This blog was originally based on a course ran by Professor Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin who also wrote a textbook for the module Facing up to global warming: What is going on and what you can do about it. Now working as an independent consultant, Nick continues to work in the area of environmental sustainability and looking at ways of making a difference without recriminations or guilt. Saving the planet is all about living sustainably.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Eco Gyms - Generating Your Own Electricity?

A photo of The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon.
(image from:

The other day I was working out at my gym and I looked around at the rows of people moving along to the rhythms of their various ellipticals, treadmills, cycles, and stair masters, their store-purchased water bottles perched atop the blinking electronic dashes of their machines; I took note of the row of large televisions that constantly blare at the front of the room; I thought about the lights turned up bright, despite the sunlight flooding in through the wall of windows; and I thought: “This seems wrong!” I was surrounded by consumption and wasted energy. All of the cardio machines, TV sets, fans, stereos and lights in this gym are plugged in and running all day long from open till close. Fitness centers, particularly in the United States (my home country) use an extraordinary amount of energy and water. Treadmills alone require about 1500 watts of energy to power and most machines and equipment in gyms are left on all day long (1).Stationary bikes lose about 90% of the energy they use in heat while only 10% is used to actually power the machine (2).  The gym would appear to be the ultimate antithesis of an environmentally friendly institution. It seems silly to be on machines that are reproducing motions that our bodies should be able to do on their own. Our lifestyles should, in theory, be supporting our health, right? We should be out in nature, running and walking and cycling and lifting every day items and we should all be in perfect shape. Gyms, in a perfect world, should be entirely unnecessary. But that is not how it works. We are endlessly confronted with the paradox of the developed world’s endless struggle with fitness. None of us are strangers to the epidemic of obesity that struck America and moved its way over to Ireland (and in a big way, might I add!)

Our world cannot become sustainable if the health our population is slowly deteriorating into a big lump of overweight consumers. Many gym enthusiasts will never give up their memberships in exchange for a jog outside, and many unfit or unhealthy individuals may have to rely on a gym as a way to find support and assistance in their efforts to become healthier.

So, are gyms just a necessary evil that will go on producing emissions at remarkably rapid rates, and we should just turn our heads the other way? It doesn’t seem so entirely hopeless! I started doing some research into the topic of sustainability in gyms and quickly found that I am not the only person who is troubled by the vast amount of water and energy wasted by gyms, particularly in the US. There is a wealth of information about the inefficiency of gyms and health centers, but there is also an incredibly interesting new trend of what are called eco gyms. Eco gyms operate on the idea that they can capture the energy that is expended while working out and use it to power their facilities, in theory rendering the building self-sustaining. Like gerbils spinning around a wheel, humans in a gym are in essence doing little else beyond producing energy in the form of burning calories. One of the many gyms that I read about was from Portland, Oregon (my hometown!) and uses incredibly low levels of energy by using specially designed machines that are and hooked up to DC generators that produce energy to power the facility (3). The gym also uses refurbished and sustainably manufactured equipment (even mountain bikes made of bamboo!) and the bathrooms use special water heaters and eco-friendly cleaning products. Eco gyms are becoming increasingly popular around the globe (4). They also include lower levels of lighting, relying more on natural light, more eco-friendly water usage, and sustainable cafes in their lobbies. There are, of course many problems, such as the high costs of “greening” an already existing facility, and the fact that many gyms are too small to actually produce enough energy to run their own machines, but these ideas seem incredibly helpful in moving the fitness industry in the right direction (5).  Of course, the only real way to eliminate emissions issues with gym facilities would be to move everyone’s workouts outside, but it would be great to see more facilities at least attempting to institute some of these practices or even for cities to start adding incentives for companies to do so so that our health and environment can become more sustainable. Some of these products, such as cardio equipment that captures and stores usable energy could even be useful in the home, producing power to fuel your ipods and cell phone chargers. You could offset your own footprint to some extent with your own human watts! I love the gym, but I am going to be more conscientious and start taking my workouts outside whenever the weather permits.

Katie Gourley

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