Your Summer Plan for a Back-to-School Body

Summer break may seem like it just started, but the new school year will sneak up on you before you know it. So if you hope to head back to college looking and feeling hotter than you did when school let out, read on. It takes time to lose weight and tone up, but if you commit now and follow the tips below, you'll be on your way to an improved version of yourself when classes resume next semester.

Getting Started
You may think that the new school year is a far away, but don't delay! Summers have a way of flying by, and before you know it, you'll be buying books again and moving back in with your friends. The time to get in shape for school is NOW, so commit yourself and write down your goals, including how you would like to look and feel on the first day of school.

Next, ask yourself if that goal is realistic and achievable without crash dieting or excessive workouts. If so, great! If not, you may need a reality check. If your goal is weight-loss, remember that dropping 1 to 2 pounds a week is healthy and doable for most people. If you're someone who tends to get obsessive about your weight, consider setting a different goal, such as eating healthier, dropping a pants size or even getting more active by doing something you love for 30 minutes most days of the week.

Unhealthy habits like crash dieting, taking weight-loss pills or exercising excessively can be common among college students who want a quick fix. Although they may seem like a tempting route, these practices are usually too good to be true. We're bombarded with messages saying that we can lose tons of weight quickly and easily, but it's just not true. Crash dieting can slow your metabolism and reduce your muscle mass so that once you go back to your normal way of eating, you'll put on more weight than you lost. Weight-loss supplements can be very dangerous to health and come with a number of risks from heart attack to death. And excessive exercise? It can actually decrease your bone strength, harm your heart and depress your immune system. Doesn't sound very fun, does it?

Understanding the difference between dieting and long-term lifestyle changes is so important. Part of the process is learning to set a realistic and specific goals that are achievable in your timeframe. Then, take a few minutes and write down your vision statement with all of this in mind. Now that you've got a realistic goal and a sound plan, you're ready to work on the action steps to help you achieve it.

Track Your Progress
Many of us have no idea of how many calories we're eating or whether our diets are balanced until we track our food. Without measuring your portions and counting calories, you have no idea how much you're putting into your body or where you need to make changes. So begin tracking your foods all or most days of the week with SparkPeople's Nutrition Tracker. The format is very easy to use, and you can set goals for calories and other nutrients, such as calcium to fiber. And based on your height, weight, activity level, and goal weight, it even gives you an estimated caloric range (and suggestions for meals and snacks) so you know exactly how much to eat in order to reach your goals by fall. But remember, eating too little can backfire, so be sure to reach at least your minimum calories each day.

If you're unsure of what to eat, remember that foods from Mother Nature are best. Fill up on lean proteins like grilled chicken and beans, fruits, veggies and whole grains like oatmeal and whole-wheat bread, and try to replace soda and other sugary drinks with water. For more nutrition tips, check out the Nutrition Resource Center.

Do What You Love
Now that we've talked nutrition, let us talk exercise. Regular physical activity does wonders for your health: It helps your body look more toned, supports weight loss, strengthens your heart and lungs, improves your mood and even sharpens your mind. In fact, a recent study showed that college students who exercised had higher GPAs than those who weren't as active. Even more reason to keep up with your workouts, right?

A good mix of activities would be a combination of low-intensity exercise that you can do anywhere—like walking—most days of the week with some strength training mixed in every other day or two. Otherwise, get active doing things that you love. Remember that it doesn't have to be at a gym (although if you do belong to a gym, group exercise classes are a great way to exercise and have fun with new friends). Hiking and running are great activities for those who love the outdoors. You can try a wide variety of workout DVDs at home without having to buy any expensive equipment, too. So find something you love, grab a friend or loved one, and get to it! Soon it'll be a habit to be active, and a habit that makes you feel great.

For a short and simple workout plan to follow, try SparkPeople's 28-day Bootcamp Workout Challenge!

Give Up on Perfection
Making healthy decisions at mealtimes and moving your body regularly are the best ways to manage your weight, tone up and feel better about yourself. Always remember what you're working towards—feeling, looking, and being your best self. Notice that I didn't say anything about six-pack abs or wearing a size 2. Perfection is impossible and unrealistic, so be easy on yourself as you go and stay committed.

Follow these tips and make the most of the great resources on SparkPeople, and you're well on your way to starting the new school year as a healthier, fitter and more confident you!