Connectivity, Outdoor Spaces Bolster Student Housing Fitness Centers

by Katie Sloan

Health and wellness remain as important as ever to students. It’s simply part of who Gen Z is. They take care of their minds, bodies and the environment. 

Student housing operators know this, which is why they continue to emphasize fitness spaces.

“Amenities, location, safety and accessibility are all a large part of what draws in students and their parents to a select property,” says Michael Kenny, segment manager of multi-unit housing, corporate and wellness for Life Fitness, a commercial fitness equipment manufacturer and seller. “Within the amenity offerings, fitness continues to be at the top of the list for future renters as health and wellness are center stage with the modern student.”

Fitness Trends Today

Kenny notes that a variety of cardiovascular offerings, a well-thought-out strength area and functional training — exercises that include movements from daily life — are the types of workouts in demand today. What’s out of style is single-function equipment. 

“Gone are the days of a fitness space being filled wall to wall with one-trick machines,” Kenny continues. “Students desire a blended approach of cardio, free weights, cable movements, and functional training apparatuses and accessories.”

Jason Balzer, director of national accounts at Matrix Fitness, an equipment provider for fitness facilities,  sees functional training zones gaining popularity, even over traditional cardio modalities. Newly opened Identity Eugene, which serves students at the University of Oregon, included a TRX Open Flex Area in its fitness offerings. Completed in 2021, the Standard Austin also offers a dedicated, multi-purpose space for yoga, TRX workouts and Isawall, a workout system that attaches to the wall.

Systems like Isawall will likely remain in favor, notes Dean Bowrosen, sales director at True Fitness, which provides premium fitness equipment, service and support. 

“We are continuing to see functional training gaining momentum with cable-based functional trainers leading the way,” he says. “Trainers are being very creative and are looking for products that can train different body parts and movement patterns.”

In a similar fashion, Kyle Dean, director of sales at FITNESSMITH, has seen an uptick in demand for treadmills, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) pieces, connected bikes and climbers.

“Ellipticals and traditional bikes are beginning to fall out of favor as ‘must haves,’” he says.

He also sees an emphasis on strength training.

“Strength selections that are heavily geared toward plate-loaded equipment, half-racks, barbells, benches and dumbbells,” Dean adds. 

In terms of the larger spaces, Kenny notes that many student housing operators are installing additional rooms that really drive home the wellness portion of the health and wellness trend.

“More and more developers are adding secondary rooms, such as yoga rooms, group exercise rooms, hydro, and various other perks, such as meditation lounges, hydrotherapy and IR (infrared) saunas,” he says. “The more amenities a property can offer that include some level of holistic well-being, the better.”

Balzer, who worked with Identity Eugene and the Standard Austin on their secondary rooms, adds that while student housing operators may view these additions as extra costs, many students assume they’ll be part of the fitness package. At least at higher-end communities. 

“To truly engage with the students it’s important to view the fitness center as a holistic space of wellness,” adds Balzer. 

Tech Takes On Fitness

Students also assume their gyms will have high-tech equipment that will sync, engage and assist them. 

“One of our new favorite trends is the incorporation of technology in strength training,” Dean says. “We are adding new strength options into our design plans that provide visual body mapping. Users can correct their alignment and form with simple adjustments while working out. The feedback enables everyone to have a safe and efficient workout.”

Other new options include equipment with digital weights, resistance, and fully customizable workouts for every fitness level. Dean is also a fan of tech-savvy cardio equipment that comes with immersive experiences, live and on-demand classes, and seamless access to students’ favorite apps through the console itself or by mirroring their personal devices.

Kenny believes these tech trends will continue post-pandemic in student fitness spaces. In fact, he believes we’ve only just begun to see what can happen when workout equipment gets “smart.”

“While digital engagement became a white-hot need throughout the pandemic, I feel that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what digital can truly offer,” he says. “We can expect to see new unique physical products or advancements to hardware that have been around for years. For example, re-thinking the average treadmill or new movement patterns on ellipticals. More companies are designing ‘up’ to create true luxury fitness products that fit and feel different than anything previously seen in this space.”

Bowrosen believes this smart technology will play into the multi-purpose trend as well. Say, for example, elliptical machines that can adjust the stride length to the rider’s height or preference. As much as technology can help improve a student’s workout or experience, Balzer thinks its biggest asset is keeping people connected — whether they’re doing the same workout, in the same gym or in two different places altogether.

“Connectivity to content and community — in and outside of their room or gym — is where technology continues to lead,” he says. “Trends that connect students to their favorite content and each other will stay [past the pandemic].”

Dean, meanwhile, sees the vast array of workouts and motivational content as one of tech’s top contributions to students’ workout facilities. 

“One positive trend that continues since COVID is the creation of content,” he adds. “Rich, dynamic fitness content is better than ever.”

Working Out Outdoors 

Ironically, equipment that requires no electricity at all is also at a premium nowadays, Kenny states. 

“Another element to successful secondary spaces is the utilization of non-powered equipment, such as self-powered treadmills, air bikes or push/pull sleds,” he notes. “Self-powered units provide students with a performance-based experience with the ultimate flexibility of location.”

Location is, indeed, another perk of these manual apparatuses. 

“Given that this equipment does not require electrical outlets, student exercisers can now train outdoors,” Kenny continues. “Both outdoor and secondary rooms add to the overall fitness space and are seen as a continuation of where fitness can take place, especially for those students who want various settings for exercise.”

It’s not just “fitness” moving outside, but the concept of wellness as a whole, Balzer says. 

“We are seeing a trend in offering outdoor wellness spaces, as research has shown the benefits of time spent outdoors,” he adds. “Being outdoors also benefits mental health and overall wellness.”

HERE Atlanta, which serves Georgia Tech, has an outdoor yoga zone, in addition to hammocks and an herb garden. Dean adds that while outdoor spaces are important, the versatility of the space should not be overlooked. 

“Flexible outdoor space is a must,” he says. “This includes turf areas and may range from including simple, outdoor, powder-coated dumbbells and kettlebells to expansive outdoor rigs and functional structures, tires and tanks. The possibilities are endless.”

Part of offering flexibility is maximizing the use of a space, whether indoors or outdoors. The other important element of this diversity is ensuring there is something for everyone. 

“Fitness can — and should be — done inside and outside,” Balzer says. “It’s important to be able to offer a fitness amenity where students can reach their fitness goals wherever they are.”

And “wherever they are” includes where they are on their fitness journey. 

“Outdoor extensions cater to the vast demand for fitness with the student population,” Dean adds. “Which means equipment for the novice needs to be included. However these fitness amenity spaces are now heavier on technology, functional movement, free weight and plate-loaded strength.”

Dedicated spaces, outdoor workout environments and diverse, multi-functional, tech-supported equipment are all great strategies to create a coveted fitness amenity for students. Those who need a little more advice on what residents want should look toward the university’s offerings to see what they’re lacking, Kenny advises.

“The most important element of student housing fitness spaces is having a space that is on par, in terms of quality, as the student recreation center,” he says. “If the student housing property can offer the same quality and robust equipment that they would see at the campus rec center, then the perceived value of the property increases and adds convenience.”

That’s the tactic Kenny took when Life Fitness outfitted the fitness center at Canvas, a 263-unit, 826-bed luxury student housing community adjacent to Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. 

“We took the time to understand the needs of the students, as well as the vision of the property,” Kenny says. “The entire facility was set up in a way where the front of the center is highly approachable and non-intimidating, then fuses into cable training and free weights for the more advanced user. The end result is a beautiful fitness amenity space that offers product that’s on par with their campus recreation center.”

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the September/October issue of Student Housing Business magazine.

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