Updated 12 August 2013

My sweat is green

Don’t waste that muscle power – a fit body is a potent tool to help the planet. Join the green gym movement.

The “green gym” or “green exercise” concept promotes physical activity that helps the environment at the same time.

In its most literal form, green gymming involves using human power to convert kinetic energy to electrical energy; for example, pedalling a stationary bicycle connected to a generator. There are a handful of gyms around the world where you can do exactly that: gym members’ efforts are what keep the lights on.

But more often, green gymming simply means getting involved in vigorous outdoor activities, from tree-planting to firefighting, which get you fit, give you a dose of ecotherapy and use your muscle to do good works for the environment. They cost nothing or next to it – a lot less than a gym membership anyway.

Green gyms also use few resources. The average indoor gym, like many buildings, is not too environmentally friendly. It’s kept very well-lit and air-conditioned, and those pounding soundsystems and treadmills all require energy to run too.

Analyses of green gym programmes in the UK show that the physical and psychological benefits are undeniable. The benefits of regular exercise are well known, but findings from the relatively new field of ecotherapy strongly suggest that interacting with natural environments satisfies some deep evolutionary need and is vital for our mental health, reducing stress levels and boosting mood.

Green gymming ideas

Some ways to combine a workout with helping the environment:

Tree planting
Long-lived trees fight climate change by sequestering (storing) carbon, thus keeping it out of the atmosphere. They also help dilute and buffer pollution in urban areas, provide wildlife habitat and shade, anchor soil and green the grey. Contact an organisation like Greenpop to join up with one of their tree-planting events, or go it alone - but read more on tree planting first.

Gardening is a respectable way to up your exercise and "green exposure" hours, burning around 250-350 calories per hour. The digging and lugging around of saplings involved in tree-planting is moderately strenuous; just watch your back when bending and lifting though…

Find out how many calories different activities burn with the Burn-o-meter.

Wildfire fighting
Climate change and urban encroachment into semi-wilderness areas is causing more, and bigger wildfires in fire-prone parts of the world, such as South Africa.

Although a certain number of wildfires are natural and even beneficial – some fynbos species need fire to generate their seeds, for example – too many destroy vegetation and decimate wildlife. Wildfire smoke also contributes to air pollution, and to climate change in that combustion releases carbon trapped in vegetation. Volunteers play an important role in supporting professional fire suppression efforts.

John Murray, training manager at Cape Town’s Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS)  describes wildfire fighting as “heavy high-speed gardening” –  he’s referring to the main grunt work on the fireline: beating flames, cutting firebreaks and dousing with firehoses (much heavier and trickier than the garden variety).

This can be gruelling, especially given it's done in heat, smoke and dust. VWS media and marketing manager Patrick Ryan adds that to appreciate what this kind of "gardening" is like, imagine doing it "fully clothed in winter gear in a bikram yoga studio!"

Reasonable fitness is a prerequisite to being safe and effective as a firefighter. All VWS members who wish to perform active duty on the fireline must pass a fitness test and a basic physical exam, and attend regular training. In addition to actually putting out flames, wildland firefighting often involves hiking over rough terrain.

Says Ryan: "What is very enjoyable is exercising outdoors and using available materials, rather than weights and gym gear to train with. Getting one's hands dirty so to speak."

More on the VWS fitness requirements.

EnviroHealth main page shows VWS members during a training session. Photo: Andrew Hagen.

Litter isn’t just a visual blight. Animals (and kids) get entangled in plastic and nylon, cut themselves on metal edges and broken glass, and ingest toxins from litter. Toxins can also leach out of litter (cigarette butts are a prime example) into ground water. 

You can do your own cleanup by taking along a trash bag and picking up litter on a hike, or join one of several organised coastal and estuarine cleanups held round the country annually.

Trekking for Trash” is a seven-month litter and recycling awareness hike along SA’s coastline by two social change adventurers – you can join them for various events and show support along the way.

Active transport
Essentially, whenever you move using the human dynamo that is your own body instead of fossil fuelled transport, you're helping to combat climate change and pollution.

Clever human-powered devices are being designed, refined and pressed into service for the environment (and for sheer fun): apart from electricity-generating gym bikes, there are pedal-powered boats that clean rivers, bicycles that purify an attached water-tank as you cycle, even pedal-powered laptops. Most aren’t widely available yet, but no matter – they are really all variations of the bicycle and our own feet, which are the fundamentals of greening city transport.

See How to be a Road Warrior.

Sports for green causes
Simply making use of nature reserves for outdoor adventure sports is a way to help the environment. The entrance fee keeps the reserve going, and more people using reserves demonstrates to politicians it’s something we want backed by the state too.

In addition, there are numerous sporting events held round the country specifically to raise funds for the environment. South African National Parks' Honorary Rangers organise events that include mountain biking, runs and golfing – often in reserves – to raise funds for counter poaching and other initiatives.

Keep an eye on Health24’s weekly Green Tips for news of more green sporting events.

Got a good green gym idea or event to share? Email me or post on the EnviroHealth Forum. If it's a planet-saver, we'll publish it.

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