Giving health a sporting chance

A look at some of the UK’s best university sporting facilities and how these developments are linked to bettering mental health

Charley Rogers reports… 

The development of sports and wellbeing programmes throughout UK universities is a very popular investment this year. From programmes focusing on inclusivity, to targeted mental health and exercise initiatives, physical and mental health are two of the top talking points in HE.

And it’s easy to see why. A recent report from Newcastle University and the University of Strathclyde reported that physical activity often starts to rapidly decline in children from the age of seven, leading to poor activity habits and health problems later on in life, and the HSE report for 2014 showed that adult obesity levels have risen from 15% in 1993 to 26% in 2014. A severe lack of physical activity is also detrimental to our mental health, and the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Study for 2014 showed that nearly half (43.4%) of adults in the UK think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives. With these kinds of figures of physical and mental ill health, it comes as no surprise that educational institutions are investing heavily in addressing these issues.

Heriot-Watt University have recently invested in sports facilities, opening the Oriam Sports Performance Centre in November 2016. Oriam translates to ‘I am gold’ in Gaelic, and reflects the University’s ambitious view of both its students, and the local community. Opened by the Rt. Hon. Nicola Sturgeon, Oriam is the culmination of four years of hard work, and lengthy consultations on design with students and key stakeholders. Commenting on the development, Ms. Sturgeon said, “Our top sportsmen and women deserve the facilities, programmes and services that will help them excel. It’s fantastic that as well as elite athletes, these world-class facilities can also be used by people in the local community.” The £33m development was built within 18 months, and is already the home to Sportscotland Institute of Sport, and is regularly used by the Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian football teams.  Speaking very highly of the facilities, Heriott-Watt’s Sports Union President Elaine Murdoch commented, “Feedback all year has shown that higher-quality training has been delivered within clubs as a result of the transition into Oriam; clubs are expanding, and both competitive and recreational opportunities are on the up. An exciting time ahead for students at Heriot-Watt thanks to our fantastic partnership with Oriam!”

Oriam includes the largest indoor synthetic pitch in the northern hemisphere, as well as a new sports hall, fitness centre, and state-of-the-art performance facilities, including strength and conditioning and hydrotherapy spaces. The light and open spaces of the new Oriam centre were designed to offer an inspirational and enjoyable experience for all visitors. A clear plan and high levels of visibility were key in the design from the project team, which included architects Reaich and Hall, and were incorporated into the two existing features: an original Victorian brick wall, and a protected pinetum. The new facilities at Heriot-Watt have improved the overall reception of sport in the area, and Craig Leamy, Vice President of Heriot-Watt’s Basketball Club commented, “Oriam’s facilities allow various Sports Union Club matches to be held at the same time making for some great spectating opportunities. Spectator numbers have increased as a result as well as inter-club support.” This focus on all parts of the sporting experience is sure to address both physical and mental health concerns in the UK. In August 2016, YouGov reported that one in four students experience some kind of mental health problem, and as such, the importance of facilities that encourage both healthy lifestyles and enjoyment are of utmost importance.

Newcastle University is also expanding its sports offering, planning a regeneration of their existing sports hall for the 2019/20 academic year. The new development comes alongside a brand-new degree pathway in Sport and Exercise, and the existing sports centre at Richardson Road is scheduled to be expanded. The development will include the addition of an eight-court sports hall, four squash courts, a strength and conditioning suite, and two exercise studios. Emma Stevenson, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science comments, “The practical application of the science is an extremely important part of the degree programme. The new facilities will provide students with the opportunity to work with Team Newcastle athletes, applying their knowledge to enhance performance in a professional setting.”

Team Newcastle is a university-wide title, which includes all sports club athletes, regardless of standard or discipline. Covering sports from aikido to windsurfing, Team Newcastle has an impressive range of clubs, and boasted 13 premier league teams during the 2016/17 academic year – a record high for the university. Newcastle is keen to keep encouraging this incredible sports performance, and the investment in its sports facilities will be a big part of this. Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Learning and Teaching, Professor Suzanne Cholerton, said “This investment exemplifies the significant commitment from Newcastle University to providing excellent opportunities for our students to engage in sport. These new facilities alongside our existing top-class professional support will serve to enhance the outstanding sporting talent at Newcastle University and attract gifted sportsmen and women to study at our world-class university.”

