Green Fitness Facilities: Healthy Bodies, Healthy World

by Cathie Ericson on Jun 25, 2014

What does it take to be environmentally friendly, and what can you do today to make an impact?

Fitness facilities are in the business of making members healthier, and for some that commitment extends to the environment. The shades of green vary widely. For example, some facilities have done a complete retrofit to include solar water systems and ellipticals that return power to the grid, while others have made more modest changes, such as using nontoxic cleaners and switching to paperless communication with members. Large and small, each step makes a difference in the overall footprint.

Finding numbers that pinpoint how much waste health clubs generate is not easy, but one gym has completed its own calculations. Adam Boesel, owner of The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon, estimates that his clubs use about 85% less electricity than average, and that their carbon footprint is about one-tenth that of a traditionally run gym, per square foot. He says this translates into a Green Microgym member saving about one-quarter ton of carbon compared with someone who belongs to a traditional fitness facility with no green measures in place. Boesel derived these numbers by calling several other fitness facilities to obtain their energy usage stats.

For most gyms, there appears to be room for improvement. It’s educational to turn the spotlight onto “model” facilities, profiled below, but that doesn’t mean every club has to overhaul from the ground up. Instead, let these case studies and best practices serve as inspiration for taking your first step down the green road.

A Sustainability Pioneer

The Longfellow Clubs, a company comprising sports facilities and children’s centers that serve more than 20,000 people in Massachusetts, has pioneered a number of sustainable business practices. For president Laury Hammel, who also founded the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston, the environmental commitment runs deep. Among the most striking features at his various clubs are a cogenerational unit that heats swimming pools and showers by burning natural gas and creating electricity; waterless urinals that have eliminated over 80% of all flushes in the men’s room and saved over 45,000 gallons of water per urinal each year; and a salt-water purification system in swimming pools. Although these are the kinds of features that attract attention, Hammel is most proud of his creative work with ThinkLite, which led to the invention of the ThinkLite HammeLite. All of his locations use the HammeLite, which replaces standard 1,000-watt bulbs with 500 to 700-watt induction fluorescent bulbs. The upgrade has decreased energy use by 35%–40%.

In February 2014, Hammel replaced fluorescent bulbs on indoor tennis courts with ThinkLite Tube LEDs, which have reduced energy usage by 55%. “That’s a game changer,” he says. “Not only do they save energy, but they are brighter than the other lights we had and they will last for over 20 years, with no measurable reduction in light. We are the first ones using these lights, and I believe they will transform the industry and reduce carbon emissions in the process.”

He urges facility owners to consider rebates they might receive from utilities. “The Massachusetts government has required utilities to be more energy efficient, so over 50% of the cost of our lights was covered by the utility.” He estimates he will see a return on investment for all energy-efficient features in his facilities within about 3 years, in many instances much sooner.

“We strive to be an educational center, a showcase for sustainability where others can learn. We have left no stone unturned to make this a safer planet, from providing filtered water (rather than selling water bottles), to installing LED bulbs, which eliminate a huge source of toxic waste since they won’t have to be changed in the next 10–20 years.”

AdVENTures in Green

Previously affiliated with Gold’s Gym, VENT Fitness® opened four facilities in upstate New York in January 2013 with a commitment to be as sustainable as possible. The changes are evident from the parking lot, which offers free access to public electric-vehicle charging stations at several of its locations. “Recharge your car’s battery while you’re recharging yours!” says Bill Lia Jr., president of VENT Fitness. His workout equipment includes ReRevTM retrofitted ellipticals that offset the clubs’ power usage by returning energy to the grid. “Members love that they are actually using their physical energy to create energy,” Lia says.

Instead of standard bottle refill stations, VENT Fitness provides Vyykn water, a subscription-based water system that takes tap water through an eight-step filtration process and then gives members a choice of pure, oxygenated or ionized water. VENT also focuses on creating a paperless environment, offering its fitness schedule, billing statements and other communications online or through a mobile app. Members can also stay informed through 10 televisions, which are dedicated to digital signage. Group exercise studios boast rechargeable batteries, eliminating a recurring expense and draw on the environment.

As with most green initiatives, Lia says, upfront costs were higher than they would have been for traditional materials, but he expects a payback in energy savings. He acknowledges that for ReRev ellipticals in particular, payback takes a long time—about 14 years. While that’s not the best investment from a financial standpoint, Lia says, the educational qualities are well worth the cost. The changes have caught on: Memberships are up 25% year over year.

Heating Up With Solar

Matt Marston, co-owner of Basics Fitness, in South Portland, Maine, has always been interested in environmental stewardship and started his facility with the “Reduce, reuse, recycle” mentality. However, he quickly realized that not only was it the right thing to do; it was also economical. “Conservation has absolutely contributed to our bottom line,” he says.

In 2011, when ReVision Energy approached him about installing a robust solar hot-water system, he jumped at the opportunity. In this system, solar collectors preheat two solar tanks; if the water is hot enough, it goes into the building directly. If it needs further warming, a gas water heater tops off the process.

