Green Up Your Fitness

by Alexandra Williams, MA on Jul 07, 2009

There are many things owners, managers, trainers and instructors can do to make the fitness world more sustainable.

Fitness professionals are already leaders in promoting health for the body and mind. Now, with the increased worldwide emphasis on sustainability and “green” practices, it is time for us to show our leadership skills in promoting practices that increase the health of our environment. The two causes are not unrelated, for just as a healthy mind is linked to a healthy body, so the health of the world is inextricably linked to each of us. Or, as naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) put it, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

In their book Fighting Globesity: A Practical Guide to Personal Health and Global Sustainability (Random House 2007), Phillip Mills and Jackie Mills, MD, of Auckland, New Zealand, the pioneers behind Les Mills International, see a direct line between exercise and the environment. “If we can start to win the battle against obesity and inactive ageing, then many of the trillions of dollars spent on chronic illness can be diverted to more important endeavours like protecting rainforests and subsidizing sustainable energy programmes.” In other words, by simply getting people to move, we are having a positive environmental impact.

Beyond that, there is much more we can do, from large-scale projects to seemingly small personal choices. No matter what your role in the fitness industry, there are ways to create, demonstrate, practice and promote a more ecofriendly lifestyle.

From the Ground Up

If you are lucky enough to be able to build your own facility, you might want to follow the example set by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), when it expanded the Recreation Center. “By adding 816 solar panels, we now generate 70% of our electrical needs from the power of the sun,” says Gary Jurich, assistant director in the departments of recreation and of exercise and sport studies, and the person who headed up the project. “We also achieved a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Existing Building (LEED-EB®) Silver award for reducing trash by 80% and increasing recycling. Reductions in water usage and air quality improvements were also implemented. We anticipate a savings of $80,000–$100,000 in electrical usage every year.”

Because the university has an awareness campaign underway as well, students are informed users and can even track the center’s real-time energy usage on a website that shows electrical demand, solar generation and weather information.

With UCSB’s facility being the first university recreation complex to go through the LEED-EB process and so far the only recreation center in the United States to achieve the silver certification, Jurich is now being approached by other universities that wish to emulate UCSB’s success.

When Premier Fitness added to its chain of clubs in Ontario, the 6,000-square-foot aquatics room was designed to be both green and a showcase. Rather than installing an inefficient conventional heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system with high operational costs, John Cardillo, chief executive officer of the Mississauga-based company, authorized the installation of heat-recovering dehumidifiers to maintain a 50% relative humidity while simultaneously maintaining the air and pool water at temperatures in the low 80s (~28 degrees Celsius) in the aquatics area. “Chasing all the heat and moisture to the outside is not only costly; it’s environmentally irresponsible and against our corporate green policy,” Cardillo emphasizes. Premier expects to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs after the estimated 3-year payback period.

In São Paulo, Brazil, brothers Antonio and Eduardo Gandra had a dream of creating an “ecologically correct” gym. Echoing the sentiments of Phillip and Jackie Mills, the Gandras see a vital relationship between fitness and ecology and have designed their Ecofit Club from that perspective. The gym was constructed with recycled materials and certified wood from reforested areas, is illuminated by natural lighting, operates on captured rain water and solar energy systems, and has pool water treated with ozone, which the Gandras feel is less toxic than chlorine. They also offer only organic food in the club restaurant and have systems in place for collecting garbage, batteries, kitchen oil and recyclables.

In 2000, the Architectural League of New York assembled an exhibition—Ten Shades of Green—in which the curator, Peter Buchanan, put forth 10 key issues that need to be considered to create a fully green building. He names them “low energy/high performance; replenishable sources; recycling; embodied energy; long life/loose fit; total life cycle costing; embedded in place; access and urban context; health and happiness; and community and connection.” Buchanan believes that these 10 items represent “a whole nexus of interrelated issues, the social, cultural, psychological and economic dimensions of which are as important as the technological and ecological.” Are you now ready to create your own visionary building?

What Goes Inside

In choosing items from flooring to shampoo, cleaning products to cycling equipment, towels to toilets, and recycled rubber to automatic liquid dispensers, there are numerous ways to go green in your facility. Even when you don’t own the building, there is a lot you can do inside.

Look at Details. Greg Lappin, general manager of Rochester Athletic Club in Minnesota, has used his position to make some positive changes. “By switching from indirect to direct lighting in our fitness room, we expect to save enough in electricity and rebate programs to make the cost hardly anything. We installed a water softener for the steam units, which led to a clubwide decrease in our use of salt. We’ve also done some more obvious, easier things—we went paperless for our group exercise schedules and employee newsletter, we’ve put recycle bins all around the club and we only print e-mails on an as-needed basis.”

