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Sustainable Health: Why Fit Pros are Uniquely Positioned to Champion the Message

What is sustainable health? Find out why it is important to take care of yourself AND the environment simultaneously!

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Sustainable Health: Why Fit Pros are Uniquely Positioned to Champion the Message

Can a person achieve optimal health in a sick environment? No, right? Historically, healthy lifestyle elements have been defined as individual choices—physical activity, food, sleep, etc. But this neglects context. As the planet grows more polluted, and people have less access to clean water, air, outdoor green spaces and nutritious foods, the question of environment is more relevant. Sustainable health is an integrated vision of sustainability that focuses on the framework in which health is created.

Sustainable health embraces the inter-relationship between human and planetary health. This is more than simply “going green” with products and services. The concept of sustainable health reframes the notion of a healthy lifestyle beyond individual choices to include health of the environment in which a person lives. Sustainability and health coexist in an integrated system. Health for all is generated within a background of community and environment.

Two leading organizations, Technogym and Les Mills International have pioneered combining the messages of healthy lifestyles with healthier communities and better environmental quality. The leaders of both these organizations serve as role models of how to promote healthy people and a healthy planet. Both organizations pursue these objectives in different ways, and each is achieving strong impact.

This article provides a snapshot of:

What these fitness industry leaders are doing to promote cultural changes that envision a lifestyle of human and planetary health.

How these business leaders are using collaborations to facilitate these changes.

The positive changes that result from promoting both individual and planetary health simultaneously.

Defining Sustainability

Before we dive into details, it’s important that we’re on the same page with definitions. Sustainability is defined as “taking action to protect our shared environment—air, water, land and ecosystems—in ways that are economically viable, beneficial to human health and well-being, and socially just, in the long term,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A greener product or approach is one that poses less harm to human health or the planet compared to other products that serve the same purpose (EPA 2023; 2024). From inception, sustainability initiatives have protected the twin goals of human health and environmental well-being. The EPA notes, “humans depend on healthy ecological systems for food, fiber, timber, flood control, and many other benefits…Ecological systems…perform many other functions that are important for the health of people and the planet.”

An Evolving Message

To expand on this systems understanding, the United Nations (U.N.) promotes sustainability in the context of improving both human health and planetary health. Sustainable Lifestyles are defined as ways of living, social behaviors and choices, that minimize environmental degradation (use of natural resources, CO2 emissions, waste and pollution) while supporting equitable socio-economic development and better quality of life for all, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP 2024). The UNEP notes that people act based primarily on individual needs, “based on price, accessibility, effectiveness and additional criteria like well-being or trends.” In other words, individuals tend to survive with what’s most easily available, while leaders are more responsible for creating the conditions for the settings in which people live. And, visionary leaders can create the opportunity for new choices and new ways of living.

The U.N. urges business leaders and governments to take responsibility for creating opportunities to enable people to make sustainable choices. In other words, the challenge of sustainable lifestyles is not an individual problem; it’s a social issue. This integrated vision is captured in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (see sidebar: UN’s Sustainable Development Goals). As with inactivity and obesity, many environmental changes, like adding more green spaces, walking paths and neighborhood grocery markets, can help individuals to lead more active, healthier lifestyles. Similarly, leaders can create sustainably healthy environments by providing more information, more access to affordable and desirable products and services and more support for people to change behaviors. With private and public sector partnerships, community change is possible. A sustainable health approach benefits local people, environments and economies.

The European Green Deal, Sports and Fitness

Fitness pros are among the community leaders who can make a critically important difference in shaping this community context for sustainable health. According to a report by the European Commission, sports and fitness community and business leaders are valuable influencers in promoting a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. In December 2023, a commission of the European Union, issued “Sport’s contribution to the European Green Deal—A sport sector playbook” (European Commission 2023). Sport is identified as a critical sector in driving positive change because sports as a business, and as an activity, appeal across entire populations, regardless of age, gender, ability level and social status. Because of this wide popularity, sports community leaders can spearhead awareness and drive change toward environmental sustainability. The fitness industry is identified as an important stakeholder in the broader category of sports.

