Finishing school means entering the workforce, living on your own—and taking control over your own health.
Commencement speakers love to give flowery advice: Dare to dream! Reach for the stars! Embrace the whole new world waiting for you on the other side of graduation!
They’re a little less likely to mention what really matters when it comes to securing your long-term success. A lot of it involves adjusting to adult life and learning what it means to be healthy, both physically and mentally—and that's a struggle for many new grads.
After you change out of your cap and gown, keep this cheat sheet on health mistakes to avoid in mind. You'll be #adulting like a pro in no time.
Mistake #1: Going to urgent care for all your medical needs
We get it: you're young, you're healthy, and you haven't been sick since that unfortunate case of mono in the 11th grade. But building a relationship with a primary care doctor now establishes your baseline level of health and allows for continuity of care. And, in parts of the country where there are more primary care physicians, people live longer and have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other medical conditions, according to study published in the International Journal of Health Services.
If none of that's enough to sway you, then remember: on many insurance plans, a trip to the emergency room or urgent care is more expensive than a visit to a PCP.
Mistake #2: Skipping health insurance
Speaking of insurance, you really won't be saving any money if you don't sign up for it after you graduate. The Affordable Care Act says you have to be insured, and you can get hit with a fine if you don’t register quickly enough. You can usually be added to a parent’s health plan if it covers dependents and you’re under 26—even if you're living on your own. If you’re younger than 30, you can buy a catastrophic plan with low monthly premiums; you’ll pay most non-emergency medical expenses yourself, but coverage includes three primary care visits each year—as well as preventive care like shots and screenings—before you hit your deductible.
Mistake #3: Eating a sad desk lunch every day
Chowing down in front of the computer might seem like a good way to gain traction at a new job. In fact, one 2012 survey found that 39% of employees spend their lunch breaks at their desks. Truth is, in the working world, many of us aren’t counterbalancing our hours of inactivity with regular movement (such as crisscrossing campus for classes). Moreover, “when we eat distracted, we tend not to enjoy, appreciate, or even register the calories—they’re calories eaten, calories forgotten,” says Katherine Zeratsky, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic. “If you absolutely have to eat at your desk, appreciate each bite of food in your mouth, chew it, notice that you’re chewing it—and do so at least several times before you swallow it—and then type a paragraph or read what you have to read. If you can take a bit of time to appreciate your food, you’re less likely to be looking for a snack an hour or two later because you forgot you ate.”
Mistake #4: Getting out of the exercise habit
Regular exercise at a campus gym? No sweat. Juggling physical fitness with an entirely new set of life circumstances? Not so straightforward. Researchers have found that even elite college athletes struggle to exercise consistently after graduation, and that everyone who wants to squeeze into their favorite big-game tee a few years later stands a better chance of doing so if they make exercise a habit ASAP. First step: Find an activity you really love, whether it's SoulCycle, Orangetheory, CrossFit, dance classes, or something else. Those people you know who get up at 6 a.m. to run do it because they truly enjoy it (we hope).
Mistake #5: Ignoring stress
A study in Social Science & Medicine linked student loan debt to poor mental health for young men and women. Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan youth advocacy group, reported that the national unemployment rate for people between ages 18 and 29 is more than double that of Americans older than 29. Finding one’s way in the working world has never been easy, but some argue that it’s never been harder than it is right now—and millennials report higher levels of stress than any other generation. “Stress can impact everything from one’s sleep to their energy, attention, concentration, and interpersonal relationships,” says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “If you’re experiencing some of those symptoms at a level that is uncomfortable or that people are commenting on, it may be a good idea to seek support from a friend or loved one, or, if necessary, professional help.” Talking to a pro, Rego notes, yields the long-term benefit of developing skills that will help you manage life better for years to come.
Mistake #6: Developing a Seamless addiction
The idea that takeout food is cheaper than healthier home-cooked meals is a myth, plain and simple. So is the idea that preparing your own meals is a time suck. “You don’t have to be a chef in order to cook,” says Zeratsky. “You can love to cook or you can hate to cook, you can have no time or you can have all the time in the world; you don’t have to be a gourmet to put a healthy meal on the table. Think back to the basics of what comprises a nutritious meal: Do you have a fruit or a vegetable, a protein-rich food, something starchier that will provide you with good energy? It might not look like what you see on a cooking show or at a restaurant, but it’s a complete meal.” Almost anything you prepare for yourself, experts argue, will provide better nourishment than hyperprocessed fast food ever could.
Mistake #7: Happy hour wings and beer five nights a week
You're going to be spending 40 hours a week with your new coworkers—probably more time than you spend with your friends and family. So it's important to forge friendships in the office, and a common way to do it is hitting the bar after work. In one survey, 82% of respondents who headed to happy hour said they did so to bond with their coworkers. But those bargain drinks and buckets of wings add up fast. A beer rings in at around 145 calories, and those savory little snacks are 50 to 100 calories apiece, even when you haven’t dipped them in anything. Keep an eye out for lower-calorie options, and don’t be shy about bowing out before someone suggests karaoke.
Mistake #8: Forgetting what you learned in sex ed
According to the CDC, reported cases of three STDs (syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea) are on the rise in the United States for the first time in a decade—and STDs continue to affect young people, particularly young women, most severely. Some health department officials believe online-dating apps like Tinder are to blame, and they could have a point; while moving to a city and turning to your phone to meet a friendly stranger can be good, clean fun, with sexual freedom comes responsibility. Playing it safe means testing and treatment for STDs (the CDC recommends that sexually active women under 25 be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea, which often have no symptoms and go undetected, every year) and using condoms consistently and correctly.
Mistake #9: Losing contact with friends and family
In college, your friends lived down the hallway from you. Now, you're lucky if you live in the same city, or even the same state. But even if you don’t have a whirlwind wedding engagement or splashy new job title to report, keeping up with old pals after graduation is worth the time and energy. “People are social beings and therefore we derive a lot of benefits from staying in contact with others,” says Rego. “This includes emotional support and comfort and a sense of belonging. These benefits help create a buffer against daily and life stressors that come our way.”