New year, new you: how universities are encouraging the local community to use their gym facilities

Keri Beckingham finds out how local communities are benefiting from some amazing new university gyms and sports facilities around the country

While we may all have good resolutions at the start of the new year to ditch the Christmas excess – and revisit the gym with renewed determination – there are wider benefits to the new-style university gym than just providing a facility for our students and staff to get in shape.

With the rise of state-of-the-art gyms comes a more interwoven town and gown relationship, where such facilities – comparable in cases to many ‘high-street’ gyms – can be enjoyed by the wider community beyond the university gates. In so doing, this can provide a boost to university funds, particularly in quiet seasons when students may be away or have their heads down studying – while also providing a valuable resource to the community.

There is, of course, a benefit too in terms of health and wellbeing, and the new-style gym has a vital role to fill here.

We talk to a range of commercial gym equipment providers and seek comment from universities to examine the role of the university gym in this town and gown relationship.

Catering for all

Colin Wilkie, regional sales manager for commercial gym equipment supplier Precor in Scotland, says that university gyms should cater for the needs of students, staff and the general public in turn.

Wilkie explains: “If every single student joined, then most university gyms would be too busy. As a result, student membership runs over term-time, whereas for members of the public most universities offer a 12-month contract.

“This means that during the quieter months when students are away or have exams, the gym’s income can be buoyed by the general public. And to offer some level of health and wellbeing support to staff, a discounted membership can be given to the internal team.”

Richard Sheen, commercial sales director for Pulse Fitness, says that institutions can use this additional revenue to pay for the initial capital funding costs of upgrading their gym facilities, adding: “It’s a complete no-brainer for the majority of universities.”

It’s about seeking to use sport, physical activity and our facilities to contribute to the heartbeat of the city and the surrounding areas – Quentin Sloper, director of experience, Durham

Attracting community members

Ben Sandham is sales area manager, health, corporate and performance for Technogym UK, and he worked with The University of Birmingham on its £55m sport and fitness club, which opened in May 2017.

In his experience, he says that a lot of universities need to be able to open up their facilities to the community in order to cover the costs of the project, and as their offering will be as good or better than other commercial gym facilities, they can easily attract community members to join them.

He comments: “Universities need to have a certain amount of public members in order to get their business plans to stack up; therefore, the commercial return is really important.”

Case study: Durham University

Durham University is currently investing £32m to upgrade its Maiden Castle sports facilities, which over 2,700 community users access each week. The first phase of the Durham University Sports and Wellbeing Park was completed over the summer, with a new indoor cricket hall, a 12-court multi-use sports hall, a martial arts dojo, a fitness centre, high-performance weights rooms and recovery facilities, and the original sports centre will also be refurbished this winter.

Quentin Sloper, director of experience Durham, says there is an increasing realisation that universities can make a positive and significant impact upon their wider community. He adds: “It’s about seeking to use sport, physical activity and our facilities to contribute to the heartbeat of the city and the surrounding areas, from high-standard sporting competition providing entertainment and after-school programmes and holiday camps, to fitness classes accessible to all.”

Mark Brian, head of sport, says that the university already has a fantastic amount of engagement with the local community, with many individuals and local sports clubs using their facilities regularly. He adds: “Sport is a great way to break down barriers and we are keen to encourage members of the local community to use our facilities.

“We don’t get a huge financial benefit from opening up our facilities and, for us, building relationships with the local community is our main focus.

“We know that many people may not have set foot in a university before, so it can therefore be an inspirational experience which may encourage them to study at Durham in the future.”

Things to consider

We asked our experts what key factors universities need to consider when upgrading their gym facilities.

Although the majority of gyms don’t need to be designed differently, it is something to bear in mind if specialist facilities are required for student use, says Richard Sheen, explaining: “If your university offers specific courses or you need separate facilities for your sports team, then it might be worth creating specialist training and teaching areas that have been scheduled for student-access only.”

Making the member journey easy is important, believes Colin Wilkie, suggesting that universities can use lighting and flooring to make the space more inclusive and accessible. He comments: “Different coloured or textured flooring can create distinguishing features that will help the visually impaired, who often have a better sense of touch and feel.

“We often create a small boutique gym within the gym that can be used for inductions, small group training, active ageing or rehab areas, as well as for people with autism or ADHD. These small, quieter areas are set up near the entrance, so people don’t have to navigate their way through the entire gym to find it.”

University facilities are among some of the best facilities around and most are able to accommodate upwards of 1,500 members – making them comparable to any high-street gym – John Ide, sports & fitness manager

Case study: Buckinghamshire New University

Buckinghamshire New University opened its new Gateway building in 2009. The state-of- the-art complex hosts the university’s gym, sports facilities, media production studios and library.

John Ide, sports and fitness manager of The Gateway Gym, says that the main difference between commercial gym facilities and university gym facilities are that universities have both moral and financial obligations to their customers. Speaking about the facility in more detail, he says: “There has been additional investment since opening, ensuring the equipment is some of the most up-to-date in the region.

“Our campus is right in the centre of town so is convenient for everyone in the surrounding area, giving them an affordable gym and access to health and fitness facilities. For some students, the gym can also be a contributing factor in their choice of where to study, no matter what they are studying. In this respect, the university benefits from the gym financially again, outside of membership.

“University facilities are among some of the best facilities around and most are able to accommodate upwards of 1,500 members – making them comparable to any high-street gym.”

The importance of technology

Tech is also a key consideration in today’s gym. Ben Sandham explains that today’s gym users want to use digital solutions as part of their workout experience. He says: “Having a digitally connected solution is vital. Today, members want to be able to book classes online or via an app in one click, and they also want to bring their outdoor running indoors. By linking to their Technogym account, they can also access the data from their workouts, too.”

Whether university gyms are opening their doors to build positive links with the wider community or to realise a return on their investment, there are many clear benefits to this town and gown relationship. Gyms are able to maximise on quieter times, when students are home for holidays, creating regular income streams from monthly subscriptions from the community – and thus supporting the commercial investment.

They also provide much-needed services to aid health and fitness and positive mental wellbeing for staff and students alike, as well as for members of the local community.

Case study: Solent University

Supported by Pulse Fitness, the University’s Solent sports complex cost £28m and opened in May 2019. The building is home to a variety of community sports clubs, including Team Solent Kestrels basketball (who won the NBL Division One title in the 2018/19 season), the Mini Kestrels for children aged five years and up, the Solent Sharks wheelchair rugby club and badminton for the over-50s.

By having national-standard facilities, the university can support its ambitions to increase its profile in the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) league. In addition, the facility has the capacity to cater for public gym users without detracting from the student experience, and public members can also help to provide a client base for various academic activities, such as physiotherapy, personal training, clinical exercise and research.

A university spokesperson said: “The courts are available for public hire and the public has access to the gym and fitness classes at all times, as well as specialist programmes delivered by highly qualified instructors.

“After consulting with the local community, a ladies-only physical activity programme – which provides a safe and non-intimidating place for ladies to exercise – was also started.”

Richard Sheen says that Pulse Fitness is delighted to be Solent University’s fitness partner over the next five years. He adds: “We are confident that we can support both students and the local community alike in reaching their fitness goals.”

You might also like: Heriot-Watt University partners with Technogym to redesign Scotland’s National Sports Performance Centre

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