The playbook’s purpose is to offer policy recommendations to promote environmental sustainability in the European sport sector, to provide guidance to ensure alignment with Green Deal objectives on key green sport topics, to identify pioneering initiatives, to showcase best practices, and to provide further resources for stakeholders. Green Deal initiatives include achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. An important role for the fitness sector is to inspire action among followers and consumers. While the Long-Term Strategy of the United States policy diverges from the E.U., the U.S. has set a similar goal of net-zero emissions by no later than 2050 (US Department of State and the US Executive Office of the President 2021).

Fitness Leaders as Sustainable Healthy Lifestyle Role Models

As advocates who promote healthy living daily, fitness professionals are uniquely positioned to raise awareness about the interconnection between sustainability and health. “Professionals that are interested in health and fitness should be leading the way towards sustainability,” says Karri Winn, a NIA teacher and sustainability consultant in Portland, Oregon. “[Fit pros] should be pressing beyond sustainability towards regeneration…Regeneration is about systemic well-being, resilience and systemically investing in vitality within living systems” (K Winn, personal communication, March 26, 2024).

Winn adds, “People’s bodies are part of the biosphere. Every time people make choices that add more poison in to the air, water or soil, they are poisoning their own body. Achieving optimal fitness in a degraded and degenerated biosphere is impossible. Achieving optimal fitness necessitates clean air, water and soil.”

Community and Systems Based Approach

Fitness pros dedicate their careers to promoting healthy lifestyles, manifesting goals and building community. Our profession depends on the value of social support to help people envision and to achieve goals. Fitness pros have multiple skills that are invaluable to raise awareness, to educate, to motivate, to build community and to engage multiple stakeholders. These skills can be applied to facilitate systemic and cultural change toward sustainable health. The following are stories of leadership by passionate fitness business trailblazers, and the organizations that they lead, who are creating systemic change in their environments with significant multiplier effects.

Wellness Valley in Romagna, Italy

Nerio Allessandri, Technogym’s CEO and founder, has championed the concept of Wellness for all for decades. He established the non-profit Wellness Foundation, in 2003, headquartered in Cesena, Italy, and serves as chairman. “Health is Wealth. Wellness is a social opportunity and today even more a priority for all: for people, for companies and organizations, and for Governments,” says Alessandri (N Allessandri, personal communication, April 9, 2024).

Alessandri is founder of the “Wellness Valley” project in the Emilia-Romagna Region of Italy, the first International District dedicated to creating a “Wellness Ecosystem” with public and private stakeholders. From the outset, wellness and sustainability were linked. “The Wellness Valley shows that it can be done:” says Alessandri. “[B]eyond leaving a legacy of health and quality of life for the new generations, wellness, sport and health can also be leveraged as economic development opportunities.” The Wellness Valley project is aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. These goals reflect the close link between the wellbeing of humans and of the planet and of the common challenges facing nations worldwide.

Technogym’s corporate sustainability policies align with the U.N. goals of Good Health and Well-Being; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; Sustainable Cities and Communities and Responsible Consumption and Production (Technogym 2024) (see sidebar: UN’s Sustainable Development Goals). Technogym specifically makes a sustainability commitment to Wellness for the Community. Through campaigns like “Let’s Move for a Better World” and other efforts, Technogym supports fitness professionals to spread wellness throughout their communities.

The Wellness Foundation Initiatives

In the “Wellness Valley” region, a number of collaborative initiatives have built a wellness culture. The Wellness Foundation worked with more than 250 public and private entities including the University of Bologna, 76 municipalities, 25 schools, 30 companies, 10 spa resorts, 74 wellness centers and 24 certified hotels and beaches. The Wellness Valley Observatory, an independent body, was created to measure and report on the social, environmental, economic, and cultural impact of the health and wellness initiatives mentioned above.

