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University Gym? Not Worth the Weight

With an hour to spare amid a daze of deadlines and dates, you push through a despairing northeast gale, hiking from town to the Saints gym. But when you arrive, it is hardly worth taking off your coat. There’s a five-person line to enter, the treadmills are full, and four brawny lads in unitards have been on the only two bench presses for the past forty minutes. It seems you would be better off banging out a few sit-ups in your living room and calling it a day.

But you have paid somewhere between one and two hundred pounds, atop your tuition fees, for year-long access to a workout facility. Whether you are in pursuit of athletic accolades, bulging biceps, or some peace of mind: you deserve to use it.

Any athletically-minded student will know that there is a gym injustice at this university. The Saints gym fails to accommodate student demand and provide its members with the service they promise. Unless students can cough up some seven-hundred pounds for a gym membership at a luxury golf getaway, they settle to play games of dumb-bell tug-of-war and squat-rack musical chairs. Students ought to stop sacrificing their savings and sanity for a second-rate workout. If the university is keen to charge students for a service other universities include in tuition fees, they must significantly invest into improving and expanding the gym and fitness suites.

It should not be surprising that the Saints Gym cannot provide for its members. The university population is just under twelve-thousand students. That explains why the Sports Centre typically has some 6,500 members. And yet, the Saint gym struggles to accommodate a hundred.

The dozen or so students interviewed for this article clearly voiced that the Sports Centre fails to provide for its members. Third-year Billy Clubbe, a member of the Jude, Rifle, and Powerlifting clubs, notes that “for things like the bench press you will still typically have to wait around 10 mins”. Second-year Typhoons Ice Hockey player Tristan Long says the wait time for in-demand exercise machines and workout benches is no better. “I’ve been standing around for twenty minutes'”, Long said, mid-workout in the Saints Gym. Anyone sceptical of these student accounts can assuage any doubt by visiting the gym at its peak hours (try seventeen hundred if you are so bold).

There are a lucky few who –– either because they are members of the few “performance” sports teams or they have proven that they have olympian-like athletic aims –– can access the “performance centre”, a private gym with a meagre twenty-person capacity limit. The rest are not as lucky. When the gym is full, as it often is, they must settle to join a sports club, fight over a tennis court booking, or don a winter jacket to grapple on the monkey bars at the “outdoor gym”.

To make matters worse, students are not the only ones who regularly set siege on the Sports Centre. Roughly six per cent of its users are non-university affiliated “community members”. It is only fair that locals have access to affordable and accessible fitness facilities. But as an ancient Greek adage, often attached to Benjamin Franklin, honorary alumni at this university, goes: "God helps those who help themselves”. If the Sports Centre cannot provide for the ninety-four per cent of its members that it exists to accommodate, it cannot attempt to provide for another six per cent. Commitment first, charity second.

When The Saint reached out to Athletic Union President Alisa Martin expressing the concerns raised in this article, she noted that the Saint Sports Centre has recently attempted to assuage its shortcomings by posting live gym capacity updates on its website and investing seventy thousand pounds to improve and reorganise gym equipment.

Saint Sports is right to post the gym capacity on its website. It is an admirable effort that helps students plan workouts ahead of time, and many of the gym-goers interviewed for this article mentioned that they appreciated it. But knowing that the gym is full does not solve the problem that it is full. And even when the gym is open, students can only seldom use it effectively.

The gym’s dismal dimensions similarly undermine any investment into its equipment and layout. “Size matters”, as Alastiar Bock, a second-year gym goer interviewed for this article, remarked. Even if that seventy-thousand-pound investment into the existing gym was doubled, it would not change the more essential problem of its poor endowment. Unless its size swells, the gym will not perform as it promises.

Even Martin’s response implicitly acknowledges how Saint Sport fails to live up to its value. She notes that “while there are busy times in the day, and throughout the year, there is usually enough space to accommodate all users''. But by any standard of consumer fairness, it is unacceptable that students can only ‘usually’ access the service they have purchased. It is even worse that when students can access it, it is poorly provided.

Martin adds that while it may be challenging to workout during peak hours, there are “quieter times throughout the day and over the weekends”. But that begs the question: why are those times ‘quiet’? The answer is straightforward. Students tend to have similarly timed academic obligations during the day and extracurricular commitments during the weekend. It would be impossible –– and unjust –– to ask that students sacrifice academic and personal responsibilities to use a facility they have paid to have access during all of its opening hours.

Students already pay a small fortune (easily the equivalent of a week’s groceries) to access the Saint Gym. And while membership fees are reinvested into the Sports Centre, many other universities include gym access in tuition fees. “I have had friends come [that] are in disbelief with how much we as students pay for our university gym”, says Ryan Dunlap, a third-year Saints Men’s Basketball player.

As Dunlap rightly adds, if the university is going to charge for an amenity other institutions offer as a kindness, they better provide it. “If we pay for a membership there should be an expectation to not consistently have to wait for machines or even enter the gym”, he says. “The gym should be a luxury and not a burden”.

Dunlap’s insight is amplified by how students often use the gym: as a mental health outlet. Students say they work out to soothe stress, save sanity, and soften the severity of scholarly life. “The one place you just want to be at peace is at the gym”, says Olivia Durie-mains, a third-year member of the Blue Angels competitive dance team, “Unfortunately, this is [impossible] given [its] size”.

But when student anxieties are highest –– like during exam week –– second-year Saints Men’s Basketball player Thomas Bolen says that the gym is at its busiest and most inaccessible. “Whether they are athletes or just students, the university's members can't get a proper workout in”, Bolen says.

Students proposed several solutions to remedy the gym injustice. Some suggested that the gym remain open twenty-four-seven, while others proposed that the performance centre be made more accessible and community memberships be limited.

Every student agreed on one thing: the gym needs to be bigger.

Martin says that expanding the gym would involve “a large investment, planning and construction” that the Sports Centre believes is “not necessary at this time”. But to provide the product it promises to university members –– let alone members of the wider St Andrews community –– that is exactly what is necessary at this time.

One student suggests repurposing a few tennis courts with gym equipment. Perhaps that is an idea. Lacking architectural acumen, this article cannot articulate what an expansion of the Saints Gym should entail. It has, however, identified that it is demanded.

The broadest and most blatant blunders call for bold solutions –– not bags of band-aids. The gym injustice stains the reputation of a university that prides itself on being consistently ranked among –– or at the top –– of its cohort in the UK. If its members are “Ever to Excel”, as its Homeric motto provides they must, the university cannot bear to watch its students bide time in pursuit of self-betterment a minute longer. Enough of Trojan horses and Odyssean wit. The gym injustice has persisted long enough. A Herculean overhaul is necessary.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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1 Comment

Apr 06, 2023

Hi, Charles,

I have read your article about the Gym; as a daily user of the gym since I came here sixteen years ago, I allow myself to say that, curiously, you do not mention the main reason why people have to wait so long for the press benches and other machines: smartphones. Now that smartphones have become something normal, unfortunately it is also normal to see somebody just sitting on the bench texting for ten minutes, then they make an exercise that takes them maybe 30 seconds, and then ten minutes more just sitting there texting without doing any exercise until the next real exercise, just 30 seconds, and then ten minutes more texting... There are notes around asking…

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