Outfitting Fitness Facilities

Exercise may be a natural need, but these days it isn’t free. Students arrive on campus with a background in using treadmills, stair climbers and bikes — both upright and recumbent — as part of their family fitness club memberships.

So it’s no shock these machines continue to rack up the miles on campus; the new Colby Fitness Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., alone served more than 400,000 users in 2005. Director of Recreational Sports Howard Taylor anticipates hosting more than one million visits this year.

That means the first word in cardio machines is simple. Consoles with flashing lights and myriad program choices merely confuse the population, according to Keith Hankins, commercial sales manager at True Fitness based in O’Fallon, Mo. Ninety-five percent of users opt for a machine’s quick start green button.“They prefer to control their own speed and incline,” he says.

Plugging In to Entertainment

But availability and ease of use alone won’t cut it with the 21st-century student: today’s machines gather dust unless they emphasize entertainment.“Sure, users bring their own iPods, but they still need something visual even if they are listening to their own thing,” points out Hankins. Most of the cardio machines already include built-in areas for water bottles and personal electronics, but the latest models must feature TV screens and some way to play DVDs or CDs as well. A few models even allow exercisers to surf the Web.

Howard got around that by installing what he calls “cardio theater” — 17 televisions tied to an FM radio station so students can bring their own headsets and choose to listen to either the programming or personal music. The advantage is that the facility remains relatively quiet as guests walk through.

And reading racks are still mandatory, whether the student is using the treadmill, stair climber or bike, points out Lisa Stuppy, assistant director of the fitness programs at Boise State University. She’s in a position to know — approximately 1,000 people per day use the equipment at her two-story rec center.

Deciding What to Buy

Purchasing prudence must balance the craving for bells and whistles, recreation directors point out. “Let’s say someone asks for a standing calf raise machine,” Stuppy says. “Do we have a similar piece on the floor for that motion? Is it something a lot of people would use? We have to look at what is functional, what will work for the majority of our members and whether we can afford to buy it.”

But she won’t skimp on quality. Thanks to the heavy use, Stuppy always buys from the top-of-the-line, industrial-strength category. Taylor goes a step farther and sends the maintenance crew to the equipment manufacturers’ training sessions to learn how to take individual pieces apart, clean them properly and repair worn parts.

“We also evaluate things like the seats. For instance, it’s great if they’re leather, but it’s more important to see a cover that can be replaced no matter what material,” he notes. In a university setting, the rule of thumb is to shoot for three years of use from each cardio machine; five to seven years from a strength training system.

Strength in Numbers

Personal trainers these days stress functional training, so Taylor has seen a big demand for strength equipment that enhances core strength and individual muscles. It’s hard to beat free weights for their flexibility in this category, and men tend to gravitate toward the traditional benches and barbells at his facility. But multipurpose cable-pull machines have wormed their way into students’ consciousness — thanks, no doubt, to a never-ending stream of Bowflex commercials on cable television — and stay busy during all hours as well.

Ease of use in this category translates to “up to five adjustments,” although users still want the equipment to look flashy and expensive, he adds.

New Kid in Town

Climbing walls are proving to be more enduring than a fad. Boise State officials insisted on including a boulder cave at the six-ft. level so climbers can take up this activity without being roped in. “And the routes are shorter and easier from our teaching platform,” Stuppy describes. She also added a variety of top roping and leap climbs featuring varying degrees of difficulty. Thanks to this wide range, the center is equipped to host climbing competitions for the city, which in turn, brings positive focus on the center.

“The climbing gym is a great amenity because people think it looks fun,” she says.

Even Chatham College, a women’s undergraduate college in Pittsburgh, installed a 25-ft. climbing wall in its new fitness center. Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah included student, staff and faculty input when it designed a 46-ft. climbing wall for the facility set to open this month.

Elliptical machines, too, are making a splash. According to Dr. Richard Ray, chair of the Department of Kinesiology and an athletic trainer at Hope College in Holland, Mich., that’s because “they mimic running so well but are less stressful for the lower extremities.”

However, this doesn’t mean students will shun yesterday’s machines altogether, particularly when the center is crowded, in Stuppy’s experience. She’s witnessed exercisers using the old-fashioned rowing machines and older model stair climbers where the stairs flip down. “We even have a couple of the Schwinn Airdynes where your arms move back and forth, and I see people on them,” she notes. “Having a variety is important so you can try to find something interesting to everyone who comes in.” This strategy also cuts down on frustrating wait times — students generally use whatever is available if it means they can avoid standing around while someone else jams to the latest CD on the treadmill.