Sustainable Fitness Equipment Receives Mixed Reviews


Some fitness clubs are finding it isn’t always easy being green. At least two large university rec centers in the Midwest recently pulled the plug on technology retrofitted to their ellipticals that harnessed the energy of a workout and turned it into electrical power to be fed back into the club’s electric grid. But other users sing the praises of this technology.

In fall 2009, the Ambler Recreation Fitness Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, installed technology to turn 15 elliptical machines into mini power converters designed to promote the center’s green profile and reduce electrical power usage and cost. Initially, students were excited about and engaged in the green technology, but that interest began to wane, especially as many of the students said they thought the retrofitted machines’ resistance was greater than that of the non-retrofitted ellipticals, says Mary Chappell, director of recreational services at the rec center.

“People want a workout, not to be a workhorse,” Chappell says.

In addition to these concerns, the $20,000 investment in the technology was shaving just $35 per month off the rec center’s electric bill, she says. In February, Chappell pulled the technology, even though she says that the University of Kansas remains firmly committed to sustainability and green initiatives.

Stan Campbell, director of campus recreation at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln (UNL), tells a similar story about the green technology added to some of his rec center's fitness equipment.

“We have removed the equipment but told the company that we would be interested in trying it again if it became more reliable,” Campbell says.

In the meantime, UNL is designing two new facilities with all manner of “green” practices and solutions, including meeting Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification status.

Despite these problems, some fitness facility operators are finding their investments in retrofitting their equipment worthwhile. Stuart Birdseye, assistant director of recreational sports at the University of North Texas (UNT), says its 36 ellipticals that are now retrofitted by ReRev, St. Petersburg, FL, to be green have been a big hit with students and rec center staff alike. Birdseye says UNT has the “largest human power plant” in the country, and that some students even like the idea that higher resistance on the elliptical means producing more electrical power during their workout.

“Our students really like the idea that they are directly contributing to power at the rec center,” Birdseye says.

Not all the green technology is added on to equipment. At least one company, SportsArt Fitness, Woodinville, WA, makes a complete green line of cardio equipment, its Green System, that does not need to be retrofitted. This line is UL certified for safe use in commercial facilities, which, the company says, means it offers better reliability.

The SportsArt line also offers new user interfaces that tie in with social media. It features an ECOFIT wireless platform that lets users track, post and share workout results—as well as energy generated—with others via Facebook and Twitter. As members generate watts through their workout, the system credits member accounts with points that can later be used for discounts on club merchandise or specials at local merchants.

Dave Johnson, executive director for ECOFIT, says the software creates a strong incentive for eco-friendly workouts while putting the user in a “green” frame of mind.

“We look for environmentally responsible companies as merchant partners,” Johnson says. “We use digital media screens to show messages about energy use and environmental responsibility. People tell us that after their workout they are more careful about turning out lights when they leave a room or maybe opening blinds before they turn lights on.”

Software and display panels on equipment motivate members to be more green, says Michael Curnyn, chief strategy and marketing officer for The Green Revolution, a Ridgefield, CT-based company that makes equipment to connect bikes at boutique cycling studios, elementary schools, universities, commercial fitness clubs and corporate health clubs to the grid.

“Classes compete against each other to see who can produce more,” Curnyn says. “We can have universities go against one another. We would even like to see a national champion to see who is generating the most electricity.”

The University of Oregon has had success with its 14 electricity-generating machines for the past three years. Bryan Haunert, associate director for physical education and recreation at the university, says the goal was never to create great cost savings but rather to have a “sustainable, educational opportunity on campus.”

Haunert adds that each football season, in the week leading up to the so-called “Civil War” football game between Oregon and Oregon State, the universities face each other in elliptically produced energy generation.

“We call it the Civil War Energy Challenge,” Haunert says, “and it gives us a great opportunity to have some fun and educate people on green energy.”

Promotion of green consciousness may, in fact, be the primary capitalization of electricity-generating machines in fitness clubs. Four years ago, Adam Boesel founded The Green Microgym in Portland, OR, with the goal of increasing awareness about green fitness, knowing that the direct financial return on the equipment is not the primary reason for investing in this technology.

“If you do the math on the payback, like you would for solar panels, you will come to the conclusion that it is a bad economic model,” Boesel says. However, the technology is just part of an overall green business plan. Club members will always support green initiatives, Boesel says, which means the payoff may come later in higher recruitment and retention.

“Everybody is looking for a gym that has gone green and doubled revenues or doubled membership, but that’s not going to happen overnight,” Boesel says. “It always takes time. Your motivation has to be that this is good for people and good for the planet.”

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