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Gyms, exercisers adopt eco-friendly habits

People can go green without abandoning their exercise routines.
People can go green without abandoning their exercise routines. (Photo From Bigstock)
By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Adrienne Spahr smelled something funny every time she worked out at Vida Fitness, a swanky health club at Verizon Center. But the founder of Green Living Consulting wasn't laughing. She knew that the offending odor came from noxious chemicals in the cleaning products. "And that was not okay," she says.

So Spahr approached the general manager with a proposal to give the gym an eco-makeover. A year later, things are in much better shape: High-wattage light bulbs have been swapped for compact fluorescents, recycling receptacles are prominently displayed and the janitors use all-natural products.

Those practices have spread to the two other Vida locations, and owner David von Storch is aiming for LEED Platinum certification for the forthcoming U Street club by overhauling the building: Plans call for heat generated from exercisers to help warm the water for the showers and rooftop pool, and rainwater will find new life in the club's toilets and urinals.

But Spahr warns that it's still not time to breathe easy, because as an industry, fitness has a long way to go in becoming environmentally friendly.

Sporty types may eschew gas guzzlers in favor of bike commutes or devote their weekends to exploring hiking trails. Yet many of those same folks also like to log time in climate-controlled gyms filled with electricity-hogging equipment, sign up for races that leave streets strewn with paper cups and wash their stinky clothes every day. Just because that vast carbon footprint looks like a sneaker doesn't make it any better.

Does that mean you have an excuse to stop exercising? Nope. Instead, try to "run hard, tread lightly," a motto on one of the 100-percent-recycled polyester shirts sold by Atayne. Owner Jeremy Litchfield launched the brand in Arlington two years ago, after he realized the performance apparel he was buying was made of unpronounceable pollutants that would probably linger in landfills.

Beyond the manufacturing process, Atayne is attempting to reduce the energy consumed by its products after they're in the hands of consumers -- i.e., cutting back on all those tumbles through the washer and dryer -- by putting a loop in the back. "It's a reminder that our tops dry extremely quickly," Litchfield says. "Take it in the shower with you to rinse off, and avoid washing every time."

And once a wicking shirt from any brand has seen better days, you can send it into the company's take-back recycling program, which rewards folks with $5 coupons.

Although Litchfield (and the company) just relocated to Maine, the Atayne spirit lives on in the area with the D.C. Trash Runners (http://www.meetup.com/DCTrashRunners), a group he helped found that scoops up debris while taking on local trails and roads. But there's no need to join a group to do it. You can pick up litter whenever you're out for a jog, headed to yoga or on your way home to plop down on the couch.

"Trash running always makes me feel better," says Bruce Rayner. But that's not such a surprise. He's the chief green officer of Athletes for a Fit Planet, a company he launched last year after getting fed up with how wasteful races had become. Participants often fly and drive in from long distances, goody bags get distributed only to be ultimately dumped, and runners abandon heaps of clothes at the start line.

He now helps event organizers implement more-sustainable practices, either for feel-good reasons or to obtain certification from the Council for Responsible Sport (Resport), a two-year-old independent body that recognizes races that live up to its rigorous standards.

One of his most recent clients: the Marine Corps Marathon. Over the past few years, the race had started recycling and taken other eco-strides. But this year, it was Rayner's job to make sure Resport's interim executive director, Marisa McGilliard, and its certification director, Kristin Gunderson, were satisfied, so the organizers upped the ante by printing the program on recycled paper with vegetable-based inks, turned last year's signage into souvenir bags and had runners slurp from Aquafina bottles made with 50 percent less plastic, among other changes.

When I met up with McGilliard and Gunderson near the finish line, they gazed approvingly as runners collected their medals and stumbled toward their families. "People are putting the heat sheets in the trash. But that's fine if they're pulling them out later," Gunderson noted as she snapped photos. (Turns out the silver blankets they gave runners to keep their core temperatures up were also recyclable.)

Not everything went as planned. The compostable cups turned out not to be. But McGilliard emphasized that part of the certification process is setting a base line and improving on it the following year. For instance, maybe for the 2010 race, participants will be able to opt out of T-shirts or medals during online registration so that less waste is created.

Hopefully Resport can start a little friendly competition between the Marine Corps Marathon and the Baltimore Running Festival, the only other local event that has sought certification. The Charm City race, held just a few weeks earlier, went extra eco this year thanks to sponsor Under Armour, which used it to announce the debut of its Catalyst T-shirt, made from recycled plastic bottles. It'll hit store shelves in about a month, but the 20,364 participants in the festival got a sneak peek with their race tees.

Smart way to promote a product. And the environment.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company