Exercise, Fitness and the Environment
After spending the last few weeks feeling miserable because the weather has been serving us nothing less than mid-autumn realness, combined with the far more seriously miserable updates regarding the catastrophic state of our planet, I thought that a blog post on the sustainability element of fitness and exercise might be fitting. Sustainability is a word that is peddled around by fitness professionals all the time but it's usually in reference to how long you're going to be able to keep up a brutal fat loss shred as opposed to how long we're going to be able to ignore climate change. So, as well as bringing reusable bags to the supermarket for our shopping, switching off our lights at home (most of the time), and smugly handing over our reusable keep-cups to the barista in our fave coffee shops, is there anything we can do to make our exercise or sporting endeavours more environmentally friendly?
*Disclaimer: this isn't intended to be a preachy rant - I've not really considered any of this in detail before so we're learning together!*
The C word.
How do you get to the gym? The place that you're going to move your body and exercise your muscles, heart and lungs? Oh, by car?? (yeah same 😳). Is there a reason why you don't walk, jog or cycle, or use public transport? A study led by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit and researchers from Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, found that switching from car to bike for just one trip per day reduces an individual's carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes per year. If you're heading to the gym 3 times a week, that would be 1.5 tonnes of emissions, or 6 times a week for 3 tonnes across the year. It adds up surprisingly quickly.
So, is there a way you could make your journey to the gym more environmentally friendly? Yes, this might mean compromising on convenience or time, but saving the planet is going to require some compromise. Walk or jog down to the gym as a good cardio warm up. If you can't compromise on your car journey, can you lift share? Likewise for sports training and matches, are we car pooling to the max? Be proactive and organise lifts with friends or team mates. Or what about cycling? I've just got a practically new bike from Facebook marketplace and am v pleased with it so can definitely recommend (with a helmet and hi-viz plz)!
2. The GYM ITSELF
Have you ever considered the environmental impact of a gym? Me neither. But thinking about it, they are really not very sustainable places. All the energy needed to power treadmills and other equipment, heating water for swimming pools and showers, all the lights everywhere, air conditioning on regardless of the season, tv screens, speakers pumping, IT equipment and all the other bits and pieces. According to Slate and a weirdly in-depth analysis of the power consumption of treadmills, the average treadmill uses between 600 and 700 watts of energy, however commercial treadmills found in gyms (with screens and Netflix etc), are more likely to use around 900 watts. That’s *very approximately* the equivalent of watching seven or eight LCD televisions or leaving 75 light bulbs on for the duration of your workout. Extrapolate to the 10 or 20 treadmills your gym has, running pretty constantly from 6am to 10pm every day, and then times that by 7000 (the number of gyms in the UK), that's a lot of lightbulbs and also maths that is way too hard for me.
Lots to think about here then. Most obviously, we need to reconsider the need to use a machine for running when we literally have the means to do so without using any form of energy. But treadmills aside, are we missing opportunities to exercise in a greener way? Nature is our playground and it's totally possible to achieve peak physical fitness with not only no gym membership, but also no equipment. As a society and culture, we think we need gyms. It's an £8bn industry in the UK alone. However, how much of that is to do with cultural trends and fashions versus genuine enjoyment and fulfilment. Are we getting what we need from our gym memberships? Well less than half of us with gym memberships are; over £4 billion is wasted on unused gym memberships EVERY YEAR. Reversing climate change is going to be extremely costly, but as consumers we could choose to invest in protecting our planet rather than just watching it go down the drain and feeling guilty about not going to the gym.
3. A is for Active wear (aka. the only clothes that adorn my body)
When I was a teenager, active wear was still pretty expensive. I remember saving up for ages to buy a pair of proper lycra black leggings and a Nike sports bra (which I still have and wear over 8 years later). However, the active wear industry now is absolutely WILD. Last year, active wear sales accounted for a whopping 40% of ALL online purchases in the USA. Where 10 years ago, sportswear was very much kept to the realms of Decathlon, Sports Direct and the main brands of athletic wear (Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Canterbury, etc.), now it's possible to get fully kitted out for the gym from fast fashion brands like Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided. The environmental horrors that these brands contribute to have been well documented in the last couple of years, however, the active wear thing compounds the problem.
Remember the outrage about plastic straws killing turtles? Well that was a clever diversion away from the vastly more destructive environmental impact of the fashion industry. Synthetic materials like polyester are the biggest contributors of microplastic to the ocean (35% of all microplastics are from synthetics). It's not rocket science to understand that in order to make a pair of leggings cost £6 for the consumer but still turn a profit for the manufacturer, the materials used will be low quality and high in plastic, badly made and therefore won't last for a long time.