As well as the plans to expand the indoor facilities, Newcastle University also have a plan in place to regenerate their outdoor facilities, opening the new and improved Cochrane Park facilities in time for the start of the 2018/19 academic year, preceding the indoor counterpart by a year. The aim at Newcastle is to cater for all abilities, from complete novices, through to students that are a part of Team Newcastle, as well as other performance-standard athletes.

Like Heriot-Watt’s Oriam facility, many new developments across the UK HE sector are not only for the use of university students, but are also open to the general public. One such facility is the newly opened £55m Sport and Fitness Club at Birmingham University. Opening on 22nd May this year, the facility is aimed at both university students, and the local community of Birmingham. The University aim to encourage both students and locals to engage in physical activity, whether they are of a performance standard, or whether they are complete beginners.

Encompassing an array of facilities, including Birmingham’s first 50m swimming pool, the development includes a large multi-sports arena, six glass-backed squash courts, a 10m climbing wall, and five activity studios. The gym, which has almost 200 pieces of equipment and an open training space, has been named ‘Chrissie’s Gym’, after a public vote was held to determine an honouree. The winner was Birmingham University alumna and four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion, Chrissie Wellington OBE, who has subsequently lent her name to the new facilities.  The development was designed with the highest possible specifications of environmental sustainability and accessibility in mind. Materials were sourced from around the world, and the new swimming pool includes a platform lift for accessible entry.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Professor Sir David Eastwood, commented, “This is a landmark occasion for the university and the city. We are delighted to be opening the doors to a pioneering facility which will enhance Birmingham’s existing world-class sporting infrastructure and contribute to the city’s and region’s ambitions to attract global events to Birmingham and the West Midlands.”

The cumulative infrastructure that these sporting facilities support is the larger contribution, here. It is not only the sports clubs and athletic competitions of the students that are being addressed, but also the general wellbeing of the university, and of the wider community.

With the NHS warning that living with obesity can cause depression, as well as a myriad of other health problems, the need for improving the health habits of the nation as a whole have many more widespread implications than physical ailments. Similarly, poor mental health can be exacerbated by lack of exercise, which in turn makes exercise even more unlikely. Providing a healthy and enjoyable outlet for both students and the public means that universities and their surrounding areas are more likely to flourish, and to pass this wellbeing forward.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that universities across the country are so keen to improve their offerings, and long may it continue.

Kent Sport serve an ace

Three years on, the University of Kent’s first-class tennis and netball facility continues to deliver in function and possibility. 

Designed and manufactured by national sports facility specialists Collinson, day-to-day management of the facility falls to Kent Sport, who are making the most of all the multi-use indoor space offers, hosting activities like softball cricket and indoor archery between tennis matches and netball games. 

Both the University and Kent Sport had refused to let the relentless wet weather of previous years prevent them from providing a comprehensive sport experience, from recreational to the elite. The clear solution? A dedicated indoor facility. 

To offer the best to students and members, the facility would need to be economical without compromising on quality. Being based at the University, it also needed to be versatile enough to accommodate other sports, particularly during exam season, when main halls would be out of action. 

After research showed the economic benefits, such as reduced construction costs and shortened build time, Kent Sport opted for a clear span, tensile membrane structure to house their two-court build. Then, it was time to contact manufacturers. 

Enter: Collinson and the Challenger™ facility. 

For Kent Sport, Collinson was the clear winner when it came to design and delivery of quality sports facilities. The Challenger building system constitutes a clear span, steel superstructure which requires minimal foundations and can quickly be erected. Renowned for its efficiency, the system sports a tensioned PVC membrane covering which allows light to permeate the building and bathe the courts in natural light, for that outdoor sport experience, indoors. So light is the facility that the artificial lighting goes mostly unused during the summer months, great for whole life costs. 

Opportunities for customisation meant Kent Sport were able to choose exterior colours, opting for a striking colour block effect that incorporated both the Kent Sport and University logos. 

Lee Thompson, Kent Sport outdoor facilities manager, said the centre has “given more scope to be able to do many sports indoors”, confirming the development was “really positive” in both impact and reception.  

Did Kent Sport serve an ace? Absolutely, and with the help of the Challenger™, they’re going from strength to strength. 


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