Use Human Power. If you have influence in equipment purchases, consider following in the “powerful” footsteps of The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon. One of this facility’s 15 ways of being green (listed on www.thegreenmicrogym.com) is using human pedal power on the stationary cycling equipment to generate about 100 watts of electricity (while burning about 400 calories per hour).

One company that provides the technology for converting human effort on cardio machines into energy is The Green Revolution in Ridgefield, Connecticut. With bikes already installed at the Ridgefield Fitness Club and at Kinetic Cycling Los Angeles, and many more locations planned for 2009, the company expects to add elliptical and rowing machines to its product line in the near future, according to Mike Curnyn, chief strategy and marketing officer. “We celebrate the concept of ‘Healthy Body Healthy Planet,’” states Curnyn.

Redefine Efficiency. As a green alternative to adjusting the thermostat, thermal curtains and window treatments will improve the efficiency of the cooling and heating systems, keeping warmth in or out, depending on the season. Another smart product is milk paint, which is both chemically safe and aesthetically appealing. The YWCA Health + Fitness Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia, put in a rooftop garden and donates the produce to a local charity, while the New York Sports Clubs have reprogrammed their televisions to turn off automatically when not in use.

An intriguing product is the Caroma Profile™ toilet and sink combination, which comes from Australia. The water used to wash hands is routed into the tank, ready to be flushed. If you want to increase members’ awareness of water usage and perhaps influence their behavior, install an Eco Showerdrop, the world’s first low-cost, universal shower meter, with a display that indicates how much water is being used.

Consider the Green Factor. Every product you put into the facility should be evaluated for its sustainability and greenness. For example, there are yoga mats that are free of PVCs and heavy metals produced without the use of toxic materials. Other companies use only natural rubber and will plant a tree for every mat sold.

If you are concerned about your facility’s air quality, plants can help. Kamal Meattle, researcher, environmental activist and winner of an award for the healthiest building in New Delhi, has demonstrated how adequate quantities of three common houseplants can clean up indoor air when placed in specific spots. NASA recommends an additional seven plants that will remove pollutants from the air you breathe indoors. (See the sidebar “Green Plants = Fresh Air./&Idquo;)

If your facility has a retail shop where members can buy clothing and shoes, use your influence to ask companies to ship articles in packing peanuts made from vegetable starch. How can you tell? Easy: toss the peanuts in water. If they disintegrate, they’re nontoxic and biodegradable.

Try Something New. You can also make green apparel-buying decisions. Verify the type of material and the methods used to produce it. Consider labor practices and working conditions. Plan for the end of your apparel’s use—how will you dispose of it? There are companies, such as Patagonia, that make workout wear from recycled and recyclable polyesters. There are also companies that make biodegradable and vegan exercise shoes (and shoeboxes), so even if you’re not vegan, you will know where to send your participants who are.

Some exercise wear made of organic cotton, wool or hemp is comfortable, but in general, the best fabrics are man-made. One fiber that is currently generating a fair bit of attention is bamboo. While its properties are ecofriendly, and it’s good at wicking away moisture, it is processed into clothing as rayon (a chemical process), which mitigates some of its green appeal.

There are other unique ways to reuse, reduce and recycle. At Columbia Athletic Clubs in the Seattle area, members receive complimentary fabric shopping bags with the club logo imprinted on them. Not only do members use them instead of plastic bags, but the club also gets free advertising. In Germany, gym teacher Bernd Dörr makes fitness bags out of recycled gym mats and leather from old sports equipment.

The Fitness Professional’s Influence

So, you didn’t build the building and you have little say when it comes to club purchasing decisions? You still wield a great deal of influence with your clients. You can lead by example and through the products you sell and recommend.

In Kutzenhausen, Germany, Carrie Ekins, MA, creator of Drums Alive®, is a practical person with straightforward advice that’s easy to implement. “For my instructor series DVDs, I have added a PDF of the choreography notes so that I don’t print up manuals for everyone and add to environmental waste. Also, we do not throw things away. Our participants all have water bottles that they refill—no plastic ‘throw-away’ containers. We only turn on the sauna if someone asks. We turn off the standby mode on equipment that’s not being used and don’t leave computers running all day. Germans are very careful about energy and waste. For example, our garbage cans are about a quarter the size of an American one.” Think about taking Ekins up on the implied challenge and see if you can get your clients (and yourself) down to a smaller can without emptying it any more often!

