Keeping the Student Body Fit Harvest Moon
About the Montanan
Keeping the Student Body Fit
A New Recreation Complex for Today's Students
By Dan Oko
Visit UM on a sunny day and you'll see why the campus has become a Mecca for students interested in outdoor recreation. Climbers scramble up the climbing wall in the Recreation Annex. Kayakers practice paddling in the Grizzly Pool. Hikers zigzag up and down the M trail on Mount Sentinel. Bicyclists pedal across campus and down the Kim Williams Trail, zooming past runners puffing their way along the Clark Fork River.
Although today's student body is increasingly active, the Recreation Annex, where many students and UM employees exercise, doesn't come close to meeting the needs of the increasing numbers of people working out. Take one look at a 1998 feasibility study for UM's proposed new campus recreation center, and you'll see why students voted last spring to support building a new facility. When Brailsford and Dunlavey, the company that oversaw the study, surveyed students two years ago, it discovered not just a litany of complaints but a strong resolve to fix the problems.
Problems stemming from the building's design and a growing student population, as well as a growing percentage of non-intramural athletes looking to get into shape, led to measurable dissatisfaction with the "rec annex" (as it is commonly called). Student critics took aim at issues ranging from overcrowding to the relative unattractiveness of the twenty-five-year-old building. Overall, the students surveyed said that if a new fitness facility were constructed they would triple the amount of time they spend exercising.
A recent trip to the rec annex brought complaints about the facility into sharp relief. As students scaled a climbing wall meant to provide training and conditioning to would-be rock climbers, a trio dressed in martial arts uniforms practiced various Judo moves nearby. Through a doorway, spandex-clad women sweated mightily on Stairmasters, while a coed crew of weight lifters circulated around the various stations waiting their turn to pump iron.
However, students, faculty and staff committed to staying fit may soon get the tools they need. Last spring the student referendum on the new recreation center and its attendant fees passed with the highest voter turnout in recent memory, drawing a quarter of the student population to the polls. The project passed by a 1,308 to 1,120 vote.
If approved by the Montana Board of Regents at its September 1999 meeting, the University will soon begin building a $10 million recreation center. This facility will include four brand-spanking new basketball courts, an elevated track, an improved outdoor recreation program and a club-quality climbing wall. And, once the center is built, students will start paying activities fees of about $65 a semester (up from today's $14).
More Room for More Students
Nobody could be more pleased with this development than Dudley Improta, who manages Campus Recreation and oversees outdoor programming for the University. Although he was careful not to personally lobby for what some might see as a vested interest, Improta could be found in his office on the eve of the student referendum this spring exhorting his students and employees to get out the vote.
Improta explains his interest in bringing recreation on campus up-to-date. "We've been way behind here," he says. "Use has grown more than the student body has grown, and for the last two years, we've far exceeded anything we've seen before. Students are definitely more interested in outdoor recreation and general fitness, and that means that we've been running out of space."
Keith Glaes, director of Campus Recreation and Improta's boss, notes that growth in fitness and outdoor recreation has been due in large part to the increasing numbers of women exercising--women who have inherited a sense of entitlement from legislation ensuring gender equity in intercollegiate sports. But he also says that despite a continued interest in traditional conditioning regimes such as weight lifting, aerobics and running, more students are turning to sports such as martial arts and rock climbing for their fitness fix.
When Glaes describes the blueprint for the new building, his enthusiasm for the project shows. "Our new fitness and health facility is going to meet the needs of the times," Glaes says. Along with racketball courts, a state-of-the-art aerobics room and a "leisure" pool for swimming, the building has been designed with plenty of windows and lots of light. Glaes expects the new recreation center to help with campus recruitment efforts by meeting the expectations of incoming students who, after all, will have to help foot the bill. Currently, he notes, nearly a quarter of the student population pays upwards of $35 a month to belong to an off-campus health club.
Sound Body, Sound Mind
According to Dr. Nancy Fitch, director of UM's Student Health Services, these trends show promise not just for the bodies of today's student scholars, but for their minds as well. While not everybody has jumped on the fitness bandwagon, Fitch says, a solid percentage of students have been supplementing their academic diet with some form of physical activity.
According to a number of studies, Fitch says, the lifelong benefits of leading an active life range from improving academic performance in college to staving off heart disease afterwards. UM alumna Sarah Mart will join Fitch this fall in getting out the message that exercise now means fitness for life. Mart, who just completed a master's in public health from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, traded one Rocky Mountain hotspot for another when she became the health education coordinator at UM's Student Health Services this fall. She says she is enjoying the Garden City and and her role in helping students understand health issues.
That message hasn't been lost on University faculty or staff, either, according to Gordon Opel, director of the Wellness Center for University employees. By participating in various exercise regimes, he says, everybody can offset workplace injuries, fatigue and depression, which in turn saves the University as well as its employees the cost of lost work. "Regular physical activity is critical for our productivity as well as our health and safety," Opel says. "Our bodies weren't designed to sit in front of a computer all day long. We are lucky to work in an environment where there are facilities and programs that are designed to help people be physically active, whether it is climbing the M, swimming at the Grizzly Pool or taking an aerobics class."
Somewhat surprisingly, given that UM students manifest such an interest in recreation, not a single University health professional was willing to say that the proverbial "freshman fifteen," the pounds that students reportedly put on when they trade home cooking for dorm food, was a thing of the past. That may change, however, for according to the 1998 feasibility study, the new recreation center can expect to draw nearly twice as many students as the already overcrowded rec annex does.
Ultimately what men and women want in a fitness center has changed, Glaes says. "They don't want a boxing ring or an old-fashioned gym," he says. "They want a clean, well-lit, dignified environment. This will be a modern facility with the sorts of things that current and future students want in a fitness and recreation center.
"The new Recreation Annex will be a building that will be used and useful for the next twenty years."Dan Oko, a former editor of the Missoula Independent, recently relocated to Austin, Texas.
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