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Good, Better, Best: Cutting Carbon From Your Workout

Good, Better, Best: Cutting Carbon From Your Workout

If you work out, you are not alone. The 32-billion-dollar U.S. fitness industry includes over 40,000 health and fitness clubs and about 40% of Americans currently have a gym membership. While it’s wonderful news that so many people prioritize their health, our workouts often contribute to carbon emissions. Traveling to a gym by car or other vehicle and exercising there often comes with a hefty carbon footprint.

Carbon Emissions From Your Workout

Gyms use loads of energy that many of us may not realize. The main culprits are the rows of cardio machines plugged into outlets, air conditioning at full blast to keep customers cool, vending machines providing cold drinks in wasteful plastic bottles, numerous televisions, sound systems, and always-on lights. Some gyms also have a pool and hot tub to heat, a hot yoga studio to keep toasty, and towels to wash throughout the day. Gyms use electricity even when they are empty, and unfortunately, very few are taking steps to cut their carbon emissions.

In addition to the emissions from the buildings, most customers produce carbon as they travel to and from their workouts. The average person lives about 4 miles from their favorite gym. Driving 1 mile in a typical car at 25 miles per gallon produces 630 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), which adds up quickly. Driving an electric car cuts the emissions back to 260 grams of CO2e (source: The Carbon Footprint of Everything). Of course, there are other ways to reduce the emissions of your gym commute: use the gym in your office building if there is one, choose a gym close enough to your home or office to either walk or bike to; carpool with others; or take public transportation.

While the current state of the fitness industry with regard to sustainability is discouraging, there are ways we can exercise with less environmental impact.

Good: Go to a Nearby Sustainable Gym (If You Can Find One)

Fitness class at gym
If possible, pick a gym near where you work or live.

If you can find a gym that prioritizes sustainability, choose it. However, the majority of gyms, whether they are boutique studios or part of a huge national chain, are not doing nearly enough to address climate change. Most gyms do not have an ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) report or mention sustainability on their website. How is this possible when wellness involves both being physically active and living in a healthy environment?

The Green Microgym

Adam Boesel, founder of The Green Microgym and former owner of a sustainable gym in Oregon, points out how challenging it is for gyms to adopt more efficient practices. “Most of the fitness industry is made up of small business owners who focus on sales and being able to pay the rent given tight margins.” He also explained that sustainability is not typically a factor in which gym people choose. “The main reason people choose a gym is for convenience. For a green gym to be successful, it needs to be in the right neighborhood because the people who want to sign up for that gym are not going to drive across town to get there.” Other priorities include cost, classes offered, instructors, and where their friends go.

There are a few innovators prioritizing sustainability goals at their facility. When Adam Boesel started his first gym in 2008, he incorporated energy-saving practices like CFL and LED lighting; energy-efficient ceiling fans; solar panels; member-controlled lights, televisions, and fans turned on only when needed; treadmills that use 30% less electricity than regular models; and energy-producing cardio equipment. The Green Microgyms use about 85% less electricity, and their carbon footprint is about one-tenth that of a traditionally run gym, per square foot. A member of The Green Microgym creates about a quarter ton of carbon less per year than they would if they belonged to a traditional gym.

Elevated Fitness

Recognized by the California Air Resources Board and recipient of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce Blue Ribbon Award for Best Green Business, Elevated Fitness in California is the only known carbon-neutral gym in America. In fact, this gym produces more power than it uses. The owners’ electric vehicle is charged by converting human energy into electricity produced through generators on spin bikes. The power output of a group spin class is currently 3 megawatts per class. The gym also replaced light bulbs with LEDs, installed light timers, and purchased ENERGY STAR appliances and low-flow toilets. Sustainability is part of the culture, as they encourage members to walk or jog to the gym and have integrated carbon-free transportation into their membership perks program.

Large Chains That Publish Sustainability Information

A couple of the large chains publish sustainability information. Lifetime Fitness updated its five-year sustainability plan in 2021. It claims to be making progress, including buildings designed for energy efficiency with features such as full window atriums to reduce artificial lighting needs; retro-fitted interior and exterior lighting with LEDs; advanced energy-management systems to optimize energy usage; and high-efficiency water pumps in pools. They received the Better Buildings Initiative award in 2022 from the US Department of Energy for reducing electricity by 38% in clubs over the course of seven years. Additionally, in 2021 they helped plant over 21,000 trees.

Another chain, Planet Fitness highlighted efforts in its 2021 ESG report: LED lighting, Save Energy Systems to manage and track energy usage, tankless water heaters, and high-efficiency touchless hand dryers. The report contained no details on energy savings except for during the pandemic when numbers plummeted anyway. Other fitness companies are pretty quiet with regard to sustainability.

What Can You Do?

By paying attention to what gyms are doing and asking the right questions, consumers can influence change. The more we mention sustainability and make it a priority when choosing a gym, the more likely it is that companies will start to take action to reduce their carbon footprint.

Better: Virtual Workouts at Home

Woman taking a virtual exercise class at home
Virtual fitness classes are more sustainable than traveling to a gym, but they also have a carbon impact.

Besides the flexibility and timesaving benefits that virtual fitness classes offer, they are also more sustainable than traveling to a gym. Yet even this option results in CO2 emissions, depending on internet usage and the equipment’s carbon footprint.