Initiatives include the following:

  • Training more than 500 primary care physicians to prescribe exercise for the most common chronic diseases;
  • Promoting regional wellness tourism services and wellness events;
  • Promoting the Savio Valley Bike Hub to develop bicycle tourism;
  • Creating in 2015 an annual “Wellness Week” event involving the entire Wellness Valley community to offer free classes that promote active, healthy lifestyles;
  • Introducing new bachelor’s and master’s degree programs related to quality of life, health and wellness at multiple campuses with the University of Bologna;
  • Investing by cities in urban redevelopment and regeneration projects to create new natural environments accessible to the entire poupulation that includes green infrastructures, cycle and pedestrian paths, and wellness areas to facilitate experiencing wellness as a lifestyle;
  • Encouraging physicians to advise regular exercise and proper nutrition;
  • Establishing the Prime Center of the Romagna Oncology Institute that opened in 2021 for education in prevention and integrative care for cancer;
  • Creating Rimini Sea Park, 16 kilometers of seafront transformed into large natural spaces with outdoor training stations, cycle and pedestian paths, sports and child play areas;
  • Establishing the Maritime Park of Ravenna, a 35-kilometer coastline with regenerated pine forests, dune system and added gardens, walking and cycling paths with rest areas;
  • Bringing fitness and sports activities to public green spaces through the “Sport in the Parks” program; and,
  • Integrating major sports facilities with cycle and pedestrian access routes to promote outdoor physical activity in the Cesena Sport City project.

This project has been 20 years in the making. It is the direct result of the creation of a wellness ecosystem and culture, through collaborative private and public efforts. The integrated components are visible in Figure 1. (see Figure 1. The Wellness Ecosystem).

Figure 1. The Wellness Ecosystem. 

(Reprinted with permission from Wellness Foundation, Wellness Valley Report 04, 2023.)
Figure 1. The Wellness Ecosystem. (Reprinted with permission from Wellness Foundation, Wellness Valley Report 04, 2023.)

Figure 1. The Wellness Ecosystem.

(Reprinted with permission from Wellness Foundation, Wellness Valley Report 04, 2023.)

The Proof is in the Numbers

Health data from the Wellness Valley in contrast to the rest of Italy show the power of creating a culture of sustainable, healthy living.

  • 55% of adult community members meet physical activity guidelines, in contrast with 46% in the rest of Italy;
  • 16% are sedentary, compared with 31%;
  • 10% consume fresh fruits and vegetables daily, compared with 8%;
  • 23% actively bike to work, compared with 10%; and,
  • 10% over 65 years are at disability risk, compared with 17%.

The wellness business also benefits the local economy. Over the past 10 years, the wellness sector economy in the Romagna region has increased over 31%—growth that exceeds that of other economic sectors. “These are important indicators that confirm the relevance of the issue of well-being for sustainable development over time,” says Alessandri, “in which individual health and wellness are inextricably tied to other people, to the community and to the planet itself” (N Allessandri, personal communication, April 9, 2024).

In contrast to the specific Wellness Valley project, Phillip Mills and Les Mills International have focused on creating a program portfolio that helps people and communities with various needs around the world. For example, Pure Advantage focuses on New Zealand environmental issues, Trees for the Future targets sub-Saharan Africa, UNICEF projects help children with food scarcity globally, and volunteerism happens wherever Les Mills instructors can be found. These programs all foster a new cultural vision of global health for people and the planet.

Common threads among these two groundbreakers include true passion in their efforts to promote fitness, health, well-being and expansive sustainability. Both organizations have clearly articulated visions that embrace healthy individuals, communities and the environment. Both have policies that put the vision into practice. Multiple partnerships further these visions and influence broader communities. Both are transforming the meaning of health, fitness and well-being, while touching millions of lives and improving planetary health.

Les Mills International and Fighting Globesity

Phillip Mills is the managing director of Les Mills International which licenses 25 programs including BODYPUMP™ to 22,000 clubs globally, trains instructors, operates an online subscriber business direct to consumer and via clubs and sells equipment used in the classes. He is also owner of Les Mills New Zealand, a separate company that operates 12 clubs in New Zealand. In 2007, Phillip Mills and his partner, Dr. Jackie Mills, co-authored, “Fighting Globesity—a Practical Guide to Personal Health and Sustainability”. They tied together the relationship between healthy bodies and a healthy planet. The Mills’ provided practical advice on how to exercise, eat and organize society sustainably. Seventeen years later, their message is even more relevant.

