Beyond the university gym

Good sports facilities offer more than just pieces of equipment. Cathy Parnham explores the benefits

The benefits of sport are many – from aiding good wellbeing and sleep to reducing risk of major illnesses such as coronary heart disease and stroke as well as depression and dementia.

For students setting out away from home for the first time, sport also offers the opportunity to meet new friends and to feel part of a new ‘community’, combating potential loneliness from missing family and friends and aiding wellbeing.

Building a human emotional connection and enjoying the camaraderie and adrenalin rush that sport provides has many benefits. Findings from a report by ukactive, back in 2019, identified the following:

● Active students were 15% more likely to report an expectation of top grades (48–56 Ucas points) than inactive students
● 52.7% of active students had confidence in finding employment, compared to just 38.2% of inactive students
● Inactive students were more likely to report feeling lonely all the time (10.5%) than their more active counterparts (6.9%).

The benefits that sport brings extends to staff, too, to aid their wellbeing and physical fitness, and there are additional benefits beyond health, as Matt Sanders, managing director, Paragon Structures, points out: “According to British Universities & Colleges Sport, sport and physical activity helps to recruit and retain students and staff; it also contributes to increased academic attainment and greater graduate employability.”

And the social benefits of sport cannot be underestimated. According to mental health charity Mind, exercise can positively impact wellbeing by feeling connected via group or team activities. While research by Anne Hagell suggests the social aspect carries more importance, citing: “Team sports seem to have particular associations with positive benefits for young people, and it has been suggested that there is something about the social nature of the participation that carries the benefit, over and above physiological consequences.”

Flexible sports venues created by Paragon Structures


Creating great sports spaces

So, knowing the value that participating in sports brings not only to students but staff – and the wider community, too – it is vital that universities can offer a mix of good sports facilities. But what does that consist of? What makes ‘good’ sports facilities?

Says Sanders: “We’ve all experienced poor sports facilities – those dark and draughty sports halls that you often get in traditionally built buildings, which make for an uninspiring experience. By contrast, great facilities look good and function extremely well.

“Regardless of their size, high-quality sports venues should provide an outstanding playing performance for all activities on offer and all levels of play. That means light and airy spaces with great acoustics and optimal temperature all year round.”

Why do good facilities matter so much?

The impact of the last 18+ months or so on our physical and emotional wellbeing combined with “The UK’s increasing levels of mental health issues and some of the world’s highest obesity rates,” says Sanders, makes it ever more important “to provide high-quality sports facilities for the mental and physical wellbeing of students, staff and the community”.

Sanders reminds of us what chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said at the height of the pandemic: ‘There is no situation, there is no age and no condition where exercise is not a good thing.’
To enjoy ‘a good thing’, sports facilities need to entice students and staff alike to make use of them, be places not only to work out but to engage with others, socialise and be part of a bigger community.

Future proofing

Discussing trends, the focus needs to be on “flexible, sustainable and built-to-last” sports equipment solutions, comments Sanders. He explains: “Universities want to future-proof their sports facilities by creating flexible venues that can be adapted for future needs. It’s much easier to repurpose modern tensioned membrane structures than traditional brick buildings because the interior spaces are not integral to structure. It means a changing room or badminton court can easily be removed and replaced with a climbing wall or other function as demand requires.”

Tensioned membrane structures have low running costs


Cost control

Another key consideration is cost. “The capital cost is just one element of a sports facility; the ongoing operating and maintenance costs are also critical considerations, particularly given the soaring energy prices we are currently experiencing,” explains Sanders.

“With a virtually airtight building envelope and fully lofted fibreglass insulation system, tensioned membrane structures have extremely low operating and energy costs. Maintenance costs are kept to the minimum, too, with no repainting, guttering or roof repairs required for the life cycle of the building, which can result in significant savings over time.”

Top of the agenda

Writing during the COP26 summit, sustainability is top of the agenda in terms of a requirement for ‘good’ sports facilities and future proofing.

