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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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UW seeks to upgrade aging, crowded fitness facilities
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An artist's rendering of an indoor athletic field at the recreational facility proposed for the site of UW's Natatorium.
Credit:NatUp 2010

Over the last decade, we've redefined what it means to be healthy. No longer does sitting on the couch eating bags of 100-calorie snack packs and watching marathons of The Biggest Loser count as being health conscious. Frequent exercise and physical activity have become a necessity for many Madison residents, especially college students. But are UW-Madison's recreational facilities able to accommodate an increasingly active student population?

According to John Horn, director of recreational programs and facilities at UW, the answer is a definitive "no." Horn says UW's fitness facilities are not only aging eyesores, but more importantly, they are simply too small to accommodate Madison's fitness-savvy students.

"Exercise is no longer just curling dumb bells and lifting weights every few days," says Horn. "Daily exercise, which includes weight training and cardio… has become part of what it means to be a well-rounded student and our facilities just aren't big enough."

Since 2000, the recreational facilities at UW have seen a massive increase in student usage. In 2009, UW's gyms and fitness facilities had over 537,000 more uses than in 2000. According to the Recreational Department's statistics, nearly 82% of the student body regularly uses the Southeast Recreational Facility (SERF), Natatorium (NAT) or Camp Randall Shell. This equation often results in packed weight rooms and long lines at the treadmills during peak hours.

According to guidelines set by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, universities should have one square foot of space dedicated solely to fitness and recreation for every student. With only about 22,000 square feet of fitness space, and over 42,000 students plus an additional 16,000 faculty and staff, UW-Madison's fitness amenities are well below national standards. In fact, Madison has one of the worst fitness space-to-student ratios in the UW school system-in particular, the facilities at UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh put Madison's to shame.

The NAT and the SERF, built in 1964 and 1983 respectively, are the only recreational facilities available to students in nearly ten months out of the year. Sure there are outdoor fields, but when winter sinks its teeth into Madison, those become unusable, and perhaps even more so when the rainy days of spring arrive.

"We've got our challenges here," says Horn. "Our demand for gym space is increasing and it would be irresponsible to not at least research [renovating our gyms]." And research they have.

The proposed plan to renovate UW's aging, asbestos-ridden Natatorium is called NatUp 2010. The NAT renovations would add 250,000 square feet of pure, unadulterated fitness space and would give Madison a 21st century, eco-friendly, "shining beacon of fitness," as Horn describes it.

Under the proposed plan, students would be expected to foot the bill, paying an additional $108 per year in tuition, beginning in 2013 and spreading over thirty years. While most students will agree there needs to be upgrades made to UW's recreational facilities, the hefty price tag and inconvenient location of the NAT has them questioning if this is the answer to UW's fitness funk.

"While I don't see tuition getting any cheaper, it does seem like a lot of money," says UW senior Michael Rogers. "Plus, the NAT is pretty far and difficult to get to for students living downtown. Even if they rebuilt the NAT, I'd still probably go to the SERF just because I don't want to take the bus just to work out."

Horn says the Recreational Department is aware of the student body's preference for the SERF. However, rebuilding the SERF is not a possibility due to heavy-duty power lines running underground both in front, and behind, the SERF.

"Although the SERF seems to be in a better location, I would be very receptive to the renovation and development of a new rec facility," says UW senior Zack Gleitman. "I've been to the NAT a couple times and that place is like a dungeon. It's even worse than the SERF, which should say a lot."

Ultimately, the decision to rebuild the NAT lays in the hands of students and faculty. The NatUp renovations will be up for vote on April 12.

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