For many WSU Pullman community members, working out at a campus recreation center is an essential part of daily life. So when COVID-19 forced gyms and fitness facilities to temporarily close last March, the loss was felt acutely among students, faculty, and staff alike.

Recognizing the importance of fitness to the campus community, University Recreation staff got to work on making campus recreation COVID safe.

Staff began offering free online classes within a week of facilities closing so community members could exercise from their own homes. They familiarized themselves with state and campus COVID protocols. And they spent several weeks moving equipment, installing sanitizing and temperature check stations, installing signage on mask-wearing policies, and developing an online reservation system to accommodate new facility capacity limits.

That hard work has paid off. Since facilities re-opened in July, no COVID cases have been transmitted at any UREC facilities, or through intramurals or sport clubs. UREC Programming Director Joanne Greene attributes the zero-transmission rate to UREC’s COVID safety protocols, which she said patrons are closely following because they’re excited to use UREC facilities again.

“Our patrons have told us when they come in that they’re just really happy to be able to be around other humans, even though they’re socially distant,” she said.

Turning the dial

UREC has opened up new activities and exercise areas as COVID regulations allow. Currently, patrons can use the cardio and weightlifting areas, lap and leisure pools, racquetball and basketball courts, climbing wall, pickleball and volleyball courts, meditation rooms, and napping pods. Reservations are required for all spaces at the Student Recreation Center and the Chinook Student Center.

Two students wearing masks and being socially distant in pool.
Students enjoy some COVID-safe relaxation in the hot tub at the Student Recreation Center.

With the increase in available fitness spaces and activities, facility use has been steadily increasing over the recent months. This semester, the SRC and Chinook are averaging over 1,000 and 450 users per day, respectively. That’s down from the 2,800 and 2,300 users per day they would see in a typical semester, but Greene said both facilities regularly hit capacity (currently 25 percent of normal levels), and she expects that will continue as capacity limits are increased in new phases of the state’s reopening schedule.

UREC has also been dialing up Outdoor Recreation Center, intramural, and sport club offerings, starting with lower-risk activities. Currently, over 300 teams and almost 600 individuals have registered for intramural activities such as table tennis and four-on-four flag football, and 13 sport clubs are practicing and competing.

Greene expects more intramurals and sport clubs to open up this spring, although tournaments are still prohibited and travel is limited.

Benefits beyond physical health

For many UREC patrons, exercising isn’t simply a way to maintain physical health – it’s a necessary component of their overall well-being.

Student wearing a mask and using the rock wall.
Masks and reservations are required for all recreation spaces, including the climbing wall.

“Research shows that physical activity can help memory retention, can help academic performance, can improve test scores,” said Ramon Sodano, UREC fitness services and education coordinator. “It’s also a social atmosphere where people can make friends. A lot of people use exercise to clear their brains and feel better.”

Greene and Sodano both said they’re looking forward to creating more opportunities for recreation – and connection – in the coming months. UREC will have programming throughout the summer, Greene said, and will post fall class information by June 1.

“It’s nice that we’re able to turn this dial a little more in a positive direction,” Sodano said. “The goal is for everyone to stay smart so we can continue on this trajectory.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a WSU Insider series spotlighting the careful, phased re-opening of WSU’s residential campus in Pullman as it prepares for the return to in-person instruction.