Eco Etiquette: Should I Cancel My Gym Membership?

The other day, I offered to take my friend with me as a guest to my local health club. He seemed surprised that I belong to a gym, and pointed out that since I'm eco-conscious (I drive a Prius, always buy organic), I should probably just skip the cardio machines and start running outside instead. Now I feel guilty. Should I cancel my gym membership?


The next time you're at the gym, take a good look around. See those rows and rows of elliptical machines, treadmills, and exercise bikes plugged into the wall? I couldn't find any hard energy expenditure facts for you, but when you consider that at last count there were 29,000 fitness centers in the US, it doesn't take a DOE analyst to point out the inordinate amount of electricity that's being wasted -- especially when you consider that a lot of these activities could easily be done sans equipment. Don't forget about the energy tab of all those televisions entertaining you on that Stairmaster, either, as well as the piles of single-use towels laundered for the locker rooms. Add in, too, the gas guzzled to drive you to and from your workouts. I never got the appeal of wasting the time to travel to the gym, only to zone out and make like a hamster once there. Why not just wake up, lace up your shoes, and go for a walk or run?

I do understand the motivation factor. It's just plain hard for some of us to commit wholeheartedly to that workout unless we're under the watchful eyes of skinny girls in spandex (or muscley men in man-thongs?) or have the galvanizing guilt of a prepaid membership. And, you could make the argument that gym-goers benefit the environment in the long run, because healthy, in-shape people are less likely to pollute our waterways by taking prescription drugs, and more likely to eat in a way that benefits sustainable agriculture (less fast food, more veggies).

Of course, it's easy for me to say you should just go jump rope outside or strap on your rollerblades -- I live in Los Angeles, where it's pretty much sunny and 75 degrees year round and even lawyers can squeeze in a couple hours of surf time before the office. Do you live in a similar climate? Then yes, if you're as committed to sustainability as you say, you probably should cancel that membership. Find a training buddy and speed-walk around the neighborhood, hit the trails with your family for a long hike on the weekend, or find a community tennis court and schedule a friendly match with a pal. Even better: Swap your Prius for a bike commute a few mornings a week.

More reasons that may convince you to trade your treadmill for tree-lined streets: Connecting with nature, especially in urban areas, has been shown to be essential to human health; exercising regularly outdoors allows your body to produce vitamin D, of which three in four Americans have inadequate levels, putting them at risk for heart disease, cancer, and compromised immune functioning; and do I even need to mention the money you'll be saving in this atrocious economy?

But let's say you live in Minneapolis and can't feasibly exercise in four feet of snow and near-Arctic temperatures. Make your trip to the gym low-impact (environmentally speaking) by sticking to some people-powered activities: Shoot some hoops, take a yoga class, or hit the weight room. And you might be interested to know that spinning is eco-friendly, since the bikes are motored by you, not the utility company.

And if you're really committed to the cause, consider convincing your club to take a cue from the green exercise gurus behind Portland's Green Microgym, which harnesses human energy from its retrofitted cardio equipment to power the building. The gym even offers rewards dollars for the electricity its members generate that can be used toward goodies like gift certificates to local businesses and massages. Now that's what I call working out!

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.