April 4, 2008

Editor Emeritus Bemoans State of Cornell Fitness Centers

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Yes, I go to the Cornell “fitness centers.” A number of my friends drive into Ithaca to “The Island” — a tropical gym paradise as far as I’m concerned, though I’ve never been there — while I remain stuck on “the main land,” in the small, overcrowded, equipment-bare, oft-broken gyms at Cornell.
Envy surges through me: if I had known this back in August when I bought my year-long pass, I would certainly have joined the paradise crew. (I drive to the Cornell gyms anyway, half out of laziness, half out of not wanting to deal with walking home when I’m exhausted). I would certainly be getting better workouts. I would certainly be happier. I would certainly be safer. I would certainly be paying more … but at this point I could care less about that. Hell, it would be worth the extra money.
Actually, the feeling is more like anger, because I see a problem. And it’s not just a whiny, “I want a good gym” problem, it’s a problem of safety, health and well-being. Providing inadequate gyms to the population puts it at significant risk of injury. Not providing proper equipment for physical fitness makes it hard to stay healthy, physically or mentally, especially when Ithaca’s outdoor activities are not an option more often than not.
To begin, there’s a lack of choices of where to work out. Friedman is a first-rate facility, stocked with every piece of equipment you need. I’d work out in Friedman every day if I could … except Friedman is only for athletes. So that leaves the rest of us 12,000-plus mere mortals with two options: join a varsity sport, or use the gyms in Helen Newman, Noyes and Teagle. As far as I know, most people have chosen the latter.
Unfortunately, these other gyms aren’t nearly of the same quality as Friedman. Take a look at the newest gym on campus, in Noyes. Half the room is for cardio machines, which is great, except that the other half is a half-hearted attempt at providing exercise equipment. For example, there are five benches for free weights, and a maximum room capacity of 75 people. (Ever been caught in line waiting for the room to empty? I have.) Even if only 15-of-75 people want to use a bench, that’s still two people waiting per bench, and that’s just not going to cut it. Of course, these people waiting try to “work in” or exercise elsewhere … only to find others having the same problem. There’s simply not enough equipment, but that’s mostly because there’s simply no place to put it.
Especially with Noyes and Helen Newman, when the rooms reach about three-quarters capacity, they become a zoo. Since the equipment is squeezed into tighter space than it was designed to be used in – the rooms are just too small – you are forced to stop working out so people can walk by, or worse, potentially have someone bump into you while you’re working out. This is close to the most unsafe situation I’ve ever seen at a gym, and I avoid the issue entirely by working out when nobody is around as often as possible.
The space issues can be worked around, but the lack of equipment – adequate or otherwise – cannot be, and that’s what scares me the most. Safety is the No. 1 priority with physical fitness. Safety in the gym manifests itself in numerous ways to protect you in the short term and long term, such as properly planned workouts — balancing exercise in/across muscle groups and knowing what weight you can handle — and proper technique. In fact, these may be the two most important aspects of safely lifting weights.
In light of that, I feel that it is incredibly difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, to do either of those things at Cornell’s gyms. This is an injury and health risk, and it is doubly outrageous when you consider the gyms are supposed to prevent injury and promote health.
It starts with the fact that not a single gym around campus has the same set of equipment. If you happen to go to a different gym than normal, you have to adapt to a whole new set of equipment, weights, movements, etc. … everything becomes new. In many cases, some gyms use cables for an exercise and some don’t (lat pulldown at Teagle vs. Noyes, lateral row at Teagle vs. anywhere else), and this unfamiliarity can cause people to hurt themselves in countless ways, from improper technique, to lack of knowledge about a machine’s settings or weight.
The risks are compounded by the fact that the equipment available in each individual gym — outside of Teagle — often doesn’t allow you to create a “balanced” workout. If you were to try to work out your back at Noyes, you would be unable to do it nearly as effectively as you would in Teagle because, by my count, at least 1/4 of the exercises aren’t available in Noyes. You risk overworking one muscle group more than another, or overworking certain parts of a muscle group, and that usually leads to injury.
With such imbalance in equipment between gyms, it becomes necessary to mix and match gyms to fit your muscular needs on any given day. If I want to work out my shoulders and traps, I know the best place to go is Noyes. If I want to work out my back, I’m definitely going to Teagle. Chest? Teagle or Helen Newman. Given the familiarity problems that often occur in switching gyms, this option is not a favorable one, but it is basically necessary.
And then there’s this other problem: for many of the machines, there’s no way to know how much weight you’re using! That’s because, with rare exception, each machine has its own numbering system that doesn’t correspond directly to a weight. One through 12? 15? 20? What does that mean? How much weight are you actually lifting?
Even if two machines have the same set of numbers, the numbers don’t necessarily represent the same amount of weight. So, weight setting 11 out of 15 on one machine might not equal setting 11 out of 15 on another, or 11 of 20 on a third. And if you’re in the middle of your workout, let alone on your final set, you’re probably not in good condition to guess how heavy a weight is based on lifting it, because you’re just too tired.
Combine this weight problem with the need to constantly shift gyms and use new equipment, and you realize just how massive an injury risk there is. I once asked a CFC Staff member what the numbers corresponded to in pounds, after it took me a month to figure out what number was right for me on each machine around campus. The answer I got from the fitness staff was “uhhhh …”
That’s correct: nobody knew. A week later, I asked again, and got the same response. And the scary thing is, nobody else had asked before. That tells me people don’t know any better and/or they’re just doing guesswork on the weights – as I did – both of which involve people putting themselves at long-term and/or short-term risk.
There is one unifying thing about the Cornell gyms though, and that is the range of free weights. I’m a big proponent of free weights. Of course, you can’t actually get a balanced workout in exercising strictly with free weights, that’s why you need good machines and other equipment. So, that’s not very helpful.
And now, I’m going to throw a wrench into this mess … literally, because it’s also common to find equipment broken, with a big red sign on white paper that warns people to stay away. It means there’s even less equipment to work with, and to make matter worse, repairs usually take awhile. I’m not talking hours or days, I’m talking about weeks. It took Cornell Fitness Centers a month to get a simple adjustable cable machine fixed in Noyes. Given that people probably aren’t rotating gyms, they’re just being put at even greater risk of injury by this delay.
Finally, let’s not forget the gyms are a part of the wellness and mental health programs. If we don’t have adequate gyms, with adequate space, it has an impact on people. If people are discouraged from going to the gym, it’s not going to help mental health. If people get injured at the gym – and I have no numbers about injuries, of course – it’s certainly going to stick with them.
Forget the fact that a number of the mini-lockers for valuables don’t have keys with working clothespins so you won’t lose them, or that there often aren’t enough cubbies, forcing people to leave valuables/clothes/etc. lying around or just in the way at the gym (don’t trip!). My friends at schools around the country often talk about the expansive weight rooms, all over campus, that their universities have. My brother, a freshman at University of Wisconsin, brags about the awesome gyms regularly. (I have seen one, firsthand, and I was awestruck.) I have also seen or been told of many of our Ivy peer institutions’ gyms, and let me tell you, we are not exactly leading the pack in that department.
Sure, we might need all the money we can get right now for other, significantly more important things than gyms on campus. But if you’re going to do something, at least do it right. Don’t provide inadequate facilities or equipment, putting students at risk or making their lives difficult. I hope the new Helen Newman will be a positive step instead of adding to this problem.