The Carbon Cost of Internet Streaming and Exercise Equipment

The device you use to stream a class and the web hosting platform both impact the carbon footprint of virtual workouts. A Zoom call, for example, produces 4 grams of CO2e per hour on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, 20 grams of CO2e per hour on a laptop of average efficiency, or 97 grams of CO2e per hour on a desktop computer. Using a smartphone to connect to a one-hour virtual fitness class every day for one year emits about 70 kilograms of CO2e.

Some virtual workouts require equipment, while others do not. Figuring out the carbon footprint of equipment, whether it be a treadmill, yoga mat, or Peloton bike, can be extremely challenging since it is a complex process and companies do not provide that data, let alone per individual customer. We would need to know what materials are used, how they are manufactured, and details about shipping. It is safe to say, however, that using less equipment (and, of course, using what you already have or buying second-hand) is better for the environment than purchasing all new equipment for a virtual workout program.

OneTrue Virtual Fitness

OneTrue is a 100% virtual, waste-free company providing a holistic and personalized approach to health through one-on-one sessions. “We hold zero inventory, and do not sell a single product. Because of this, our company does not produce emissions associated with importing and exporting goods,” explained Yianni Kellis, founder.

Most of OneTrue’s classes do not require equipment and its web hosting platform, Squarespace, is powered by 100% renewable energy. Yianni is proud of the savings that OneTrue provides. “The carbon emissions of a virtual session are about 1.4% of the physical counterpart. This number is calculated on 2021 average car emissions of 348 grams/mile and an average of 3.7 miles of one-way travel.” In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Forest Service, and One Tree Planted, OneTrue plants one tree for each class taken. “Our commitment to planting trees represents a very high percentage of revenue. In the case that a tree costs just a single dollar to plant, our revenue allocation to planting trees would be (1/6.5 = 15% of rev),” stated Yianni.

Apple Fitness+

Apple is also a major player in the online fitness world with Apple Fitness+. Accessed via iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV, the service offers a wide range of classes, many of which require equipment such as dumbbells, indoor cycling bikes, rowers, and treadmills. While Apple overall as a company is making environmental progress, information with regard to its fitness offerings specifically is not available. According to the company’s most recent Environmental Progress Report, in fiscal year 2021, its environmental initiatives avoided over 23 million metric tons of emissions and it reduced its carbon footprint by 40% compared with fiscal year 2015. Efforts and initiatives include sourcing 100% renewable electricity for facilities, transitioning suppliers to clean energy, and using low-carbon materials in products.

Virtual Fitness Brands Lack Sustainability Information

It is nearly impossible to find sustainability information from other virtual fitness brands. Peloton’s most recent ESG report was very vague and the company chose to not comment on its efforts beyond what is written in the report. Booya, Glo, and Daily Burn lack sustainability information on their websites and did not respond to requests for more information.

What Can You Do?

Another way that consumers can reduce their carbon footprint at home is by purchasing more energy-efficient equipment, although options are very limited. SportsArt is a company in the U.S. revolutionizing fitness equipment. It has a line of ECO-DRIVE™ treadmills engineered to use 32% less power than standard options. The company also carries ECO-POWR™ self-generating ellipticals and cycles that require no outside power to operate and convert up to 47% of human energy into clean, renewable energy. Exercisers generate up to 220 watt-hours of electricity per hour workout, offsetting energy consumption. Hopefully, more companies will follow their lead.

Best: Green Exercise

Working out a fitness stations in the park
Using fitness stations at a local park you can walk or bike to is one way get a good workout without increasing your carbon footprint.

Green exercise — any activity in which we interact with nature while moving our bodies and breaking a sweat — is the best option when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint. Think walking, hiking, running, biking, swimming, and team sports. Activities that do not require any equipment or travel time, such as running or plogging in your neighborhood or to a local park, produce the least amount of carbon. When we start adding equipment, the number goes up slightly to account for production and shipping. A well-used and well-maintained bike, for example, is about 10 times more carbon efficient than the average gasoline car used to drive to the gym.

Green exercise has really taken off in recent years, and there are even Green Gyms in the United Kingdom that combine physical activity with local environmental projects. There are more than 100 Green Gyms that offer programs consisting of outdoor activities including gardening, planting trees, digging ponds, managing trails, and more.

Other ideas of green exercise you can easily do at or near your home or office include working in the yard; using fitness stations at a local park you can get to without driving; and playing tennis, pickleball, soccer, baseball, or basketball in your neighborhood or at a nearby park. You can also get exercise while engaging in daily errands, such as walking or biking to a library or restaurant as opposed to driving everywhere. Finally, we can utilize nature itself to exercise, such as hopping over bushes, step-ups using a tree stump, and lifting large rocks as weights. It is amazing what we can accomplish in our fitness routine without needing a car, connecting to Wi-Fi, or plugging in equipment.

Encourage Your Gym To Get on Board

Besides a few pioneers, overall, the fitness industry has not yet embraced sustainability. With a few smart decisions, you can reduce your carbon footprint while meeting your fitness goals. Do your research, ask questions, and push gyms near you to start adopting energy-efficient initiatives.

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