A new environment, different hours, nearly limitless food choices: No wonder 25 percent of college freshmen gain at least 5 percent of their body weight (10 to 15 pounds) in their very first semester of school, according to a study published this year. But a fresh start—a new school, job, schedule, or whatever—can actually shake up your eating and exercise routine for better instead of worse. Here are five tips for using a change of scene to help you get fit rather than fatter:
Embrace a fresh start. It's always easier to set new habits than to change old ones. Research suggests that when you eat or drink the same thing at the same time of day, in the same mood, or in the same place, you set up a series of cues that will bring on a craving whenever you're in that situation. In a new environment, though, some of the cues to your old behaviors are no longer present. For example, in a new job, you won't have the same work buddy asking if you want to walk down to the corner deli for a 3 o'clock snack. A clean slate is a great opportunity to erase some of the less helpful old cues.
[See 3 ways to beat your cravings.]
Do recon. To be prepared, it helps to know what you'll be up against. Will your new office have free snacks? Does a schedule change mean you won't have time to work out in the morning anymore but will have two more hours of daylight at the end of the day? Make a list of the potential traps (those free Oreos at work) and new opportunities (your college's climate allows you to exercise outdoors through the winter) so you can plan around them.
Follow the rule of three. Rather than attempting to overhaul every aspect of your exercise and diet routine, look at what you learned in your recon and pick three things you'll do differently in your new environment. (This idea is from Mindless Eating, by Cornell University's Brian Wansink, which advocates making three small changes in your eating patterns that fit your needs and lifestyle.) Going to college? You might decide to join an intramural or club sports team, skip the dessert bar in the cafeteria except on the weekends, and, yes, maybe even eschew beer. (Here are more tips for avoiding the "freshman 15" from the American Council on Exercise.)
[Read about how mindful eating can help you lose weight.]
Focus hard for the first month. It can take a while—21 or 30 days, some experts say—to establish new habits. Set good ones in that time, and you're off to a great start. Going to college? Skip the pizza at late-night study breaks until your default is a piece of fruit. Once fruit is the habit, pizza can become an occasional treat.
Be aware of stress. Any change in your life routine—let alone a major move or job change—can be stressful...and that might make you susceptible to slip-ups. Don't beat yourself up; just move on and try to find more constructive ways of relieving stress or tension than pigging out. Exercise is great for this.
[For more: Consider 5 willpower boosters and 9 lessons you can take away from Oprah's weight-loss struggles.]