Updated November 22, 2022

Today's state-of-the-art student recreation centers make college gyms of old seem almost unrecognizable. The top university fitness centers compete on a level with the finest private clubs in the nation. In addition to devoting substantial space to aerobic equipment, weight machines, and free weights, the best modern university gyms also incorporate elements such as rock ...

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Today's state-of-the-art student recreation centers make college gyms of old seem almost unrecognizable. The top university fitness centers compete on a level with the finest private clubs in the nation. In addition to devoting substantial space to aerobic equipment, weight machines, and free weights, the best modern university gyms also incorporate elements such as rock climbing, bouldering, sand volleyball, indoor tracks, whirlpools, saunas, golf simulators, Pilates and martial arts studios, and more.

From aesthetic and environmental standpoints, they also excel. Many of the rec centers we evaluated are winners of multiple significant design awards. A large number of them were also developed with environmental and efficiency standards in mind, and consequently received LEED ratings from the USGBC.

Modern student recreation centers add value to an education on a variety of levels. Students have access to more diverse opportunities for physical fitness and recreation. Aesthetically, these facilities enhance the appearance and appeal of a university campus. They help improve students' health and well-being and the quality of campus life overall.

Because of the increasingly important role these facilities play in university life, our editors sought to understand the trend more deeply and invested several weeks researching the ultimate student recreation and campus fitness centers. In doing so, they consulted university websites, local and regional news sources, and portfolios of architecture, project management and construction firms, and specialty vendors. They were looking for facilities that offered both outstanding opportunities for physical recreation and also exceptional attention to design detail and aesthetics. They were especially interested in projects that emphasized operating efficiencies and sustainability - in particular, those with a U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating. (For information about these ratings, see USGBC.org.) For purposes of this article, only projects completed within the past ten years (2003 or later) were considered.

Rating and Ranking Methodology

In evaluating each facility, the editors awarded points as follows. It's not a perfect system, but it gives you a sense of our editors' priorities with respect to this particular research.

LEED Rating

  • 3 points - LEED Platinum rating
  • 2 points - LEED Gold rating
  • 1 point - LEED Silver rating

Design Awards

  • 2 points - Major (national or international) design award
  • 1 point - Regional or local design award

Additional Criteria

  • 1 point - Sports/fitness specific award
  • 1 point - 8 sq. ft or more per student in the new and/or renovated space (Student enrollment figures were taken from Wikipedia.org.)
  • 1 point - "Wow" factor - amenities beyond traditional fitness facilities, such as rock climbing walls.

Best College Gyms and Recreational Centers

After reviewing these and dozens more exceptional candidates, we believe that the twenty represented in this list are the best of the best - the standard by which other student recreation facilities will be judged for years to come. We order them here by number of points awarded in our point system (least to greatest). In the event of a tie, we ordered the facilities alphabetically by university name.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Edinburg, TX
Montclair State University Montclair, NJ
University of Missouri - Columbia Columbia, MO
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay Green Bay, WI
California State University, Fullerton Fullerton, CA
Eastern Washington University Cheney, WA
Rice University Houston, TX
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Colorado Springs, CO
Drexel University Philadelphia, PA

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  • The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

    Edinburg, TX

    In 2009, when it won the NIRSA Outstanding Sports Facilities Award, The University of Texas - Pan American Wellness & Recreational Sports Facility boasted the highest indoor climbing wall in the state (35′), along with a juice bar, indoor soccer facility, lap pool, lazy river, and indoor track. Today, the center is also home to dance fitness and Salsa dancing lessons, among a variety of other fitness and recreational programs.

    Total points: 2

    • Sports-specific award: 1
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (rock wall and more)

    Architect: F & S Architects
    Cost: $26 million
    Students: 20,045
    Size: 88,230 sq. ft (4.4 sq. ft. per student)
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • National Intramural Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA): Outstanding Sports Facilities Award (2009)
  • Montclair State University

    Montclair, NJ

    This winner of national and regional awards incorporates a jogging/walking track, racquetball courts, a six-lane pool, and a juice bar. The nearly $23 million, 78,800 sq. ft project was completed in 2008.

    Total points: 3

    • Major design award: 2
    • Regional or local design award: 1

    Architect: RDG Planning & Design
    Cost: $21.9 million
    Enrollment: 13,500
    Size: 78,000 sq. ft (5.8 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2008
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • Innovative Architecture and Design Award: Recreation Management
    • Excellence in Design Award: New Jersey Recreation & Park Association (2009)
  • University of Missouri - Columbia

    Columbia, MO

    This massive 293,000 square foot project was completed in 2005 at a cost of close to $40 million. The indoor beach club features whirlpools, waterfalls, and a lazy river complete with waiters who serve wraps and protein shakes. It helped propel the university to a place on Shape Magazine's coolest clubs in America 2013, Fitbie's 20 Fittest Colleges, and theactivetimes.com 50 Fittest Colleges.

    Total points: 3

    • Sports specific award: 1
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (rock climbing tower)
    • 8+ sq ft/ student: 1

    Architect: Hastings & Chivetta Architects Inc.; St. Louis, Mo.
    Aquatic Design Engineer: Counsilman Hunsaker - St. Louis, Mo.
    Enrollment: 34,616
    Square Feet: 293,000 (8.46 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2005
    Cost: $38.9 million
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • Shape Magazine Award

    Other honors:

    • Fitbie 20 Fittest Colleges in America
    • #26 among The 50 Fittest Colleges (theactivetimes.com)
  • University of Pennsylvania

    Philadelphia, PA

    Completed in 2003, this $21 million project expanded an aging campus gym, ultimately encompassing 120,000 square feet and incorporating 4 fitness centers, olympic-size pool and co-ed sauna, climbing wall, golf simulator, Pilates studios, and more. That same year, it won the "Addition to Existing Structure" award from Buildings.com.

