Finding a Sense of Belonging in Campus Fitness & Rec Centers

At the age of eighteen and as a college freshman, I moved to another state. I settled into an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar dormitory, sharing it with an unfamiliar roommate. To the best of my ability, I navigated an unfamiliar campus. The students, the professors-they were all unfamiliar. I knew the city well enough, but never had I explored it on my own. That, too, was unfamiliar.

The first few weeks of college were the loneliest of my life up to that point. In a fit of desperation, I called my mother and pleaded to come home.To her credit, and despite the adjustment she was no doubt experiencing in my absence, she was persistent in her optimism: “Give it a full semester. It will get better once you make a friend.” She was right, of course. In my case, all it took was a conversation with a sophomore across the hall, who invited me to a small social gathering one afternoon.

Twenty years later, I’m close with several people I met on the day, and I still keep in touch with Adam, the sophomore across the hall. In retrospect, I was lucky. The loneliness from which I suffered was intense but short-lived, and the great friends I made were welcoming and glad to accept me into their little circle. But initially, the transition, and in so many basic, day-to-day ways, was really tough.

Linking “Belonging” To Well-Being

A wealth of scholarship has addressed the link between social support and the physical well-being of college students. Broadly, the findings suggest that college students are vulnerable to stress-induced illnesses. From a developmental perspective, these young adults are experiencing their first few years of living away from the safety net of family, and many are encountering a level of independence-if not financial, at least social and intellectual-previously unfamiliar to them.

The stresses brought on by so many changes at once, as research has shown, can lead to illness. In “Coping Mechanisms, Stress, Social Support, and Health Problems in College Students,” Zaleski et al. noted that first-year college students who perceived less family support reported more physical symptoms than those who reported higher levels of family support. Other studies have identified at least three support components, (1) structural support, (2) satisfaction with support, and (3) perceived support from family, as key factors in students’ attitudes about their own physical well-being.

Belonging is Key to Evolving

And similarly, Hale et al. also contend in “Social Support and Physical Health” that a sense of belonging is significant in the prediction of physical health, indicating that a social network or close circle of friends is key for college students as they continue to evolve during their time with us. Perhaps the notion that people function best in socially supportive environments is self-evident since each of us have experienced to some degree or another the adverse effects of loneliness and isolation. But less obvious is how to cultivate the on-campus structural support that students need.

It is up to faculty and staff to create socially supportive environments within classroom settings-but what about outside of the classroom? What can be done for a lonely freshman or a new transfer in earnest search of the feeling that he or she belongs? What can we do for our students who have struggled to find a community and to form meaningful relationships?

Developing Bonds at Campus Rec Centers

Across the country, private universities and colleges are providing students with gorgeous, innovative fitness and recreation centers that are just as remarkable for their versatile utility. These function as sites where friendships are formed, thereby serving as a key hub for community-building.

Also, as sites that promote healthy living, both of mind and body, fitness and recreation centers empower students to develop positive habits that can be maintained well after they graduate.What we’re witnessing is an exciting cultural shift in which health and wellness practices are being incorporated into our students’ daily lives.

And no wonder students are excited to use them. Just think of what fitness and recreation centers can now provide: massive gymnasiums, state-of-the-art fitness equipment, indoor and outdoor tracks, rock climbing walls, pristine aquatic centers and hydrotherapy spas, saunas, massage studios, sandy spaces allocated for “beach” volleyball, in addition to a variety of classes, whether based in martial arts, dance, or yoga.

Nutritional cooking classes are also offered. Fitness and recreation centers are likewise instrumental in attracting prospective students whose expectations are as high as ever. We are reminded with each incoming class that there’s no time for complacency. Not only do prospective students value a top education, but they’re also searching for a complete on-campus experience, one that allows them access to excellent living conditions, delicious food, a clean and navigable campus, and of course, recreational and fitness facilities that are a step above what they can find off campus.

One Inspiring Example

The Drexel University Recreation Center has been voted Philadelphia’s best gym, and for good reason. Not only does it offer fitness assessment and nutrition counseling, but students can sign up for massage therapy following workouts or as a means of releasing post-exam tension. Drexel offers a full-sized Pilates studio, an advanced climbing wall, and a total of seven squash courts. The Drexel Recreation Center also offers a four-week fitness training boot camp called RISE.

The program is designed to instill positive work (and workout) habits, and it asks of its enrollees to push themselves physically and mentally. This includes arriving to the designated training location at 6:30 in the morning twice a week; and at the training, a team of personal trainers diversify students’ workouts so that when they leave the sessions, they do so refreshed and ready to tackle the day ahead. The center itself includes

18,000 square feet of exercise equipment space, featuring 120 pieces of cardiovascular equipment and over 300 pieces of strength equipment. There is more than enough to go around. Further, it is home to a beautiful 13,000-square-foot Maplewood multipurpose gymnasium, two aerobic studios that offer a full range of group exercise classes, a climbing wall, as well as a three-lane, elevated indoor track.

With its 6 lane, 25-yard pool, equipped with ample deck space and Red Cross Certified student lifeguards, the aquatics center at the Drexel Recreation Center is equally impressive. The pool is home to the Drexel Varsity Swimming & Diving Team, Club Swim Team, Club Triathlon Team, and Club Water Polo Team.

Resort-like Amenities

The University of Miami’s Herbert Wellness Center is a hub for recreational sports, fitness, and wellness education programs. Not unlike the Drexel Recreation Center in Philadelphia, it represents in vision and scope what’s possible for campus-based fitness and recreation centers. The indoor facility spans nearly 20,000 square feet of cardiovascular and weight equipment, in addition to a gymnasium that incorporates three full basketball courts that can also be converted to volleyball or badminton courts.

It also houses a smaller gymnasium with rounded walls that are a great fit for indoor soccer, floor hockey, basketball, volleyball, or badminton. One can also reserve racquetball and squash courts or enjoy the indoor track. A 25-yard, 6-lane swimming pool is available for swimming and other water exercise classes. Students can also unwind with a spa and two saunas.

Other amenities include a juice bar, an instructional kitchen, a studio cycling room, four multi-purpose rooms for group exercise, martial arts, Pilates, and more. The outside facilities at the Herbert Wellness Center allows students to revel in the sunny weather and coastal breeze of Miami. Available are four basketball courts, six tennis courts, and five intramural playing fields.

A Safe and Stabilizing Space

At private universities and colleges, we’re seeing the immense potential for campus-based fitness and recreation centers. Our students can benefit from such spaces in so many ways.

Most obvious is the benefit to their physical health. With vast and versatile gymnasiums, fitness equipment, aquatic centers, and spaces designed for instructional workouts, our students can achieve their fitness goals. I also want to stress the role that campus-based fitness and recreation centers play in providing for students a safe space to get to know one another.

It is within these spaces that friendships are formed, whether it is over a game of pickup basketball or during a taekwondo class. Particularly for those students who are new to campus, who are lonely and overwhelmed, fitness and recreation centers can have a long-lasting and stabilizing impact.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.