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The Union Apartments are a collection of off campus, recently built, high-rise apartment buildings less than a mile from Franklin street. Within the main building lies a relatively large residential gym. I have attended this gym in the past with a friend who lives there, and I noticed the atmosphere there is very different than gyms I have attended in the past. When I settled upon researching this subculture, I wanted to discover what factors—specifically those caused by the pandemic—push these college students to attend the gym. Eventually, I ventured out to resolve the question: what are the motivations and benefits for residents to use the gym at the Union Apartments?

Background Information:

The four buildings within the Union Apartments are home to hundreds of UNC undergrads. Typically, it is easy to assume college students go to the gym for a simple reason: to look better. I wondered if there were other reasons. In a survey done by the Journal of Exercise Physiology, college students were asked why they work out, stress relief being the third most common response (Ebben & Brudzynksi, 2008, p. 5). When UNC officially announced on-campus housing would be reduced, many had to scramble to even find a place to live. It is hard for me to explain the extent to which a student’s mental health was affected by this uncertainty. College is stressful enough, and this event only added to it. An article from The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry confirmed that routine exercise is not the only thing that improves mental health, social interaction does as well (Sharma & Madaan, 2006, p.2-3). I began my research to see if the gym is an avenue for both of those treatments.

Observational Data and Analysis:

I officially began my first observation on September 29. When I first walked in, I noted my initial impressions of the people there. Three males were gathered around the dumbbell rack, clearly together. Another guy is benching with his headphones in and a hoodie on. A girl is running on the treadmill. She is wearing expensive workout clothes, and an expensive pair of running shoes. The group of guys are all wearing t-shirts with the sleeves cut off and shorter shorts. From the very beginning it was clear the group of guys were not there to simply workout. The three of them choose to stay on one bench and do the workouts one after the other. I noticed that between sets, the men were resting between two-four minutes. During the “rest” time, they are talking, taking pictures, and flexing in the mirror. These college aged white men seem to be more focused on hanging out then actually working out.

The group all have masks and are maintaining distance from others in the gym which implies they respect social distancing guidelines. If they are responsible and have avoided social gatherings, the gym is acting as their means of interacting. The guys are working at a snail’s pace and are clearly in no rush to leave, indicating they are appreciating this rare instance of social interaction. They seem happy, laughing with each other and extruding positivity, strengthening my claim that the gym is able to improve a college student’s mental health in these hard times, through both physical exercise and social interaction.

I came to Union for the second time in the evening of Friday, October 2. Friday night is historically the night to go out in college. It is typically the weekly peak of social interaction. During the pandemic, however, Friday night is a depressing night for many students. I came here today to see if college students would treat the gym as a coping mechanism for the void COVID has caused on their Friday nights. When I first entered the gym, it was completely empty. After an awkwardly long wait, a guy finally walks in. I discussed with him about how residents treat the gym. He goes into detail with me on how it seems half the people are there to strictly workout, while the other half come with groups and seem to not take it as seriously, evidence many gym-goers attend for social interaction. The man nicely informed me he does not have much time and needs to workout, so I was unable to gather any other helpful information.

A group of guys with absolutely zero intention to work out enter the gym. It is four white males dressed in khaki shorts and three are wearing polos. After painstakingly watching them act like fools in the gym, I go up to them to ask what they are doing here. They are seniors currently, and in previous years the group would all meet on Franklin street before partaking in their nighttime plans. Due to the restrictions COVID has put in place, they choose to now meet in the gym and figure out their intentions for the night. I was unable to decipher if they are using the gym to deal with mental health, but it is clear the Union Apartments gym has successfully become a place for them that is hard to find nowadays: a place to socialize.


After my observations were completed, I had enough evidence to answer my research question. Residential students at the Union Apartments gym are motivated to go as an outlet to improve mental health during this pandemic. Residents are socializing and working out, both proven to improve mental health. When looking at the big picture, my initial hypothesis has been proven through this research because college gym-goers want to do more than just better their physique by attending the gym.




Ebben, W, & Brudzynski, L. (2008). Motivations and barriers to exercise among college students. Journal of Exercise Phsiology, 11(5), 1-11.

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.


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