Building a Better Future: The Evolution of Environmentally Sustainable Gyms

It’s hard to imagine a high street or retail park without a gym or fitness centre, but while organised spaces...

It’s hard to imagine a high street or retail park without a gym or fitness centre, but while organised spaces for physical activity are now commonplace, the gym is actually a relatively modern phenomenon.  

Structured exercise has roots in Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Greek cultures. Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of a fitness club first emerged in Europe and North America. Gold’s Gym opened its first premises in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and from the 1970s onwards, we started seeing the emergence of chain gyms, which made structured exercise more accessible to a broader audience. This has continued into the 21st century. Today, there are 4,880 gyms and fitness centres in the UK. In the US, there are 115,047 and rising.  

Specialist gyms are more popular now too. These focus on niche fitness disciplines like cross-fit, boxing, indoor cycling, weightlifting, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, etc. There's also been a growing trend towards sustainable fitness, especially eco-friendlier or carbon-neutral gyms.


What is an environmentally sustainable gym?  

An environmentally friendly gym takes its environmental impact seriously. This can include using energy-efficient equipment and lighting, adopting green cleaning practicesrecycling, reducing water usage and eradicating single-use plastic. Gyms may move towards sustainability slowly by introducing measures to reduce environmental impact over time, or they might use sustainability as part of their USP and pursue eco-friendly policies and practices from day one.  


How have environmentally sustainable gyms evolved?  

The first ‘ecological’ gym opened in Oregon in 2008. Its owner had designed and developed electricity-generating indoor bikes to help power the small Portland gym. A Taiwanese company has been successfully building and shipping electricity-generating equipment globally since the late 1970s. Several eco-gyms have opened in London in recent years, many of which operate at the premium end of the gym market. Terra Hale was London’s ‘first eco-friendly' fitness destination, focusing on sustainability and wellness.

Advancing technologies mean that electricity-generating gym equipment is now more efficient than ever. Energym has filed several patents and designed and developed microgeneration technology that captures and converts human power more efficiently than its competitors. We’ve just completed our first gym installation in Berlin, where 5 to 7 full daily classes can generate as much as 7 or 8 kWh of power per session, enough to power the studio’s air conditioning, sound, 

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Other companies have approached energy-generating indoor bikes from a whimsical or fun angle. Some companies provide gym equipment for holiday parks, events, schools, festivals, etc.  

It’s not just about the equipment either. We’re beginning to see a more sustainable set of business practices at an operational level. For example, The Gym Group is the UK’s first carbon-neutral gym and its planning to achieve net zero by 2045. They’re doing this by purchasing 100% renewable energy, replacing all lighting with LEDs, and recycling 95% of their waste, among other things. 

Other gyms have started their sustainability journey by adopting new waste management systems and banning single-use plastic. Gyms with shower facilities and swimming pools have also benefitted from improving water efficiency. VOC-free cleaning agents are becoming more popular as an alternative to harsh industrial-strength chemical cleaners that can trigger respiratory issues in some people and contribute to poor air quality. 

What started as an office design trend is also influencing the gym industry – biophilic design is about bringing the outdoors inside. It’s heavily influenced by nature's vital role in our physical and mental health. Gyms adopting this are likely to use natural materials like wood, bamboo and stone and introduce greenery for air quality.  

Outdoor gyms can also generate clean power, albeit on a much smaller scale when compared to the potential of indoor cycling studios. These individual pieces of equipment use USBs to charge mobile phones and tablets and are popular in schools and parks, etc. These are great because they give access to people who may otherwise be unable to go to the gym. It also encourages people to get outside and in the fresh air.  

Staying on the theme of outdoor exercise, there’s also the Green Gym which isn’t technically a gym as there’s no equipment but which gets people moving by working out during outdoor projects like planting, digging, watering, etc. This conservation effort is a great way to support wildlife and local environments that may otherwise be neglected. As our understanding of fitness changes, we may start looking beyond traditional forms of exercise to stay fit and healthy, and this is the perfect inroad for supporting sustainability in ways that complement energy-generating gym equipment and eco-friendly practices outside a traditional gym setting.


The Future of Environmentally Sustainable Gyms  

Sustainability will influence the future of gyms in the same way it’s already beginning to influence other industries. Younger people are now more climate-conscious than their predecessors and willing to pay more to companies aligned with their beliefs. Gyms will have to introduce eco-friendly measures or risk losing out to other clubs and studios that do. Industry leaders like The Gym Group will also set the tone for smaller chains and businesses, influencing others in the industry on issues more than just fitness-related trends.  

Gym equipment that can be repaired and reused rather than replaced is a far more sustainable option. For larger gyms looking to update and refresh their inventory, selling the equipment rather than sending it to landfill is one option that could also generate some income. Several gyms already do this. There are also companies to facilitate sales. Weights are one example of a low-maintenance piece of equipment that can last decades. 

There’s also the potential for modular gyms inside buildings. This is where a permanent gym is created but inside a self-contained space that is easy to adapt and move. At Energym, we’ve been looking at a similar idea within offices where employees can exercise in our ECO:POD on electricity-generating indoor bikes for employee well-being and sustainability.  

Other trends are likely to merge with sustainability too. People are now more concerned with personal health and nutrition. This may be reflected in what types of food, drink or supplements are sold in the gym and where they’ve come from.  

Sustainability may also intersect with the wearable technology market too. In the instance of Energym, we’re using technology that shows how much clean energy a rider has generated. A live power metre built into the Ohm battery on the RE:GEN home bike helps riders maintain and improve their performance over time. 

Ultimately, the future of environmentally sustainable gyms will follow broader societal trends, and sustainability is an issue that isn’t going away. As gym members and potential gym members become eco-friendlier in their homes and workplaces, they’ll inevitably expect the same from other businesses, including where they work out. Gyms will have to start introducing eco-friendlier practices, and we’ll likely see more carbon-neutral and energy-generating gyms opening in the future. After all, gyms have always responded well to consumer trends and adapted according to market conditions, and climate change will be no different.

 Find out more about the electricity-generating RE:GEN Studio for gyms.



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