Mills has continued to fight for his passion to improve individual and planetary health by expanding his fitness venture worldwide to touch as many people as possible. Among its values, Les Mills International notes that “Fitness…extends beyond the physical. We want to create a groundswell of good for tomorrow, so future generations have every opportunity to explore and enjoy a world still rich in natural beauty, resources and wonder. Clean water, fresh air, sustainable food and healthy people – that’s the true essence of what a fitter planet means to us.”

“I think as an industry we have a duty to educate people about the personal health benefits of eating organic food, active transport, reducing pollution, etc.” says Mills. “Adding an understanding of the global health benefits of our individual actions gives people a sense of purpose, which is a powerful motivator” (P Mills, personal communication, April 10, 2024).

Les Mills programs promote a healthy active lifestyle among people of all ages and ability levels, including children’s programming in BORN TO MOVE from age 2 and up. They also collaborate with Classroom Champions, a child empowerment program based on teaching the mindset of world class athletes. Further, they work with Kid Power, a program that provides schools in America with a library of 3-5 minute activity videos, that when watched by schoolchildren in America triggers delivery of therapeutic food that UNICEF delivers to other children in need in foreign countries. The Kid Power program motivates kids to do the 3-5 minute activity videos to move to help other kids in the world improve their lives. The Les Mills International organization has spearheaded collaborative efforts like this among private and public sector organizations worldwide to improve the planet and lives of those in need.

Collaborations for a Better Future

In 2008, Phillip Mills founded a New Zealand green business non-government organization known as Pure Advantage. Pure Advantage has conducted major studies into ways in which New Zealand can prosper economically by create a low carbon economy. The vision of Pure Advantage is that through adoption of transformative economic strategies based in kaitiakitanga and green growth, New Zealand’s environment, people and businesses will see a healthier, wealthier future that is more sustainable in every sense. Kaitiakitanga is a New Zealand Maori cultural concept that is used for guardianship of the sky, sea and land. A kaitiaki is a guardian, according to Wikipedia.

Les Mills International teams up with the non-profit, Trees for the Future, with a mission to plant over one million trees over the next 12 months. “We are extremely concerned about the world’s lack of action on climate,” says Mills. “Supporting Trees for the Future is one of the most important things we can do to fix the emergency” (P Mills, personal communication, April 10, 2024). The program is linked specifically with the Les Mills International community, as follows:

  • 1 tree for every LES MILLS+ subscriber
  • 20 trees for every teammate (staff member) birthday
  • 10 trees for every new instructor
  • 100 trees for every new club partner
  • we measure our carbon emissions footprint and plant a further 50 trees for every ton of CO2

Since the partnership with Trees for the Future began 2 years ago, Les Mills International has planted 2,150,932 trees.

In another collaboration, Les Mills International teamed up with UNICEF in 2017, 2019 and 2024 for a Workout for Water—a collaboration that has historically included fundraising events in Les Mills gyms that involve Les Mills instructors and members who complete a specific challenge and raise funds from peers. In this year’s challenge, more than 800 people have signed up to raise money and almost half of those are instructors. Les Mills presenters and ambassadors are involved, and they encourage others in the Les Mills community to also pitch in. “Positive peer pressure” is how Jo Perkins, innovation project manager for Les Mills International, describes how leaders successfully engage and rally a community to participate in sustainable health projects (J Perkins, personal communication, April 9, 2024).

Promoting Volunteerism

Les Mills International encourages teams around the world to run their own volunteering initiatives. These initiatives focus on local issues. For example, in New Zealand, employees can volunteer for a full day at the Motutapu Restoration Trust, where they can help restore native ecosystems. Alternatively, staff can choose to volunteer for a half day at the Auckland City Mission where they serve lunch to those in need. These activities reinforce the values of sustainable health, sustainable communities, zero hunger and the broader definition of what is a healthier world.

What is Your Vision?

Visionary leaders can create opportunities for new choices that lead to new ways of living. New lifestyles produce new outcomes. In the cases of Nerio Allessandri and Phillip Mills, these new outcomes include improved health for people and the environment. How can you learn from their examples to manifest your own vision? Here are common themes:

  1. Find your passion.
  2. Clearly define your vision of what it means to you to bring that passion to life.
  3. Define policies and practices that realize that vision.
  4. Enlist partners!
  5. Keep going.

