Why 5 Hours of Free-time isn’t Enough

According to the ADAA, currently 80% of all college students frequently experience daily stress, and 34% have felt depressed in the last 3 months. Yet some sources are writing about how college students spend more time relaxing that actually doing school work.

So what causes us to still be so stressed if we are supposedly relaxing most of the time? Are we just in that bad of a situation? For most of us, no, since we can afford to go to college, even if it’s with a few loans. Or maybe we just aren’t spending our free time in a way to best reduce and manage stress? Let’s look at how (or if) typical college students use exercise in their free time to manage stress.

After working on a podcast about how college students get active and why some choose not to, I became interested in how we deal with stress. Since I just did a podcast about exercise, I was curious if what most people consider ways to relax are really the best way to cope with stress. For example, choosing to watch TV for 5 hours vs. going to the gym for 2 hours.

I started my research by looking back over my notes and textbook from my Psych 118 class from 2016 (Psych of happiness and well-being). I did this because we had a chapter about the effect of exercise on well-being. I used this to see the effect of exercise on stress. I looked at other articles on the effects to verify what was true. Both sources agreed that exercise releases chemicals in our brain that help manage stress, and has a positive impact on our sleep cycles.

Next I looked at how Americans spend their day (using an article from The Wall Street Journal), to see how much time was spent on leisure, exercise, work, travel ect. I did this so I could see if people are spending their free time in the optimal way so I can draw a clear conclusion on what the average American should do to reduce their stress. What was interesting to me was how much free time people have. The source showed we spend a lot less time working and traveling than I imagined (5.11 hours on leisure and only 3.66 working). So what do we spend our time doing? Well according to NY Daily News, the average American spends 5 hours a day watching TV.

Relaxing while watching TV is in this kind of gray zone, since when watching it our brain isn’t as active as when we are doing something mentally stimulating, but it isn’t exactly resting like when someone meditates or naps. So it doesn’t really help the brain recover from stress or work that well. Not only that, but according to TIME Health, watching TV as a way to relieve stress can lower self worth and self esteem.

So 80% of college students experience stress, and 34% had felt depressed in the last 3 months. However other sources have said that on average, we have roughly 5 hours of free time on weekdays. Additional sources have even said college students spend more time on leisure than education.

These two statistics seem like they should contradict each other. It seems strange that four out of five college students feel that stressed, yet have five hours every day to do whatever they want. To try and find out why, I focused my research on exercise and how active students are. Statistics showed that only 45% of college students exercise regularly, which although is higher than the nationwide average of 20.3%, but is still low when we have so much time.

So we know 55% of college students don’t exercise often enough. We also know that exercise directly affects many parts of our well-being. It helps us get more sleep, and the type of sleep that is better for repairing our body. Exercise also releases chemicals such as norepinephrine which moderates our brain response to stress. Not only that but it helps control cortisol levels (which raise when we are stressed).

Putting what we know together, 55% of students don’t meet recommended exercise time, and 80% of all college students experience frequent stress. I believe that one of the key factors to lowering stress would be exercise for the 55% of students that are living a semi-sedentary life. Obviously this won’t drop the number of stressed students to zero since college is a time of change and therefore stress, exercise can help a large number of students manage it in a healthy way.

In conclusion, we have lots of time to do what we want, and currently a large portion of college students and Americans are using it in a low effort way to try and relax and cope with stress. However, mixing in even a little exercise or activity to get out of a sedentary life could do wonders in the long run for our health, well-being, and happiness. There are lots of other things that contribute to stress, however the best way to start tackling such a big issue is just accepting we need to change.

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