Small businesses often find that renewable energy projects can be a major challenge owing to the high initial capital investment required, but Basics Fitness took advantage of both state and federal rebates. The combined incentives allowed the company to install the $22,500 system for an out-of-pocket expense of only $3,500. The club saw immediate savings in propane costs: Over the initial 4-month period, it used only 32 gallons of propane, compared with more than 400 gallons in the same period the previous year. According to ReVision Energy’s Frederick Greenhalgh, a facility can generally expect a return on its investment within 5 years and will then enjoy more than 15 years of free hot water.

EXCELling in Sustainability

With two principal owners who are LEED certified, XCEL Club, a youth performance facility in Eatontown, New Jersey, aims to teach its members about environmental awareness while they’re young. LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green-building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. Among the ecofriendly features the facility boasts are dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets; a monitored heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system; recycled paper products; and an organic snack bar that offers only fresh, healthy and consciously grown food products to feed the young athletes.

The facility uses compact fluorescent lights (CFL), but the owners know that the best way to save on lighting is not to use it at all. The club therefore uses natural sunlight where possible and turns on lights only when a room is in use; bulbs are removed from unutilized light fixtures. Exterior lighting is on a timer, and bathroom lighting uses motion sensors. According to co-owner Steven Shields, features that members most often comment on include the “living walls” in the 60-square-foot entrance area, where dracaena plants help convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.

With its VOC-free paint, and flooring made of recycled rubber tires, the facility uses the latest in green construction methods, but Shields and his business partner went a step further. To lower their carbon footprint, they purchased all build-out materials and equipment within 300 miles of the facility and paid for carbon-offset credits on all shipping items.

LEEDing the Way

Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2019 and specified that all new facilities should be built to standards of LEED Silver or better. The Trudy Fitness Center was the first building on campus to achieve the honor, and was awarded LEED Gold when it opened in January 2011.

“It’s very appropriate that a fitness center be built to such environmentally friendly standards,” says John Pumilio, the university’s director of sustainability. “LEED buildings pay extra attention to indoor air quality, which is especially important when you are working out.”

The fitness center is 20% more energy efficient and 30% more water efficient than an average building its size (nearly 15,000 square feet). Among its special features are more than 100 windows that let in natural light—reducing the need for indoor lighting—and a reflective white roof that decreases heat absorption. The outdoor landscaping, called xeriscaping, requires no watering system. Twenty percent of the building materials came from companies within 500 miles of Colgate, and 89% of the construction debris was diverted from landfills.

Pumilio believes the costs were on par with regular materials and says that even if the upfront costs were slightly more, they will pay for themselves many times over. “Trudy helped pave the way for upcoming new construction and major renovations,” he says. “We are proud that our fitness center can set the standard for the university’s transformation.”

Greening the Gym—A Professional Perspective

These cutting-edge case studies are aspirational, but we also asked experts in the field how any fitness facility could head in the green direction. Gary Wagner, CEO of Green Distribution in Boca Raton, Florida, says that the top three issues a gym has to consider are energy efficiency, water usage and hygiene. Among the energy-saving upgrades he suggests are the following:

  • LED lighting, which can reduce energy by 85%–90% compared with conventional lighting
  • Energy Star–rated appliances and computers
  • ecofriendly cleaning products
  • tankless hot-water heaters, which reduce electric usage and water compared with traditional hot-water heaters
  • energy-efficient air-conditioning compressors that use R-410 or similar coolant
  • matting and flooring made of bio-based natural materials, such as rubber or ceramic tile that is recycled and has antibacterial air-cleaning properties
  • formaldehyde-free insulation—such as natural cork—for walls, ceilings and ductwork
  • UV or ozone water treatment for spa/pools
  • triple-glazed windows for top energy savings

Lawrence Biscontini, 2004 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, has had a lengthy fitness career, including serving as a spa consultant and trainer for leading international facilities. He says he has seen plenty of clubs make their green commitment “loud and proud.” These include a facility in the Netherlands that connects its gym floors to rechargeable batteries on Fridays and holds a 3-hour Zumba® marathon to fuel weekend power.

That’s impressive, but Biscontini contends there are many easy steps facilities can make to head toward being greener. For example, an uncomplicated way to charge those batteries would be to connect studio bikes to rechargeable batteries using a simple device available at Home Depot. To curb energy waste, facilities can turn off television monitors when they’re not in use and install motion sensors in locker rooms and other public areas. “It’s important that clubs be bright in the front area, but functional training areas and locker rooms should use motion sensors.”

He advocates sourcing food and beverages locally: “There’s no need to stock up on Chilean blueberries in the winter.” Biscontini also recommends rebates for people who get to the gym under their own power—cycling or walking—and a discount for those who carpool.

