Building up a sweat: a tour of the gym

Photo: Ellen Shaw

“We want to be the best in Scotland!” That’s director of sport and exer­cise Stephen Stewart’s goal for the University Sports Centre.

In pursuit of that goal, the University spent £250,000 this past summer to convert four squash courts into a per­formance suite, a free weights room, a fixed weights room and an extra room for cardio. They also converted the old fixed weights room into a new stretch and core room. All with a goal of both improving the facilities and expanding their capacity by 25%.

Mr Stewart describes the prior state of the Fitness Centre in one word: “Horrendous.” It was a common scene to see people stretching in the doorway, waiting awkwardly behind treadmills and half-heartedly using fixed weight machines until the one they wanted became available and then running to snatch it. It was also not uncommon for people to have to wait long periods of time to use the gym, and on occasion gym goers were even turned away.

For a university that boasts around 8,000 students along with 1,200 staff members, a gym that could only hold 60 at a time was unacceptable. Jess Walker, the current Athletic Union president, admitted that the gym was so awful that when she was choosing a university she almost didn’t attend St Andrews because the Fitness Centre was in such poor condition. The discon­nect between the University’s aim to be world class and the quality of its fitness facilities was jarring.

Ms Walker is not alone in her desire for improved and expanded university fitness facilities: Mr Stewart referred to the poor student satisfaction ratings of the University’s facilities as a major im­petus of the refurbishment. St. Andrews prides itself on being on the top of the student satisfaction surveys each year and such a low rating had a strong ef­fect on the decision to renovate.

Another less official motivation for the renovation could be the increase in American students. The University has a keen interest in attracting them not only for their higher fees but their tradi­tion of copious donation to their “Alma Mater.” In order to compete with elite American universities for students, the athletic aspect of the University had to be heightened. Evidence of the University’s interest in American stu­dents can be seen in the sizable dona­tion towards the renovation by the University’s American Foundation.

In terms of reactions to the renova­tion, for most students the addition of the core and stretching room is the most appreciated change. Many expressed satisfaction at the prospect of not be­ing run over by other fitness enthusi­asts while stretching or exercising, and there are plenty of mats making it more pleasant to perform exercises on com­pared to bare carpet. Another alteration receiving rave reviews is the extension of the cardio room to add several more treadmills, bikes, elliptical and even ergs. Oz Adari, a second-year regular gym-attendee, said “the availability of running machines makes it so I want to go the gym more because I actu­ally know I’m going to get one.” Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams was right: “If you build it, they will come.”

The reaction towards the weight rooms has not been met with the same enthusiasm, however. Schwarzenegger-acolyte Matt Salas commented that “the weight rooms are essentially the same, just more spaced out. And what’s up with only one bench press? How am I supposed to ‘get my swole on’?” The renovation has done essentially nothing to solve the problem of congestion with the weight machines; it is still very evi­dent that having one leg press and two bench presses for a university boasting over 60 sport clubs is insufficient.

The strength and conditioning man­ager says that there is a four-stage plan that involves increasing the number of sport courts in an effort to increase the multi-purpose nature of the Sports Centre, along with far-off plans to add a swimming pool. The sport department staff emphasised their plan as an evo­lution, stating that even this summer’s renovation is not in its final form, with plans to add three more mats in the core and stretch room along with the addi­tion of another squat press.

The final question remains as to whether the money spent on fitness facilities will be worth it for the wider university population, not just the few gym junkies and student athletes. By numbers alone, last summer’s renova­tion appears a success: last year in the first week of classes 1,980 people used the Fitness Centre versus the 3,180 that ‘hit the gym’ in the first week of classes this year, a 62% increase.

In an informal survey, students who hadn’t attended the gym last year were asked whether the new gym renova­tion made it more likely for them to attend the gym. Jogging enthusiast and second-year Will Gray said that the increased cardio aspect didn’t at­tract him because “I can go outside and run for free,” whereas another student, Edward Byrns, admitted that “I didn’t even know it had been redeveloped.” And many more when asked what they thought about the new gym stated they hadn’t gone and didn’t really plan to. This suggests that the increase in gym attendance may be a niche group.

Overall, while there is still a large portion of the University population that expresses apathy towards this and other university expenditures , the continuing development and improve­ment of the Sports Centre is essential for the University if it wants to compete with other institutions for fee-paying students.

One need only go to the Stanford, Cambridge or Harvard websites to marvel at the quality and quantity of fitness facilities made available to their students. Which raises the question: is aiming to be “the best in Scotland” good enough if the goal is to be a world-class university? As they say: “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.”


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