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The 50 Fittest Colleges in the U.S.: What Makes Them So Healthy?

The editors at The Active Times, for the third year in a row, compiled a list of the top 50 fittest colleges. Find out who made the cut and why.
Virginia Tech exercise
A student exercises at one of Virginia Tech's stadiums.Virginia Tech

When looking into colleges, prospective students often consider location, class size and course offerings. But none of that can be fully appreciated if once they arrive, students place their health on the back burner — or hotplate.

And that's all too easy to do, thanks to all-night study sessions, parties, and dining halls brimming with fried food.

Some schools are better than others at helping you exercise your muscles in addition to exercising your mind. The fittest colleges in the U.S. were recently selected by the sports and recreation website The Active Times, which has decided for the last three years which ones make the cut (at helping you stay cut).

Special Report: Get More Tips and Advice at NBC News' Freshman Year Experience

Selecting the top 50 fittest colleges isn't an easy task, the site's editors say. They start by considering schools’ placement on lists like U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings and The Princeton Review. Then they scope out a site called Niche Colleges that grades schools on several aspects of campus life, based on students’ reviews.

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NBC News spoke to undergraduates and staff at the top three fittest schools of 2015.

#3: Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio

The school’s nearly 65,000 students have 1,900 acres of campus to roam, and more than 90 of those acres are dedicated to outdoor fitness areas.

Those more inclined to work out inside can take advantage of one of the school’s five recreational centers, one of which features two pools, an indoor track and 10 racquetball courts.

The state-of-the-art facilities make going to the gym less of a chore, said Ohio State junior, Ellie Rogers, 21. “It’s a pretty regular thing for OSU students to go to the gym as a social activity,” she said.

The Big Ten Conference school is, of course, known for its top-tier varsity athletics. The school boasts 37 varsity teams and dozens of club and intramural teams, which are also “really competitive,” Rogers said.

But even students who may not like sports or conventional exercise aren’t couch — or futon — potatoes. “The campus is huge, so even people who aren’t trying to work out are going to walk a couple miles every day just to go to class,” Rogers said.

Twenty-five on-campus eateries provide sustenance for all that campus-crossing, and students can carefully choose meal options online with a customizable dietary preferences menu.

Ohio State’s interactive menu even includes a handy “Healthy Buckeye” option that highlights all meals with less than 600 calories and no more than 800 milligrams of sodium. Nutritional and ingredient information is available for every one of the school’s hundreds of food offerings.

#2: Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California

Ninety-five percent of Claremont McKenna's 1,300 or so students live on its 69-acre campus. While the school is on the smaller side, students have a wide range of exercise and meal options because they have access to fitness facilities and six additional dining halls at nearby Claremont-affiliated colleges, said Chris Watts, Claremont McKenna’s director of athletics communication.

Claremont McKenna’s dining hall does not post nutritional information, but its online menu allows students to filter their meal options by dietary preferences, and everything is prepared from scratch with as many local ingredients as possible, according to the school.

The student body is well-informed about healthy and sustainable eating, said junior Kris Brackmann, 20. “As an intellectually challenging school, I think our athletes know what kind of food they need to properly fuel themselves,” she said.

Student athletes play soccer on Claremont McKenna's Parents Field.Claremont McKenna

And things are only getting better: Claremont McKenna is building a new 130,000-plus square-foot fitness center in addition to the school’s existing gym and numerous weight rooms. The center is set to open in 2016, Watts said.

The existing gyms cater to student athletes across 21 varsity teams and 15 club teams as well as those who don’t play sports, according to Brackmann. “I have had plenty of encounters of mistaking a regular student for a student-athlete here just because of their physique,” she said.

#1: Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia

Virginia Tech has twice been named as America’s fittest college since The Active Times first started ranking schools’ fitness in 2013. The school slipped to the 13th spot in 2014, but shot back up to number 1 in 2015, largely because it has focused on providing lots of organic and healthy dining options, according to The Active Times.

“Whenever I give tours, high school students seem only vaguely interested in the idea of touring a college — until I mention our food,” said Katy May, 21, a senior at Virginia Tech.

The school has nine dining centers, which vary menus daily and provide nutritional and ingredient information for every option, and students with dietary needs and allergies can customize their meals on an online interactive menu.

The school has also implemented a You’re Eating Smarter (Y.E.S.) program, which has made more local, sustainable and organic food available on campus and provides students with healthy eating education events and an on-call dietitian.

These tools for eating well are important for students at Virginia Tech, the majority of whom are physically active. Nearly 13,000 of the 31,224 students participate in intramural sports in addition to the athletes who are on the college's 31 club teams and 22 varsity teams, said Megan Donald Hughes, Virginia Tech’s recreational sports marketing manager.

Students participate in a spin class at Virginia Tech's McComas Hall.Jim Stroup / Virginia Tech

May said athletes and non-athletes take advantage of the 100 fitness classes offered each week at the school’s two gyms and new bike lanes that line parts of the 2,600-acre campus.

The 1,000-member Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, along with the Army, Naval and Air Force ROTC programs also contribute to the school’s healthy culture, Chris Wise, Virginia Tech’s assistant vice president for student affairs, said in a statement when the college received the fittest school title in August.

The school's attitude is that “wellness comes in all shapes and sizes,” May said. “Not everyone at Virginia Tech is a runner or a hiker or a fitness buff, but the vast majority of us are happy and healthy, and that's what's truly important."