Sanders concurs: “As universities focus on achieving net zero, [this] is where tensioned membrane structures come into their own. Highly thermally efficient, they use low-carbon footprint materials compared to steel or brick buildings, minimise waste to landfill and have achieved a BREEAM rating of Excellent.”

“There is no age and no condition where exercise is not a good thing” – Chris Whitty


Setting new sustainability targets

Portsmouth University’s brand-new £57m Ravelin Sports Centre is making headlines – it has been designed to be one of the UK’s most sustainable sports facilities, and aims to create new standards for sustainability and energy efficiency.

It has received an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM UK rating, the world’s leading sustainability assessment for buildings, and has also won the Public Sector Project: Design Stage Award at the BREEAM Awards 2020. This award recognises projects that demonstrate the highest level of innovation in terms of sustainability over the previous 12 months.

Due to open on 13 December 2021, design features include the ability to:
● create renewable energy from roof solar panels and internal heat recovery systems;
● reuse the pool water for toilet flushing;
● manage waste water drainage by creating an urban orchard;
● and have a biodiverse grassed roof with beehives.

Good sports facilities benefit the wider community too


It seems there are many key elements that make ‘good’ sports facilities and with Portsmouth University setting the sustainability bar high and, in so doing, future-proofing its facilities, it seems it has benchmarked the standard that other universities will surely strive to attain.

With great facilities in place which are attractive to students, staff and the wider community alike, the benefits to all, whether in terms of recruitment or attainment and employability, or physical or emotional wellbeing, cannot be underestimated.

Case Study: the impact of the University of Gloucestershire’s new sports facilities

Back in 2017, Dr Anita Navin, head of school for sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire, spoke of the ambitious plans for the multi-million investment in sports facilities:

“The university is passionate about enhancing the opportunities for both students and local community. These new facilities will engage more individuals, attract international events to the area and, most of all, offer a first-class venue for individuals to participate in.”

The sports facilities opened a year later to provide “state-of-the-art outdoor and indoor and education experience for those studying sports-related degree programmes and, more broadly, to any student who wants to be physically active during their time with the institution”, says Matthew Tansley, director of sport and physical wellbeing.

Facilities include outdoor 3G sports pitches “of the highest standard” that meet stringent RFU/FA international performance requirements, enabling the university to open its facilities to high-performance teams.

Tansley tells us: “They are home to the University of Gloucestershire’s England Women’s FA performance hub, one of only nine in the UK. This programme is responsible for the development of local student coaches who want to progress from grassroots sport to working at the highest level in the game.”

The University of Gloucestershire’s state-of-the-art sports facilities opened in 2018


Town and gown

The high-calibre facilities are being utilised beyond the university in and around the local community, with “the Sports Arena being a hub for the community. With its 750-plus seating capacity, the university is able to host a range of regional, national and international events”, Tansley tells us, adding, “It also provides its facilities for use by a number of local schools, local club teams, recreational users and elite sports clubs throughout the year.”

Local elite sports teams also use the facilities Picture by Clint Randall


Attracting talent

Furthermore, the investment is paying off with “the Arena [hosting] the Vitality Netball Superleague franchise with the Severn Stars, which is co-run by the university and features a number of university scholarship athletes in the first-team squad, with students from other courses supporting media and events to gain industry experience”.

Gloucester City Queens basketball team, England Walking Football, Cheltenham Town FC Academy and Gloucester Rugby are among the other elite sport elite teams based at the University of Gloucestershire’s facilities.

“Other sports facilities include a fitness studio, a strength and conditioning suite, and a physiology lab. With over 1,000 students studying sport-related programmes and a similar number taking part in formal and informal sporting activity every week, these facilities are key to delivering its ambition around recruitment, student experience, graduate outcomes and wellbeing, now and in the future,” adds Tansley.

It seems the university’s ambitious plans for the facilities – to benefit its students, attract high-performance sports teams and students, benefit the local community and raise its profile – are being realised by its investment in state-of-the art facilities.

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