Each leader continues to evolve as the vision emerges into reality.

Fit Pros Can Lead the Sea Change

At a time when both planetary and human health are at a critical tipping point, fitness professionals are well-positioned to be leaders in the transformation toward positive change. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize winner, noted that the problem of climate change exemplifies the type of problem that causes human inaction. Why? It’s a distant problem that requires current sacrifices for an uncertain loss. Fitness pros however, with their passion for health and well-being, can help people to concretely understand the broader systemic context in which health is created. And, as role models for sustainable, healthy lifestyles, we can lead the way to cultural change. One step, one apple, one client at a time, we can shift the tide away from unfit destruction toward flourishing regeneration.

Want to learn more? Environmental Impact of Diets

Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, MA, is IDEA’s 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year and is based in Zürich and Mykonos. She’s a contributing editor of Fitness Journal and bestselling author of 16 books, including Pilates Fusion: Well-Being for Body, Mind and Spirit. Find her @shirleyeichenberger on Twitter, on Pinterest, on Instagram and on YouTube, or at shirleyeichenbergerarcher.com.

© 2024 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, all United Nations countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that set out 17 Goals. The purpose of the goals is to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy health, justice and prosperity (WHO 2024).

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Well-Being
  • Quality Education
  • Gender Equality
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Life Below Water
  • Life on Land
  • Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • Partnership for the Goals.

(UN Dept of Economic and Social Affairs, 2024)

How to Develop and Promote Sustainability Practices

Fitness professionals and organizations are powerful influencers. Here’s a three-level process to becoming a leader in your community for sustainable health.

Capacity Building

Implement sustainability policies and practices in your organization. See the IDEA Fitness Journal feature Greening of the Fitness Industry (Eichenberger-Archer 2022) for specific policy and action items.

Education and Training

Enable your stakeholders to become agents of change. Educate facility managers, program directors, staff and members on your organization’s sustainability goals and initiatives. Every staff member and every client can have a multiplier effect on your organization’s success in achieving its goals. This multiplier effect is like the “butterfly effect”, where small local changes in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.

Promotion

Raise awareness and communicate your organization’s sustainability vision to the wider community. Communication channels can include traditional media, social media channels, sponsor, supplier relationships and relationships with local public authorities and community leaders.

(European Commission, 2023)

References

References 

 

Eichenberger-Archer, S. Sustainability Practices in Fitness. IDEA Fitness Journal. Sept 2022.Accessed March 31, 2024: ideafit.com/business/sustainability-practices-in-fitness/. 

 

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2023. Sustainability and the ROE: What is sustainability? Accessed April 1, 2024: epa.gov/report-environment/sustainability-and-roe. 

 

EPA. 2024. Frequent Questions About Sustainable Marketplace and Green Products. Accessed April 8, 2024: epa.gov/greenerproducts/frequent-questions-about-sustainable-marketplace-and-green-products#One. 

 

European Commission, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture. Sport’s contribution to the European Green Deal – a sport sector playbook, Publications Office of the European Union, 2023. Accessed April 8, 2024: data.europa.eu/doi/10.2766/809359. 

 

Mills, P., & Mills, J.. 2007. Fighting Globesity – A Practical Guide to Personal Health and Sustainability. Auckland: Random House. 

 

Technogym. 2024. 2025 Sustainability Policy. Accessed April 8, 2024: corporate.technogym.com/sites/technogym2016cor/files/politica_sostenibilita_2025_en.pdf. 

 

United Nations Environment Programme. Why Sustainable lifestyles matter. Accessed April 8, 2024: unep.org/explore-topics/resource-efficiency/what-we-do/sustainable-lifestyles/why-sustainable-lifestyles. 

 

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Sustainable Development: the 17 Goals. Accessed April 8, 2024: sdgs.un.org/goals 

 

United States Department of State and the United States Executive Office of the President. 2021. The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050. Accessed April 1, 2024: whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/us-long-term-strategy.pdf. 

 

Wellness Foundation. Wellness Valley Report 04, 4th Edition. 2023.  

 

WHO (World Health Organization). Sustainable Development Goals. Accessed April 1, 2024: who.int/europe/about-us/our-work/sustainable-development-goals. 

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Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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