Krista Popowych of Vancouver, British Columbia, is the program and services manager at the Richmond Olympic Oval, and she also has some simple saving suggestions. “We ask our members to bring in magazines versus order more, so we save trees. I suggest to students that they use smaller face towels instead of larger bath towels, especially if it’s to wipe their brow. I let them know there’s no need to waste water washing the large towels. In warmer weather, instead of blasting the air conditioning, we head out of doors for personal training sessions or group classes—get an outdoor waiver [if you do this]. I also confirm appointments with clients by texting them, rather than printing out appointment cards. And it may be ‘old school,’ but we use our website to post classes, do marketing, send letters and so on.”

Popowych also has suggestions for wiping equipment after use. “We use and share small cleaning towels instead of paper to clean equipment. And rather than using harsh chemicals, we use a few drops of tea tree oil mixed with water. It smells great and is healthier.”

If you do decide to go outside, take the example of Britain’s Green Gym, run by volunteers for the British Trust for Conservation. Participants do a warm-up, then a chore —such as building park benches—then a cool-down. Community and personal improvement all in one tidy package! Since most of us are indoors most of the time, take some time to evaluate the environment around your facility. Determine the location of the recycle bins and let clients know where they are. Better yet, offer to take clients’ recyclables to the bin yourself. It’s great customer service. Ask businesses that represent green values to give coupons to members. You’ll be surprised at how willing most companies are to partner with you, knowing that you have direct access to their target market (think beverages, clothing, apparel, food, beauty products, etc.).

Thinking Small

Going green doesn’t mean you have to think big. It’s okay to start small. Take a minute to think about all the items that are little enough to fit into your workout bag. Depending on your technological leanings, you may use CDs, videos, batteries, DVDs or even hard drives. In some cases, you can recycle these, and in others, you can reuse or recharge them. You can mail your used CDs, DVDs and hard drives to Back Thru the Future, a New Jersey company, for recycling. According to a website belonging to this company (www.cdrecyc lingforfree.com), it takes over 1 million years for a CD to decompose, and recycling one hard drive saves enough energy to run a television for 102 hours. In Missouri, ACT Recycling (www.actre cycling.org) will take your old fitness VHS tapes, erase them, resell the good parts and recycle the rest. Obviously, the environmental impact of mailing the materials must also be factored in.

What about your energy bars? Well, you can make your own to avoid the packaging and additives, buy from a local source or familiarize yourself with the practices and ingredients of the companies that supply them to your favorite store. Take the time to compare and contrast the choices (same thing goes for bars, drinks or anything else) before recommending products to clients. You’ve heard the term “Be an informed consumer.” Add to this “Be an informed recommender.”

Deciding on the “best” water bottle has been a hot topic lately because of safety concerns about plastics (see “Are Plastic Bottles and Containers Safe?” by Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD, in the January 2009 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal) and wasteful packaging. Luckily, there are alternatives—bottles made of stainless steel (and metal, generally) are getting a lot of press. You can find ones that are lightweight, nonleaching, BPA-free and even with a built-in water filter that removes 99.99% of pollutants.

Do you have a spare pair of socks in your bag, too? Are they made of organic wool or cotton, or recycled polyester? Were the dyes used free of allergens, carcinogens, pesticides, heavy metals or formaldehyde? If the answers to these questions are important factors in your buying decisions, it may mean a bit of homework is in order.

Crazy Notion or Reality?

According to Curnyn at The Green Revolution, “we are at the beginning of a very exciting movement in capturing clean renewable energy from human power. I believe this source of human power will soon be integrated in sustainable building design and clothing, as well as all exercise equipment. In 5 years, all fitness equipment for both the home and health club will be equipped with the technology required to produce clean, renewable energy.”

That may have sounded far-fetched a few years ago, but now it simply sounds like progress. Does a bike-powered juice blender sound like science fiction? Well, that too is now a reality. Known as the Byerley Bike Blender, it is a fun and calorie-burning way to make a smoothie, and is already in place in a few U.S. restaurants.

What about the River Gym, which gives new meaning to “functional training”? Brothers Mitchell, an architect, and Douglas Joachim, a personal trainer, won a New York magazine competition for best design of an original gym with their concept of an enclosed, floating micro- island facility that traverses waterway paths. Powered by the pedaling commuters inside, the gym satisfies the twin needs to exercise and to travel to and from work. There is a Chinese proverb that captures the essence of why it makes sense to lead the way to a greener fitness world: “One generation plants the trees so the next can enjoy the shade.” Let’s all join together to sow the trees that lead to a fitter planet!

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 6, Issue 7

© 2009 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Alexandra Williams, MA, is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal and co-owner of the Fun & Fit blog, column and radio show with her twin sister. Certified since 1986, Alexandra currently tea...

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