Your gym regime probably has a huge carbon footprint – here’s how to reduce it

Before forking out on a new pair of kicks or entering yet another race, you should check the price to make sure that you can actually afford it. Perhaps, argues Dr Bryna Chrismas, we should really be asking what the environmental cost of our athleisure, fitness watches and trips are.

Whether you are exercising at home, at work, or in a gym, your fitness routine is about more than just those muscle gains. Perhaps you regularly take a 30-minute yoga class at lunchtime for some much-need midday headspace, or you always go for a 6pm walk with your partner to catch up on the day. For many of us, fitness has become an integral part of our identities and lifestyles – and brands are capitalising on that.

From up-market boutique spin studios to aspirational luxury athleisure brands, fitness is everywhere. Sales of home-based exercise equipment, fitness app downloads, and use of virtual trainers showed massive growth since the start of Covid, with the total market size of the global fitness club industry growing to over $87 billion (£63 billion). 

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Across the world, there are now around 200,000 health and fitness clubs, the highest number of which are located in the United States, Germany, and the UK. So far, so positive. Who wouldn’t want to live in a country where gyms are open 24/7 and you’re only ever a stone’s throw away from a grass wheat smoothie?  

Well, all of this ‘wellness’ may not actually be that good for us after all. This obsession with exercise and fitspiration may be having a negative impact on you (it can lead to increased anxiety) and the planet. 

The more wild our fitness habits get, the more extreme the weather

After using all that energy in your spin class, it’s time for you to rest and recover. So, you pop into the hot jacuzzi, shower, change and head home to refuel. You probably haven’t even considered the other type of energy you used during your workout. From the electricity used to power the spin bike and sound system, to the water used in the shower, your monthly membership isn’t the only cost of your chosen exercise routine. 

Even working out at home, using virtual trainers, apps or online platforms creates CO2 emissions. And for those of you who prefer to exercise outdoors, there is the impact of running on the trails and through nature. 

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Participation in ultra-marathons and ultra-triathlon events has increased over the last decade. The Marathon des Sables (MDS) is a multistage ultramarathon in the Moroccan desert with temperatures soaring up to 50°C. In its inaugural year (1986), only 23 runners finished; by 2012, 795 runners finished the race.

70% of the competitors are international, as are many of the 140 volunteers on the course, and over 450 support staff. That’s a lot of people flying into the Sahara desert. Given the treacherous terrain and climate, the race also provides satellite tracking and spot devices, 162,000 liters of mineral water, 515 tents, 140 all-terrain vehicles, two helicopters, eight “MDS special” commercial planes, 25 buses, and one incinerator lorry for burning waste.

Races like Marathon de Sables are all about running in extreme conditions – and they’re only getting more extreme.

Extreme events like this might be bucket list goals but the environmental impact of them is mind-blowing. According to the United Nations, severe weather is becoming more and more frequent. This means events like the MDS are becoming even more intense and potentially dangerous. Someone even died during the event this year.

Major races such as the NYC marathon have previously been cancelled (2012) due to extreme weather. These risks and challenges require greater investment in medical teams, innovative technologies and support systems – all of which could have additional costs to the planet.

And the picture isn’t that different when entering your local trail 10k. Think about it: your local woodland is usually free from human intervention, but come race day, portaloos, signage, tents, single-use race bibs and cups are out in force. In that regard, the pandemic may have done us an accidental favour; the rise of virtual races and events may not only be more convenient for you, but they use 40 times less CO2 than traditional races.

Fast fitness fashion is pushing us faster to the finish line

Fast fashion brands typically use polyester (ie plastic) and elastane in their leggings. In 2015, production of polyester resulted in more than 706 billion kg of CO2 emissions, and while some brands are now launching ‘sustainable’ active wear ranges, a lot of this is just greenwashing.

Simply using recycled polyester in a pair of leggings does not make a brand ethical or sustainable. Everything from the sourcing of the fabric, to the production and packaging of the product should be as sustainable as possible, with the carbon emissions calculated and offset. Perhaps it’s time to call out brands who claim to be sustainable and yet litter our timelines with influencers endorsing one new ‘green’ collection after the other. 

Roughly £140 million worth (350,000 tonnes) of clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year and your gym clothes, if made from polyester or lycra, can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. In a landfill, the decomposing clothes release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

How to make your fitness regime greener

That all might sound a bit overwhelming, but I promise you, it’s not all climate doom and gloom. The good news is that you make small changes to your own exercise routine to help protect the planet, and it’s also important to note that this isn’t only your responsibility.

 The fashion, fitness and sporting industries all have a huge role to play in making exercise more sustainable and ensuring that genuinely green kit and classes are accessible to all.

Here are my nine tips for cleaning up your fitness regime:

  1. Travel actively. If you are able to, walk or cycle instead of taking the car or choose a gym close to your home or work to save the extra emissions on travel.
  2. Watch your water time. Be mindful of how long you spend in the shower post-workout (while making sure that you do actually get clean). Try to use zero-waste and plastic-free shampoo, shower gel and deodorant.
  3. Wash carefully. Use a micro-filter bag when washing your clothing to catch those microplastics.
  4. Always opt for reusable tools. Use a reusable water bottle during your workout.
  5. Say ‘no’. Opt out of unwanted marketing (emails, gym newsletters etc.) and free T-shirts at races and events.
  6. Do the maths. Use an app to calculate and offset your CO2 emissions travelling to and from the gym, your sports club or race.
  7. Wear green. Choose high quality sustainable activewear clothing that is designed to last. Buy second hand if possible, and donate to a charity or organization that can reuse or repair like Re-run Clothing.
  8. Change the way you race. Enter a virtual race rather than picking ones in far-flung locations, and opt for races that have gone cupless, don’t hand out free shirts and are actively off-setting their carbon expenditure. 
  9. Put your power to good use. Try a gym like Terra Hale, which runs on power generated by human force. 

In Stylist’s new digital series Picture of Health, we investigate what health looks like for women today – from redefining mental health and fitness, to examining issues around race and disability inclusivity. For investigations, first-person essays and features check back here daily.

Images: Getty

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