Frequently a neglected facility in days gone by, the university gym has been reborn for a generation that prefers push-ups to pints. The prevailing fitness culture is reflected in the elevated importance – and investment in – these temples of exercise. They’re a showpiece for prospective students, a social hub during term time and a valuable community asset in the holidays. It’s little wonder universities are spending big money on improving and replacing their ageing gyms.
Attracting the future
Nick Conway is managing director of ITC, a construction company that has recently worked with UCL. He thinks there’s a greater expectation placed on universities to provide quality facilities such as gyms, as a result of increased tuition fees and the fact that many prospective students now consider more than just academic rankings when making a Ucas application. He says: “Students want to enjoy the same level of facilities that they would in dedicated, private gyms. The booming fitness market is driving expectations and demand, and universities need to keep pace to attract students.”
Ben Sandham is sales area manager, health corporate and performance for Technogym UK, which has designed gym equipment and fitness solutions for a range of universities such as Loughborough and Lancaster. He also agrees that today’s students are choosing institutions based on the quality and standard of their fitness facilities, and says changes to the way that students spend their leisure time has forced universities to up their game. He says: “Students now expect universities to provide the same sports facilities that they have experienced in their schools or private gym, and they want them to be of a professional standard.
“Today the university gym is a destination for a night out, rather than a night club, as today’s students are increasingly choosing to spend their money on working out. We’ve even seen some gyms host DJs on a Friday night, which is proof that the student lifestyle has changed.”
Why getting your gym right matters
Insights from Lisa Dodd-Mayne, director of sport and active lifestyles at University of Warwick
The University of Warwick is on a mission to build the UK’s most active university campus, and a key pillar to getting our community moving is a cutting-edge gym design.
When designing the gym, it was essential that there was something for everyone as our facility caters not just to the students, but also to our staff and the wider community. To enable our members to get active in a way that suits them, we created different zones on the gym floor to provide experiences that would appeal to every type of user, from the performance athlete, to the everyday gym member.
We wanted to deliver an exceptional experience to our members, so we chose to partner with Technogym. Working together, we have ensured that innovation is at the heart of our facility, with state-of-the-art solutions like Artis Line, which gives our members access to engaging digital experiences and even the ability to log into their own personal content during a workout. Across the gym floor, we have also invested in dedicated Skill Line zones, showcasing the dynamic range of products built with performance athletes in mind.
To enhance our membership journey further, we will be launching the Warwick Wellness app powered by Technogym, which will allow our members to manage their fitness journeys seamlessly from their phones. Using the app, members will be able to follow bespoke workout programmes, monitor their progress with our Wellness Assessments and take part in challenges with fellow gym-goers.
Hitting the mark
With new fitness trends and classes emerging all the time, universities need to ensure that their gym facilities are able to accommodate these latest developments as well as cater to traditional forms of sport. For Conway, this means that as well as providing specialist equipment, they also need to create a series of functional spaces to offer students the best possible experience for both individual and group workouts.
He says: “When building a university gym you need to understand you’re creating something which will be used by students of all skills and abilities. The gym needs to provide professional facilities while still being welcoming and accessible to anyone who comes in through the doors.
“The locker and shower areas are crucial to keep up to date and it’s often these spaces which leave a lasting impression on prospective students.”
Sandham has seen many universities choose to future-proof their gym offerings to ensure that they can keep meeting students’ expectations in years to come. He says: “Students are looking for the gym of the future, a one-stop shop that has got everything in terms of equipment and classes.
“Universities need to make sure that the equipment they have hits the mark, as today’s students don’t just want to use an exercise bike – they want to be able to download a local route to replicate a triathlon they are training for, as well as compete against their friends.”
Healthy body, healthy mind
The benefits of physical activity for students’ mental health are clear. According to the results of the British Active Students Survey 2018 (a joint-report from ukactive, British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), Precor and Scottish Student Sport (SSS) which surveyed 6,891 students from 104 HE institutes across the UK), more than 47% of active students said they never or rarely felt feelings of social isolation. Higher levels of attainment were also perceived by active students, compared to fairly active or inactive students, and they also reported spending more time studying or in class.
Conway adds: “Exercise is, of course, an important part of maintaining good physical and mental health, and universities are encouraging their students to incorporate exercise into their lives.
“The links between exercise and stress release are well documented and, as studying has the potential to create a huge amount of stress, it’s important for universities to help students burn off steam.”
City, University of London
City’s CitySport is the largest student sports facility in central London and one of the most technologically advanced in the country. The facility was built four years ago, as the university wanted to invest in its offering to ensure they could meet the demands of students.
Bill Thompson is head of sport and leisure services at the university.
He believes that while many universities may feel the need to compete against each other academically, within the sports community there is lots of best practice sharing in order to help sports and exercise participation increase across the board.
He says: “Inclusivity was key for us, and we wanted our facility to be suitable for both beginners and the more advanced, and as a result we have two gyms – one that’s more traditional and one that’s more advanced with free weights.
We were committed to ensuring that we didn’t create a testosterone-fuelled facility, and as a result 62% of our gym users during term time are female.
We are also really proud of our transgender policy, and we have made changes to our facilities to have an all-gender changing area.
“In terms of engaging with the local community, we wanted to encourage people to come and use what we have. As a result we now work with a range
of local basketball and badminton clubs, and our standard is so high that we have also hosted the NBA teams for their training facility ahead of the annual London games.”
With the cost of refurbishing and building new gym facilities having a substantial impact on their funds, it’s important for institutions to look outside of their student and staff body and open up their facilities to the local community in order to increase revenues.
As Sandham explains: “With universities such as Warwick spending nearly £50m on its new gym facility, and Birmingham spending £55m three years ago, most will open up to the public to help their business plan, although the student and staff experience is almost always their first priority.”
Conway adds: “From a financial point of view, it makes no sense to leave state-of-the-art gyms empty during holiday times, when there are many non-students who would use them. It’s also a great chance to serve the local community, and allow them to benefit from the investment the university has made in these facilities.”
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