SUNY Oswego’s free fitness centers aid mental health issues

OSWEGO, N.Y. – SUNY Oswego decided to waive the fitness center membership fee for all students, faculty, and staff after the college fitness centers were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The decision to waive the membership fee came during the spring 2021 semester after a long battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the effects of the decision have carried into the fall of 2022. 

“I’ve been here almost twenty years, and I’ve been trying to get it free for the students,” Brian Wallace, Director of Campus Recreation at SUNY Oswego, said. “And last year was a perfect time.” 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the two fitness centers were closed on SUNY Oswego’s campus. Once the gyms opened in the spring semester of 2020, there were “stringent COVID policies,” Wallace said. 

“We were starting to see a real uptick in some of the mental health challenges across campus,” Wallace said.

“That was really the driving factor,” Wallace said. “We are now looking at fitness as part of a solution to improve mental health. We know research shows that exercise can help with depression, anxiety, and stress management, and it will also help with creating a better community, so students feel like they are engaged in part of campus.” 

Wallace surveyed the SUNY Oswego community and asked, “why do you use the fitness center?” 

“Mental health is probably the number one answer,” Wallace said. “They are using that as a tool.”

The number of poor mental health days drops by 40 percent among people who exercise, according to UCLA Health. The brain functions differently when exercising, which helps decrease depression and anxiety.  

“We saw more people last spring,” said Wallace. “We were expecting that.” 

Brian Wallace expected that there would be a rise in students using the on-campus fitness centers. However, with the facilities being free of charge, it left the door open for students to test out the facilities without commitment. 

“What we saw were more individual, unique users come in. Someone that might have tried it two or three times,” Wallace said. “Which that wouldn’t have happened before because they didn’t have the ability to do it.” 

Student employees at SUNY Oswego campus centers strive for students to have an open and free environment to work out. The on-campus fitness centers offer many different opportunities for students to get personal training. 

“It definitely makes it less intimidating because obviously, we welcome all levels. You don’t have to be a powerlifter to be here,” Leigh McMahon, SUNY Oswego student and fitness center employee, said. “It’s just a more welcoming environment, the instructors, the staff, we’re all very welcoming, to begin with, and we make an emphasis on being present, making everyone feel comfortable, asking questions, and offer suggestions, and overall be a friendly support system.”

“There’s something about that where you have a trainer that’s a fellow student who kind of understands the student experience,” said Wallace. “Which is drastically different than what you’re going to find buying personal training packages.” 

After the fitness centers faced a tough challenge coming off of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring semester of 2021, students are finally starting to return to working out on-campus with little to no restrictions. 

“With COVID, everyone was sort of at a standstill. I worked here last semester, in the spring, when everything was just opening up, and it wasn’t as busy as it is now,” said McMahon. “We’re kind of adjusting back fully. I think it’s definitely become like, oh crap, I can go work out again, and I don’t have to be scared.”

During the period when the on-campus fitness centers were closed, many students decided to look for other options off-campus. 

“I chose to work out at the YMCA over campus gyms for a multitude of reasons. The first and biggest factor being the inclusion of a boxing gym,” Tony Russo, a SUNY Oswego student, said. “I also enjoy the wide range of equipment provided at the YMCA along with the less crowded atmosphere.” 

When gyms became free, it tempted some students to return to using on-campus fitness centers. However, the new wave of students flooding the facilities left the gyms packed during peak hours of the day.

“After gyms on campus became free; I did consider using those facilities,” Russo said. “But I was somewhat annoyed at how crowded it would get at certain points during the day, making it hard for me to get the workout I wanted.”