Are Gyms Bad for the Environment?

Are Gyms Bad for the Environment?

One thing we’ve realised as we begin the commercial roll-out of our electricity-generating indoor bikes is that all gyms are different and that some will naturally have smaller carbon footprints than others. There are usually several reasons for this. 

One of the most common is that most gyms don’t own the buildings they operate from but lease them commercially from landlords. This makes adapting the building with effective sustainability-enhancing measures like solar panels difficult. 

The building’s size, age and the types of facilities offered with membership will play a role. It will also depend on the style of the gym (CrossFit, personal training, boutique, etc) and its target demographic. Green gyms are becoming popular but may align more with specific social and financial groups than others.

Awareness around sustainability is growing across wider society, and it makes sense that we’re now beginning to see it spill over into the fitness industry, too, but when it comes to addressing the eco-friendliness of gyms, are there any common denominators? Are gyms bad for the environment, or are they no worse than any other business in 2022?  

How Bad are Gyms for the Environment? 

Most of us realise climate change poses a clear and present danger to human life, business, and industry. Whether you’re a CEO, employee or customer, there’s now a growing expectation that companies should reduce their environmental impact. Over the last few years, sustainability has had many guises, including corporate social responsibility and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria. 

But whilst in the past, it could be a cynical box-checking task for business leaders or marketing teams, now people are taking it more seriously, and consumers and clients are demanding to see proof that the companies and businesses they patronise are doing enough to help stop climate change.

Gyms are no different. 

Unfortunately, much of the industry is still recovering from the impact of COVID-19, during which time gyms were forced to close for several months to combat rising infection rates. This has put eco-friendliness on the back-burner as businesses recover from the financial sucker punch of the global pandemic. 

Electricity Usage in Gyms

Gyms require a lot of electricity. They power everything from exercise equipment, heating and lighting, air conditioning units, and vending machines. There are screens and displays, stereo systems and fans. Some of it may be a little frivolous (fridges and random TVs for example), but a lot of it is necessary for the safe running of the facility, including the lighting and the HVAC system to help keep members safe and comfortable during their time in the building. Air conditioning also allows people to work out more effectively, reducing the risk of fatigue and dehydration. And of course, without the equipment, some of which is a constant draw on electricity, there’d be no gym in the first place.

In the US, SAGE writes that large-scale gyms pay between $63,465 and $68,413 on electricity yearly. 

Man swimming in a pool with his head under water

Gym Water Consumption 

It isn’t just electricity, either. Gyms can use a lot of water too. One study by the University of Minnesota found that health clubs get through thousands of gallons of water to fill swimming pools and for cleaning, heating, air conditioning, toilets and showers. Clean Link has a case study on its website detailing how The Longfellow Club in Boston started out using an average of 256,000 gallons of water per month, but after water-saving methods were put into place (using waterless urinals and changes to shower heads), this was reduced to around 165,000 gallons per month. 

We can compare this to the average water usage of a hotel — anything between 100 and 400 gallons of water per room per day. The lower end of this average has each hotel room using around 3000 gallons per month. It suggests that a hotel with 50 rooms could use get through 150,000 gallons, which isn’t too far off the second Longfellow gym example.

We mentioned in the introduction that all gyms are different (and so too are hotels and other businesses), so it’s challenging to make a like-for-like comparison, but what the above example does suggest is that there will be gyms that are more water-efficient than other businesses, including hotels. Gyms may be no worse for the environment than a shopping centre, office building or school.

Equipment Choices

The choice of equipment and fittings also affects how eco-friendly a gym is. It’s how the rowing machine was made, whether the elliptical uses eco-friendly components, whether the indoor cycling class generates clean electricity with each workout or draws from the grid. And is the flooring sustainable? Can the mats and any textiles in the decor come from more environmentally-friendly manufacturers? And when these objects and items have fulfilled their purpose, how will the gym dispose of them? Can they be recycled, re-used or repurposed and kept out of landfill? Commercial standard cardio machines have a ‘lifespan of between 7 and 10 years’ but what happens next?

Cleaning Choices for Gyms

We’d all like to believe that gyms are cleaned efficiently and thoroughly. Health Digest documents one study by FitRated that found, on average, exercise bikes have 39 times more bacteria on them than a reusable cafeteria tray, and free weights have 362 times more bacteria than a treadmill. Nobody wants to get sick from touching dirty equipment, so gyms use strong chemical cleaners to reduce the risk to members, but cleaning equipment can be environmentally damaging. Chemicals from these cleaners can easily get washed into water sources like streams and rivers and become significant pollutants. And it’s not just the environmental impact but also the impact these cleaners can have on people’s lungs. One group of researchers found that people using commercial cleaners are exposed to ‘as much particle pollutants as if they were sitting beside a public road’. 

And again, whilst gyms are responsible for ensuring their facilities are hygienic, this isn’t only an issue affecting the places we work out. Commercial cleaning equipment is used in all public places, including hotels, schools, hospitals, shopping areas, offices, etc. 

How Bad are Gyms for the Environment?

Gyms certainly have an environmental impact. They use electricity and water, and each has the equipment and cleaning inventories that can negatively affect the environment. Indeed, there is a lot that gym owners can do to improve their premises' eco-friendliness and carbon footprint, and that should be a responsibility they take seriously. 

It’s why Energym is launching electricity-generating indoor bikes so that gyms can capture the power from their members’ workouts and use it to offset energy bills. 

But gyms are not necessarily any worse for the environment than other businesses in the leisure sector. Beyond it, their carbon footprint is lower than the travel, agriculture and manufacturing industries. Change is going to have to be societal-wide.

But gyms are directly dependent on their members. We’ll likely see a switch towards more sustainable practices within fitness centres as they seek to align with the growing social acceptance of sustainability. 


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