    Total points: 3

    • Major design award: 2
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (climbing wall)

    Architect: Richard Dattner & Partners Architects PC
    Cost: $21 million
    Enrollment: 21,329
    Size: 120,000 sq. ft (5.6 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2003
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • Addition to Existing Structure Winner: Buildings.com (2003)
  • University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

    Green Bay, WI

    Of all the facilities in our list, the Kress Events Center is the most generous in terms of square footage per student, at 26 square feet per student. The $28.5 million project incorporates a suspended running track, a climbing wall, and a pool.

    Total points: 3

    • Regional or local design award: 1
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (climbing wall)
    • 8+ sq. ft per student: 1

    Associate Architect: Moody-Nolan Inc.
    Architect of Record: Venture Architects Inc. (a joint venture of Kahler Slater and Zimmerman Architectural Studios)
    Cost: $28.5 million
    Enrollment: 6,665
    Square Feet: 175,000 (26 sq. ft. per student)
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • Innovation in Architecture and Design Award - Recreation Management magazine
  • California State University, Fullerton

    Fullerton, CA

    Cal State Fullerton's award-winning Student Recreation Center boasts exceptional fitness facilities including a climbing wall, jogging track, multimedia cardio rooms, and outdoor pool. Even more impressive is its status as a LEED Gold facility, which can translate to reduced carbon footprint and lower cost of operation.

    Total points: 4

    • LEED Gold: 2
    • Regional or local design award: 1
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (climbing wall)

    Architect: Langdon Wilson
    Cost: $41M
    Enrollment: 38,325
    Square Feet: 95,000 (2.5 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2008
    LEED Certification: Gold


    • "Best Overall Sustainable Design" - University of California/California State University Energy Efficiency Partnership Program
  • Eastern Washington University

    Cheney, WA

    Completed in 2008, this LEED Gold facility is a climber's dream. It features an indoor climbing wall with 11 routes, including one that simulates ice climbing. A 17,000 sq. ft fitness center and 2-lane 200 meter running track round out the offering.

    Total points: 4

    • LEED Gold: 2
    • "Wow" factor (ice climbing): 1
    • 8+ sq ft per student: 1

    Architect: Sink Combs Dethlefs
    Cost: $26.3 million
    Enrollment: 12,130
    Square Feet: 117,699 (9.7 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2008
    LEED Certification: Gold

  • Rice University

    Houston, TX

    This two-story SmithGroup/F&S designed facility earned LEED Silver certification and also won two sports and fitness awards, including "Outstanding Sports Facilities" from National Intramural Sports Association (NIRSA) and "Facilities of Merit" from Athletic Business Magazine. It features racquetball and squash courts along with a 50-meter outdoor competition pool and 2,500 sq. ft outdoor recreation pool.

    Total points: 4

    • LEED Silver: 1
    • Sports/fitness specific award: 2 (1+1)
    • 8+ sq. ft. per student: 1

    Architect: SmithGroup/F&S
    Cost: $32.6 million
    Enrollment: 5,008
    Square Feet: 103,000 (20.6 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2009
    LEED Certification: Silver


    • ‘Outstanding Sports Facilities' Award National Intramural Sports Association (NIRSA) (2011)
    • ‘Facilities of Merit' Award Athletic Business magazine (2011)
  • University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

    Colorado Springs, CO

    Highlights of this LEED Gold rated facility, completed in 2005, include an indoor track, 12′ bouldering wall, multipurpose studio, and an aquatic center with 25-yard lap lanes, leisure area with vortex pool, and spa/hot tub. It's also home base for the Student Outdoor Leadership (S.O.L.E.) Center, which features outdoor trips and equipment rentals.

    Total points: 4

    • LEED Gold: 2
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (bouldering wall)
    • >8+ sq. ft. per student: 1

    Cost: $22.7 million
    Enrollment: 9,798
    Square feet: 118,000 (12 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2015
    LEED Certification: Gold

  • Drexel University

    Philadelphia, PA

    Completed in 2010, this award-winning facility incorporates a multipurpose gym, jogging track, squash courts, climbing room, and group exercise rooms. The $40.2 million project won the NIRSA outstanding sports facility award, a General Building Contractors Association award, and a Facility of Merit Award from Athletic Business Magazine.

    Total points: 5

    • Major design award: 2
    • Sports specific award: 2
    • "Wow" factor: 1 (climbing room)

    Architect: Sasaki; EwingCole
    Cost: $40.2 million
    Enrollment: 25,500
    Square Feet: 85,900 (3.4 sq. ft. per student)
    Completed: 2010
    LEED Certification: n/a


    • Outstanding Sports Facility Award, National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association
    • Best Institutional Project Over $15 million, Construction Excellence Awards, General Building Contractors Association
    • Facility of Merit Award, Athletic Business Magazine

See also: Top 10 Cheap Online Sports Management Degree Programs (Bachelor's) 2014

Additional Sources:

https://www.counsilmanhunsaker.com/projects/colorado-state-university/ https://www.utsa.edu/Sombrilla/summer2009/story/loop/rec_center_receives_award.html

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