not everyone’s rhythm is the same. Some are more alert earlier in the day, while others come to life a bit later. This variation is known as your chronotype.

A simple way to classify chronotypes are: morning lark, day dove, and night owl. Morning larks are, naturally, early to bed and early to rise. Night owls, by contrast, get going and may have an alert and productive period later in the day. Day doves seem to fall somewhere in the middle.

  • Which chronotype fits you?
  • What’s your best sleep/wake schedule?
  • What might that mean for your most productive time of day?

Based on your answers, This might be a good time to do more important and challenging work, like writing a paper or doing more focused studying.


Regular Exercise: Health for Life

The importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established. Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep and think better.

As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life.

Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. Exercise is a powerful tool for stress management and improving one’s mental health and memory—all of which are especially important when you’re in school.

The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly improve overall health.

You can be successful with the inclusion of an exercise regime in your new life, but it is very important to find an activity that you like. Setting a schedule is advisable for success in your program. Also, doing a variety of activities will result in less boredom, and incorporating fun activities with family and friends can be very encouraging. The Maverick Activities Center (MAC) offers a wide range of exercise options from free-play sports, exercise equipment, swimming, indoor track, and more. Getting involved in intramural sports can also increase your activity level while meeting some social needs. Also, you will have the opportunity to walk on campus to contribute to your exercise activity, so don’t be so concerned with finding the closest parking spot available.

Being Active Throughout the Day

In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity and energy levels:

  • Walk instead of drive whenever possible
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some housecleaning every day
  • Park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class
  • Take regular breaks from your computer and desk to stand up, stretch, and walk around


Workout or Work in?

Fitness expert Paul Chek says that the best workout is the one that you will do repeatedly.

  • What is your favorite exercise or exercise routine?
  • How often do you like to do it?

Paul Chek also has a concept of working out vs. working in. A workout is a strenuous exercise session like weightlifting, sprinting, or intense cardio. Working in, on the other hand, is doing more gentle, energy-building movement and exercise; it’s not energy depleting but energy generating. Examples of working in include yoga, tai-chi, qi gong, stretching, and walking.

  • How much working out do you need?
  • How much working in?


A diet is anything that you consume on a regular basis. If you drink Diet Coke for breakfast every day, that’s part of your diet. When people talk about “going on a diet,” they usually mean changing their existing dietary habits in order to lose weight or change their body shape. All people are on a diet because everyone eats!

Having a healthy diet means making food choices that contribute to short- and long-term health. It means eating the right amounts of nutrient-rich foods. The right mix can help you be healthier now and in the future. Developing healthy eating habits doesn’t require you to sign up for a gimmicky health-food diet or lifestyle; you don’t have to become vegan, gluten-free, “paleo,” or go on regular juice fasts. The simplest way to create a healthy eating style is by learning to make wise food choices that you can enjoy, one small step at a time.

Healthy Eating in College

College offers many temptations for students trying to create or maintain healthy eating habits. You may be on your own for the first time, and you’re free to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. You may not be in the habit of shopping or cooking for yourself yet, and, when you find yourself short on time or money, it may seem easier to fuel yourself on sugary, caffeinated drinks and meals at the nearest fast-food place. Cafeterias, all-you-can-eat dining facilities, vending machines, and easy access to food twenty-four hours a day make it tempting to choose hyper-palatable, nutrient-deficient unhealthy foods and overeat.

Ideas for healthy eating

  • If personally tolerated, eat foods from all the major whole food groups
  • Whole, natural foods generally are the most nutrient-dense
  • Plan ahead and schedule a time to shop for groceries, prepare, and cook
  • Pack your lunch and snacks to better ensure healthy eating on the go
  • Drink plenty of water

There are a wide array of healthy foods and ways of eating. Like exercise, find the healthy foods and dietary approach that you like, that makes you feel good, and that you can naturally and easily sustain your lifestyle.

As you find what works for you, it’s important to remember that it’s common for people to overeat (or not eat enough) when they feel anxious, lonely, sad, stressed, or bored, and college students are no exception. It’s incredibly important to develop healthy ways of coping and relaxing that don’t involve reaching for food, drink, or other substances. While self-care does involve the health trinity, there are other important elements, including stress management.


Planning a Healthy Day

It’s been said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Take a few minutes and write out what a full day of healthy eating looks like for you.

  • What would you eat? What would you not eat?
  • How much would you eat?
  • How often would eat?
  • What would you drink? What would you not drink?
  • How much would you drink?
  • What, if anything, do you need to do to help you do this on a daily basis?

Use your findings as a way to begin to design a healthy eating meal plan for yourself.



Share This Book