While many for-profit clubs are shifting gears and trying to find their niche, university rec centers are branching out into new directions, too.

Funding for both public and private sectors is tight, but according to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), the rec center mission is moving forward.

“We are seeing facilities renovate and expand, but it’s at a lesser rate than it was two years ago when we did our last facility survey,” says Abe Drabkin, director of marketing for NIRSA. “The 2010 NIRSA Collegiate Recreational Sports Facilities Construction Report indicated that $1.7 billion in projects—including new construction, renovations and expansions—is slated at NIRSA institutions for 2010-2015.”

Facility structural growth may be slower, but Drabkin says that universities are still finding new ways to engage students. One of the main focuses is increased health and wellness programming. Universities are using rec centers as a place to pass information on to students about how to set up healthy behaviors for the rest of their lives through educational programming related to food and nutrition, and by offering mind-body classes, such as yoga, marketed to both genders.

It’s a move that benefits both the student and the institution, Drabkin says.

“Our data suggests that when students use the rec center, they stay at that institution, they don’t transfer, they graduate within four years,” he says. “It improves their ability to deal with academic stress and obviously their fitness as well.”

Stress relief and wellness also play a big role in programming for a specific student market—veterans returning to school on the GI bill.

“We’re seeing a lot of rec center awareness of serving that community,” Drabkin says. “They’re offering programming that helps the vets use recreation and fitness as a way to manage the stress of the transition from military back to civilian life.”

Along with promoting awareness of students’ own well-being, Drabkin says that rec centers are helping students become more interested in working toward a healthier planet. Sustainability is a hot topic, from building LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facilities to installing eco-friendly equipment, such as treadmills that push energy back into the grid.

The interest in the environment may be part of the reason behind another trend: taking recreation to the great outdoors.

“We’re seeing some phenomenal growth in outdoor ventures—skiing, hiking, snowboarding, mountain biking, backpacking,” Drabkin says.

Rec centers are getting involved by providing equipment rentals and having staff organize the trips. And the now almost ubiquitous bouldering and rock-climbing walls help students get the outdoor experience back at the rec.
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