Greening Group Fitness

The gym itself can be ecofriendly, but it’s important for trainers and instructors to carry out the ethos as well. Biscontini encourages group fitness instructors to model green behavior by wearing green-friendly fabrics, shunning plastic water bottles and using solar backpacks to recharge devices. Even something as simple as encouraging staff to use more body weight training with clients has an eco-impact. Not only is it free, but it’s less taxing to the environment than acquiring equipment like weights or kettlebells, with their associated shipping expenses and manufacturing footprint.

Green Inspiration From Across the Nation

There are many shades of green, and the truth is, every little bit counts. We heard from gym owners from coast to coast on how they are reducing their footprint, a little or a lot!

  • Jody Cranston, owner of Connection: Corporate Health in Vancouver, British Columbia, advocates something as simple as putting the recycling bin right next to the garbage can. “Many times recyclables can wind up in the garbage if the recycling bin is hard to find.”
  • Jimmy Fusaro, owner of X-FIT in New York City, creates equipment by repurposing reclaimed materials from heavy-duty pipes left over at a construction site and recycles old computer monitors as security cameras.
  • Penny Smart-Ludlow, who owns Dakota Personal Training and Pilates in Manhattan, encourages members to use fewer towels. For towels she does have to wash, she uses environment-friendly detergent. Smart-Ludlow recommends Burt’s Bees beauty products, Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning products, and air fresheners from Trader Joe’s for the most bang for the buck. She also uses the Nest Learning Thermostat, which adjusts to your preferred setting and turns itself down when the facility is empty.
  • Stephanie Ring, owner of Endure Yoga in San Francisco, switched from printing paper waivers and promotional fliers to an online program that allows fitness professionals to manage student reservations, promote classes, communicate with clients and collect payments in one spot.
  • Elizabeth Lindberg, founder and owner of Studio 6 Fitness in Dallas, sources her energy from Green Mountain Energy, which provides renewable energy. She has also moved to iPad-based waivers and sign-ins and uses wireless headsets, which don’t require batteries.
  • Kim MacKenzie, owner of Fitness with Kim in Burbank, California, cleans her equipment with tea tree oil and water, reasoning that if tea tree oil is used to clean skin ulcers and infections, it’s good enough to clean your equipment. She also recommends not blasting your air conditioner. “It’s not good for people to work out in freezing cold conditions, anyway.”

Taking the First Step

Boesel of The Green Microgym acknowledges that it’s very different to “go” green than to start green. “Green is part of who we are at our gym,” he says, but facilities he consults with sometimes fret over which changes will make most impact. He advises gym owners to begin with an audit, which he calls an “All-On Day”:

Purchase an energy monitor (around $25) and plug it into everything that plugs into the wall to see how much electricity each item is using. Then test again when each device is in standby mode, and again in “off” mode.

Boesel was blown away by the difference and started using a $10 remote-control smart power strip that shuts things down when they are not in use, eliminating the drag of “phantom electricity” that can add up.

“One employee who is good at math can do the whole gym in 3 hours,” he says. “It’s not the big statement that all members will know about, but it’s a way that you can legitimately go green tomorrow. You didn’t spend $10,000 on green fitness equipment, but you’re saving $100 or more over the month. Then other changes can come incrementally.”

He adds that you might discover easy changes you can make that members don’t care about. For example, you may think it’s important to have CNN on all day, but then you realize you’re wasting money keeping televisions on, because members are streaming content with their own devices.

Translating to Member Benefit

Everyone knows it’s a good thing to protect the environment, but does it really matter to members? With an overtly green facility, members are clear that it’s part of the DNA. In fact, it may be one reason they signed up. In the case of XCEL, Shields says parents comment all the time on the look and feel of the facility. “We love to share the story of our thought process behind the facility’s design and construction, and we know that our prospects appreciate the attention we are giving to creating a healthy environment for the kids.”

Green-gym owners stress the importance of continually sharing hard numbers with members that let them know how their efforts are adding up.

Hammel from The Longfellow Clubs believes it’s important to focus the conversation on how the facility is helping to decrease the carbon footprint. “When you talk about money, you run the risk of people wondering if you’re planning to lower their rates. That’s not the goal. We emphasize the quality of the products we’ve chosen and how they are saving the planet.”

Marston says members routinely express their appreciation of the solar heating system and other green initiatives, and at least one customer hired ReVision Energy to install a similar system in his own home.

But sometimes there are greening growing pains. Even though he owns a club that has green in its name, and it’s located in green Oregon, Boesel believes it may still be a vocal minority who appreciate the efforts. “People come to my gym because it’s convenient and it doesn’t have the big-gym atmosphere they dislike. In some cases, green is a beneficial byproduct, but not their main interest. As an owner, you yourself have to be committed.”

However, as Lindberg of Studio 6, says, “We’ve decided that the main way we can ‘create energy’ is by delivering a workout that helps clients be and feel stronger, which inspires them to walk, run and be more active.” Under that lens, every fitness center, no matter where it is on its journey toward being green, can be proud of its contribution to healthy bodies and a healthy world.

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About the Author

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson IDEA Author/Presenter