Because today's students expect a state-of-the-art student recreation center, the stakes for college rec facilities have increased as professionals strive to design facilities that stand out from the pack. Depending on a school's size, most new university rec facilities contain upwards of 100,000 square feet of breathtaking design and rows of sparkling new equipment that would make many a health club owner envious. Other universities, theorizing that more than size matters, have gone a step further and redefined the role of a recreation center.

What used to be an afterthought of the kinesiology department or leftovers from the sports program has sprouted into an important student recruitment tool. These freestanding spaces on campuses continue to evolve as a means to serve their population and stay ahead of the competition. Depending upon the university's culture, climate and population, new rec centers are being built to serve one of three student needs: technology, social interaction or wellness. These new schools of thought are adding to the controversy about what role a recreation center really should fill — or, in some cases, if it should be called a recreation center at all.

Tech Rec

As roughly 2,000 attendees travel to Louisville to attend the 2006 National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Exposition next month, many will turn out to see the latest trends. Not all of them will agree on which direction the industry should be headed in, however.

“We got a mixed reaction,” said Todd Pfingsten, director of campus recreation at Minnesota State University Mankato (MSU), regarding MSU's new technology-based recreation center. “There are always going to be some nay sayers, but some say it's the best thing that's happened.”

Opened in October 2005, the $8.4-million renovation to MSU's Otto Recreation Center created quite the hullabaloo. Besides a new wood gym floor, basketball/volleyball courts, a three-lane walking/jogging track, remodeled locker rooms and more, the renovation created a “TechRec” cardio area that features 40 pieces of cardio equipment (including treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent bikes, steppers and rowing machines) each fitted with an in-house created, adjustable ergonomic stand that holds a computer, keyboard and mouse (see photo of the TechRec on the cover). Each component is sweat-proof and students can e-mail, connect to the university server, watch a DVD or surf the Web while working out.

“Some people say, ‘How do people e-mail on the treadmill?’ and they're right; it's not practical,” Pfingsten said. “But, they can check class notes before they run, or they'll switch from one thing to another — log in, check e-mail and then watch “Sports Center.””

Perhaps what's most interesting about the TechRec is its inventive funding. MSU recently served as the site for the NIRSA National Recreational Facilities Institute where 120 colleagues asked, ‘How did you get funding for this?’

Pfingsten, with the help of the school's information technology department, administration and other faculty and staff, secured $150,000 for the TechRec area, which is considered an academic satellite lab. Academics use the space about 25 percent of the time for fitness activity classes. The Otto Rec Center also opens its doors to a local hospital's cardio rehabilitation patients, creating an academic-related collaboration with the community.

Linking the university rec world to the academic world is a relationship many say will continue, especially as funding becomes tight and as recent research shows that physical activity is linked to higher academic performance. However, some worry that this transition could be challenging for students who aren't technologically savvy.

“It's going to be a challenge to decide how many of those bells and whistles you're going to use in your facility,” said Jeff Lopez, director of recreation services for Illinois State University and chair of the NIRSA facilities committee. “We're not going to be able to be all things to all people.”

Some MSU students were not happy with the new center, writing into the student newspaper asking, “Why did we spend so much money on this?” Pfingsten said the discussion was good, because it made people think and encouraged them to visit the TechRec to form their own opinion.

“Once they come in and see what we have, they're hooked,” he said. “Positive or negative, I look at it as we're getting people in the door.”

Social Centers

The University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) is using another tactic to get students through the doors of its $50-million, nearly 300,000-square-foot Student Recreation Complex. Completed last summer, the expansion and renovation project included enough space to make it one of the 10 largest higher education recreation facilities in the nation.

Not only is it one of the largest recs in the country, it's also one of the most creative when it comes to fulfilling student's fitness and social needs.

“The higher education recreational shift has been from sprucing up a gym to evolving into a health club,” said Diane Dahlmann, director of Mizzou Rec Services and Facilities. “The next intention is going from a gym to a dance club to a rec resort. It's a sort of recreation renaissance, and it started at MU.”

After conducting surveys and listening to focus groups, Dahlmann said it was clear — students wanted a fun, hip place to work out and spend their free time in. Freshman Monica Coleman is one of those students. Rather than gaining the traditional “freshman 15,” she lost 10 pounds during the fall 2005 semester.

“My first impression was that it was way beyond what I expected,” she said. “It's like a gym I've never worked out in before. It's very welcoming, and it's very social. You can pretty much always see someone you know there.”

The facility's most notable features include the Jungle Gym (a cardiovascular fitness room with more than 100 pieces of cardio equipment, 24 flat screen televisions, strength machines and freeweights, seating overlooking the 50-meter competitive pool, a bar offering healthy supplements and energy drinks, and even a quiet room with treadmills, steppers, bikes, dumbbells and other selectorized machines), Downtown Brewer (an indoor simulated sidewalk complete with storefronts for group exercise studios, a private and public locker room, martial arts space and a personal training room), the Pump Room (an industrial-setting weight-training room set to a house sound system), Scroggs Peak (a 42-foot climbing wall), Red Hall Beverage Company (offering healthy meals, snacks and drinks), the Tiger Grotto (a purely recreational area with palm trees and other tropical flora, a big screen TV, a 20-person heated spa, sauna and steam shacks, a lazy river and beach-style rocking chairs) and the Mizzou Beach Club (an open-air swimming area made for sun bathing and socializing with a bubble-pool, low-rise waterfall, beach-style entry, oval-shaped pool and raised hearth fireplace). The complex also includes a bouldering wall, 50-meter competitive pool and other recreational sports offerings. Other ideas that were scratched from the drawing board included a firepole, treehouse and swinging hammocks around the grotto.