So what can be done? Buy second hand if you can. Or don't buy at all (easier said than done when the Nike app sends a notification about a new sale 😖). There are also plenty of brands selling recycled or reclaimed active wear, and Adidas is charging ahead of the other big mainstream brands with a pledge to make 60% of it's products from sustainable materials (like reclaimed plastics) by the end of the year. Washing our clothes is also something to think about. I am guilty of washing my gym kit every single time I wear it. In some cases I definitely shouldn't think about wearing it for a second time, but I can definitely plan better with my outfits and workout schedule to try and minimise washing. Every time we wash our clothes (especially these synthetics), microfibres and plastics get washed down the drain and eventually end up in the sea. Try and be more discerning about whether you need to wash your gym kit or whether you can get another wear out of it (on an outside run where you're not likely to distress anyone with a sweaty smell for example...). You can also get laundry filters which catch up to 54% of the microfibres released in every wash. They're quite expensive (from £30), but if used once or twice a week for all your clothes, that could make a big difference very quickly.
I'm not a vegan, however the environmental (and health) arguments for eating a plant-based diet (note that plant-based does not necessarily mean no meat) are hard to ignore. The food production industry contributes to 25% of global greenhouse emissions and the meat and dairy industry make up over 80% of that in Europe. Exercise enthusiasts or gym-goers are perhaps more likely to expect meat at every meal for the #proteingains, however it's important that everyone starts to reduce meat consumption in order to protect the planet. The graph below is from research showing that plant-based protein sources have the lowest carbon footprint, nuts actually have a negative carbon footprint. Even the worst producers of plant proteins, and the best producers of meat and dairy have similar carbon emissions but the meat usually comes off worse.
So, what do we do with this info? The most important thing is to feel empowered to make a difference. Our choices as individuals will have a negligible impact on global emissions, however as a collective body of consumers, they will. So not only will you be doing your own physical (and financial) health a favour by choosing to swap the meat for a big plate of veggies and some bean quesadillas for example, over time the societal move away from meat and dairy products towards more sustainable, locally sourced plant-based products will make a big difference to the planet. You don't need to compromise on your protein intake or worry about nutritional deficiencies if you're still eating some sources of meat or dairy every now and again, or even if you choose to give both up completely. There are plenty of elite vegan athletes (Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Scott Jurek, and Colin Kaepernick to name but a few). I do think it's quite a lazy thing to say that you have to have meat in order to sustain athletic performance or a body aesthetic as it's clearly not true 🤷♀️
As an informal conclusion, here's a list of 8 ideas to reduce the impact of your fitness regime on the environment:
Take the car out of the equation. It's not needed, it's just wanted/preferable. Walk or cycle to the gym. Can you swap gyms if yours really requires a drive?
If you're not using your gym membership, don't have one. Get outside, join a sports club, just find a routine that serves you better and brings you fulfilment. Stop putting money into an industry that's not doing the environment any good.
Cut back on plastics. Use a reusable water bottle. Don't buy protein shakes in plastic bottles, bring fuel and snacks from home rather than buying plastic wrapped snacks at the gym.
Go without. We need to collectively change our mindset from having whatever we want at any cost to the environment to paring back and making sustainable consumer choices. If that means simply not buying something, then that's an admirable decision. Do you need another pair of trainers, do you need a new sports bra, or are you being influenced by marketing emails or peer pressure?
Swap out the meat. Rice and beans, veggie chilli, scrambled eggs on toast... there are so many ideas for high protein vegetarian meals online too.
Buy sustainably made active wear or second hand active wear or trainers from apps like Depop, Vinted or eBay, or from charity shops, and make sure you donate any of your unwanted active wear to charity to give it a second life.
Wash your lycra in moderation - squeeze an extra wear from your tops or leggings when you can.
Share lifts with friends to sports training or fixtures and be more proactive with arranging lift shares with people you're not necessarily as close with. Reach out, form connections, have new interactions and benefit the planet at the same time!
I have definitely benefited from doing some research into this and it's certainly given me a lot to reflect upon on my own consumer habits. I hope you've also found some of these ideas useful and that you feel encouraged to think about ways in which you could tweak elements of your fitness/gym routine to be more sustainable. Check out some of my other blog posts to read more about other aspects of fitness, nutrition, weight and weight-loss!
Also please do go and explore my website which is now looking all sparkly and fresh having received my new logos for Seed PT! Get in touch if you've got any questions or feedback, or if you're interested in training with me.