As wildfires, floods, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters grow more frequent and severe, many people think businesses need to step up their sustainability efforts. According to a 2015 Public Affairs Council survey, 59 percent of Americans believed major companies were generally not doing a good job of protecting the environment.
Some fitness facilities are trying to do their part. In April 2021, for example, gym chain Life Time updated its five-year sustainability plan. The company, with more than 150 locations in the United States and Canada, reported goals of reducing energy and water consumption, with further investments in equipment and operational efficiencies, and reducing their plastics footprint nationwide.
Some smaller gyms, including the Green Microgym Belmont in Portland, Ore., and Green Fitness Studio in Brooklyn, were built to be environmentally responsible. The Portland facility has ellipticals and spin bikes that convert users’ energy to electricity that helps power the building. Green Fitness Studio has mirrored glass to keep heating costs down, low-flow shower heads and faucets to save water, and a sod-covered “living roof” to lower cooling costs and pollution.
Environmentally friendly gyms aren’t just good for the planet, they’re good for your health. Stefanie Young, vice president of technical solutions at the U.S. Green Building Council, said green gyms typically have better indoor air quality and use fewer toxic chemicals in their cleaning procedures.
“All of that affects how the user engages with the space, so it’s important not just from an environmental aspect, but when you add the covid pandemic aspect, it’s even more important,” she said.
So how should you go about finding an eco-conscious gym or encouraging your current gym to become greener? We spoke with experts and identified questions you should consider and actions you can take.
If you’re in the market for a gym, take a tour before joining. “There’s a lot of pledging going on, to do XYZ by 2030,” said Bill Zujewski, chief marketing officer of the Green Business Bureau in Boston. Visiting a gym in person is especially important at a franchise, where corporate claims aren’t necessarily being fulfilled by the franchise owner, he added.
Questions to consider
What does the exterior look like? One of the clearest clues to a gym’s energy efficiency is also the easiest to spot: Its exterior walls and windows. This is known as the building envelope, which comprises the materials that create a barrier between inside and out. “If you have a really thin glass layer or envelope and a cold climate, like Minneapolis, you’re going to have a lot of heat loss,” Young cited as an example. Meanwhile, it would be hard to keep that space cool during the summer.
Is the gym using green energy? Because heating and electricity are major contributors to a gym’s carbon footprint, “One of the biggest bangs for a gym is to use green power,” Zujewski said. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, at least half of residential and commercial customers have the option to buy renewable energy from their power supplier, and everyone can buy renewable energy certificates. Also known as “green power” or “clean power,” in most states they’re available through programs such as green pricing, competitive electricity markets or green certificates.
Adam Zellner, president of Greener by Design in New Brunswick, N.J., suggests finding out whether green utility incentives are available in your gym’s Zip code and asking whether the owner is taking advantage of them. This could be the push they need to take action. “Before you know it, they look around and go, ‘Man, if [only] I had known that the utility would have paid for this energy-efficient chiller or HVAC [system]” he said.
Does the gym use LEDs and timers? Gyms should use energy-saving LED bulbs and keep them on timers or motion sensors to avoid wasting energy at slow times, Zujewski said. Similarly, facilities should track traffic patterns and use smart thermostats to adjust the temperature when the needs are highest.
Does the gym recycle and avoid single-use items? Gym owners can also take a green approach to materials management. That means not just recycling and composting, but also paying attention to what’s entering the building in the first place. Gyms should limit single-use products such as paper towels, cups and pamphlets, Young said. Having members fill containers with filtered water — rather than selling disposable bottles from resource-heavy refrigerated vending machines — is a “no-brainer,” Zujewski added.
What cleaning products does it use? “The more that they can clean green, especially now [during the pandemic], the better,” Zellner said. That means using biodegradable wipes, Zujewski advised. Jennifer Souder, director of planning at Greener by Design, recommended cleaning products that have received a Green Seal certification, which has standards on volatile organic compounds, packaging and animal testing.
Does the gym say it’s eco-conscious? While marketing isn’t everything, it matters. “If they’re not telling you they’re green, they’re probably not green,” said Adam Boesel, founder of the Green Microgym. Souder said that a truly green gym’s eco-friendly policies will be on its website.
If the website lists third-party certification, verify it. “A certain company might just kind of stamp themselves green,” Souder said. She suggested a quick Google search to make sure the certification is from a legitimate organization, such as LEED, from the U.S. Green Building Council, or B Corp.
Actions you can take
Watch out for greenwashing. To find out how green a place truly is, during a tour ask “what they’re doing around energy efficiency, sustainability, water conservation, plastic elimination,” Zujewski said. “They should have their checklist of [answers to] those five questions ready to go.” This is especially important at a franchise, where corporate claims aren’t necessarily being fulfilled by the franchise owner, he added.
Other red flags include plastic piling up in the lobby, having all the lights on when the building is empty, or when the gym’s green claims don’t match its practices. For example: Management says all the right things, but there’s a vending machine filled with plastic water bottles.
Examine your own gym habits. You can do your part, too. That means taking small but doable steps such as walking, biking or taking public transportation to the gym, bringing your own towel and taking a photo of a flier instead of grabbing the flier itself.
Young suggests letting the owner and operator know that sustainability matters to you, and that as a consumer you have choices. While your gym’s policies alone won’t make a big dent in climate change, “Every little thing counts,” Zellner said. “If 10 million of us [take action], then it’s a huge difference.”
Pam Moore is a Boulder, Colo., freelance writer and host of the “Real Fit” podcast, featuring conversations with female athletes on body image, confidence and more. Visit her at pam-moore.com.