Students voted to increase their student fees to pay for the project.

“We've done things differently,” said Dan Shipp, senior associate director for the complex. “Students said give us a cool and sexy workout club/dance experience and that became our perspective.”

The social aspect of a rec center isn't a new one, but it is becoming more important. The Otto Recreation Center at MSU includes three separate lounge spaces for students to hang out in between classes, study or meet people. These spaces encourage more students to visit more often — even when they're not working out.

While fostering this social scene is important, the basics shouldn't be forgotten, said Mary Ann Chappell, director of the University of Kansas recreation services. As rec centers' services and offerings continue to change, she emphasized that rec professionals shouldn't abandon teaching the fundamentals. For example, what's the point of having a 12-foot slide in your pool if students don't know how to swim? However, she does understand that there's a big push to get students into rec centers however they can, she said.

Well and Good

The University of North Dakota (UND) is taking a more holistic approach when it comes to its recreational offerings. In fact, Laurie Betting, director of wellness at UND, hopes the name rec center falls by the wayside all together.

“I think that term will be gone, and there will be centers that are broad brush and talk about health whether it be in the physical domain to health issues or whatever our students are facing — mental or emotional,” Betting said. “I really think the multi-dimensional approach is something students appreciate.”

Scheduled to open at the end of August, the 107,000-square-foot UND Wellness Center offers more than a traditional rec center. Besides a three-court gymnasium, suspended running track, fitness and weight areas, locker rooms, group exercise studios and a climbing wall, the center includes more unique features — exam and physical assessment rooms, a healthy cooking demo-kitchen, a quiet lounge, a massage room, pro shop, a computer resource area and a first aid room.

Like MU, UND tapped into students' wants and needs. In April 2000, UND formed a coalition of volunteer students, faculty and staff to talk about the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, environmental, spiritual, social, intellectual and occupational/vocational. The coalition found that its current rec facility was too small and didn't meet campus needs. With strong student approval, the wheels were set in motion to build a new $18.5-million Wellness Center. With a nontraditional background for a rec professional — clinical and physical therapy — Betting spearheaded the initiative.

“We talk about health and not just fitness, and [the students] see the big picture,” Betting said. “We think we're changing the culture on campus and shaping habits, attitudes and beliefs for a lifetime.”

Modeled similarly to worksite wellness programs, the center hopes to have every student complete an anonymous and confidential customized wellness assessment each year. Students can print out their assessment and get feedback by setting up appointments with peer-to-peer wellness coaches who provide lifestyle and wellness planning for the student. The center will also offer nutrition classes or appointments with a dietician, fitness assessments, personal training sessions, a meditation lab with a labyrinth and even a wellness spa offering a menu of services. The environment is friendlier than a traditional medical setting, Betting said.

“We provide a different way for students to ask questions, and we do the referral and literally walk them over to the person they need to talk to,” she said referring to health issues such as anorexia and bulimia.

The Wellness Center will also fulfill an academic role by continuing to be involved in research, and, much like MSU's funding, will use a student technology fee to pay for overhead cameras that record cooking and nutrition classes.

These types of amenities are helping to recruit and retain students, especially as holistic health and mind/body fitness programs continue to grow in popularity. Because of this, more professionals are examining rec centers' role in regards to overall wellness, Chappell said.

“Five years ago, they didn't care,” she said. “But now students are making decisions based on it.”

Back to the Future

Some researchers rate recreation opportunities as the 11th most important benefit on a college campus, and not only do college students expect large, state-of-the-art recreation centers, but also students need it (for more statistics see the above sidebar, Facts of the Matter). Health experts want to increase the percentage of college students who participate in moderate physical activity for 30 minutes a day, three days a week to 55 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly half of 12 to 21 year olds don't get enough regular, vigorous activity.

“Parents expect [a high-quality rec center], grandparents expect it and siblings expect it,” Chappell said.

No one-size-fits-all rule exists for college rec centers though. Optimally, each is designed and built with extensive student input, resulting in a rec that reflects its constituents — the students. Whether that highly individualized and stylized center turns out to be technology-, social- or wellness-based is still up to rec professionals.

Any way they're shaped or created, university recreation facilities are moving to the forefront on campuses nationwide. Lopez expects to see more flexible spaces that can adapt to students' changing needs and an emphasis on environmental consciousness in the coming years.

“I think you're going to see that rec facilities are going to become that living room of university communities,” Lopez said. “It's where admission tours start or end.”

Facts of the Matter

  • Participation in rec sports programs and activities is correlated with overall college satisfaction and success.
  • Heavy users of campus rec sports programs and activities are happier than light users and non users.
  • Rec sports programs and activities was the fifth (out of 21) most significant determinant of college satisfaction and success for heavy users, ranking higher than internships, student clubs and entertainment.
  • Students who participated heavily in college rec sports are more socially oriented than other students.

Source: The Value of Recreational Sports in Higher Education, 2004 by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association