Why you should care
Eco-friendly gyms and products promise to help you breathe better as you work out. But how much are they helping the environment?
Back in 2008, Adam Boesel could be found messing around with a spin bike in his house. After some tinkering, he attached a small, wind-turbine-like device to the bicycle so that the motor could function like a generator. Buoyed by this success, Boesel began retrofitting treadmills and ellipticals so that the energy generated by their use could be fed back to the grid. That, in turn, led him to open a facility called The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon.
Boesel isn’t the only player in the fitness industry connecting the dots between exercise and our energy footprint. It’s a business decision as much as an environmental one. Research in recent years, such as a 2014 study of fitness centers in Lisbon, Portugal, has shown that gyms experience heightened carbon dioxide concentration and that higher occupancy correlates with the concentration of particulate matter in the air.
Now, instead of just spinning their wheels, a growing number of studios, fitness centers and products are emerging with the promise of eco-friendly environments or cleaner air for customers. Re:Mind Meditation Studio and Supersonic Fitness Gym in London, founded in 2018 and 2019 respectively, have self-sustaining “living walls” covered in greenery that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen — a nod back to the “vertical gardens” popular in the 1930s. In Beijing, there’s Oxygym, a fitness center that has commodified the city’s pervasive air pollution. The chain has applied for more than 30 patents for its features, which include a tube that pops up next to a treadmill for runners to suck in oxygen as needed.
The value is that they make us aware of the footprint we have.
Katrina Henry, Virginia Wesleyan University
When it comes to the great outdoors, companies are advertising shoes and bicycles that claim to purify the air. London-based Active Air designs shoes that filter air through a one-way valve, while Studio Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Bicycles, developed with a Chinese bike-sharing platform, are outfitted with a plug-in device that spouts oxygen from the handlebars.
Skeptics highlight that while these offerings might help the athletes using them, they’re of little benefit to the global effort to fight pollution and a changing climate. They encapsulate a question at the heart of society’s response to climate change: Is the priority to repair a damaged world, or to figure out ways to keep living as we want within it?
Still, such facilities and equipment appeal to millennials and Gen Zers with a demonstrated interest in personal wellness and growing consciousness about climate change. Those behind these initiatives argue they can also usher in mental health benefits for users. And even experts who question how much these initiatives directly benefit the climate say they help consumers to confront today’s environmental challenges.
“The value is that they make us aware of the footprint we have,” says Katrina Henry, an environmental scientist at Virginia Wesleyan University.
That gyms have poorer air quality than similar-sized indoor spaces makes sense. Those doing intensive exercise breathe rapidly through the mouth rather than the nose, which typically filters out particulate matter. Oxygen gets quickly consumed in the room, which in turn fills with carbon dioxide. And fitness centers tend to have inefficient ventilation systems, the Lisbon research found. This introduces a conundrum for the 174 million health club members worldwide who work out to enhance their health, not strain it.
Yet in places with smog and polluted air — and even in cleaner cities during cold months — exercising outdoors presents other challenges. This offers a business opportunity for exercise equipment manufacturers offering technology that assures consumers they can breathe easy, whether in gyms or in polluted outdoor environments — an attractive draw given that the global fitness industry was valued at $94 billion in 2018, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Then there are the potential psychological benefits. “Even brief exposure to nature and natural stimuli has been shown to have positive effects on a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system,” says Emmeline Boyce, head of operations at London’s Re:Mind meditation studio. In fact, research published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2010 noted that study participants experienced less anxiety when immersed in what they perceived to be an increasingly natural environment. Other research suggested this was true even when it was an electronic image of a natural scene, says James Neill, a University of Canberra professor who co-authored the research.
Questions persist about how much these innovations actually help the environment, though. Henry, for instance, notes that the energy-generating bicycle in one of Virginia Wesleyan University’s academic buildings could never generate enough electricity to meaningfully help power the building. Other research suggests there’s little evidence that supplemental oxygen improves athletes’ performance, even if it keeps them going.
Meanwhile, Boesel says the fitness industry remains slow to integrate new technology. Switching equipment is cost-intensive and gym owners often prefer existing machinery if customers are satisfied. “I would say that the train is leaving the station but there’s probably still time to get on board before it becomes mainstream,” says Boesel. But slow adoption could be good for the planet, suggest some experts. Maintaining machines carries a lower carbon footprint than buying and shipping new ones. “You’re better off making do with what you have than getting something new,” Henry says.
As this push gains steam, fitness companies like Sports Art are offering services to design green gym floor plans. Their metrics-based approach measures energy and impact, speaking the language of athletes accustomed to Fitbits and Apple Watches.
Even with their limitations, Henry acknowledges that these gyms and gadgets have their benefits. The bicycle at her university prompts students to better understand energy consumption. “It’s better to put even a watt back into the system than to take a watt out.”