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Putting Muscle Into Fighting Global Warming

By Russ Klettke

The fight against global warming is for some the calling of a generation. In every area of society, inventors, engineers, and business-owners are coming up with new ways to reduce carbon emissions and capture energy from other sources. Here's some of what's going on out there to help our fitness go green—that's both eco-green, in how a workout can reduce use of fossil fuels, and money-green, where some of these ideas are already finding success in the marketplace.

Putting Good Energy to Work
What goes on in virtually every health club in the world seems profligate to anyone with a sustainability mindset. Prodigious use of lights, sound and TV screens, treadmills and stair step machines—electrically supporting activities that humans did long before Ben Franklin—and thousands of pounds of weights moved up and down are a net expenditure of energy from the grid or your last power bar. Nothing is captured for reuse. Some gyms get a few points for recycling beverage bottles and installing bike racks in front, but that's about as far as it typically goes.

Yet, this doesn’t square with marketing trends. The LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) demographic, believed to include 19 percent of American adults who see an intrinsic connection between earth and personal health, is a segment sought by companies such as Whole Foods, Nike and Trek. Growing consciousness of all things eco, economic meltdown notwithstanding, suggests we’ll be seeing many products that link fitness and environment down the road.

But why wait? There are some pretty interesting innovations already on the market:

The Green Microgym in Portland, Ore. leads the way in the U.S. for harnessing electricity generated by members on treadmills and spin bikes. Following the model of a similar gym in Hong Kong, owner Adam Boesel established his 2,800 square foot neighborhood gym in 2008 to solve two significant problems: obesity and global warming. Members are offered a “Burn and Earn” program incentive to get $1 in credit at local retailers for every hour spent generating electricity, creating energy that supplements the gym’s solar and wind turbine generators.

Equipment manufacturers are getting in on the game as well. The Green Revolution, Inc. of Ridgefield, Conn., offers a stationery bicycle that, if part of a group of 20 such bikes run for four classes a day, could produce 300 kilowatts per month—enough to provide lighting in six typical American homes for that same period of time. Like equipment at The Green Microgym, the electricity generated can be fed back to the power grid (the electric company) through a grid-tied inverter.

Another manufacturer is ReRev, a St. Petersburg, Fla. company that sees gyms as “a rare case which presents the infrastructure to capture a large amount of kinetics with little upfront cost.” The company focuses on low cost retrofitting of gym equipment, including the ReCardio system, which converts kinetic energy from elliptical pedals. Florida's Gainesville Health & Fitness Center has 15 machines connected to the ReCardio, feeding it back to the Florida Power grid. Ten hours of one elliptical produces a single kilowatt, enough to charge a Toyota Prius battery.

For the serious biker, the type who puts his cycle on a stationery trainer at home during the winter, the Bike Power Generator from Windstream Power LLC is another contraption that captures your energy to produce electric power. This one gets a little complicated because it produced direct current, DC, while most household appliances require alternating current, AC. A portable power pack can be purchased with the generator, together selling for $1025—your return on investment might be many miles away, but again, this is for the serious cyclist. And, if you don't want to get on the bike, the same company offers a Human Power Generator: pedals without a bike, attached to a flat base. Pedal with hands or feet whenever you have a few free minutes, and charge up your appliances as you do so.

If you bike to your gym—and you should, because every mile biked spares the air 3.75 pounds of pollutants—you can generate cell phone power with a clip-on generator or wind turbine from either Oscar Lhermitte, Hymini, Mini Kin or Motorola. It turns out that millions of cell phone users in China have inadequate energy sources but do lots of bicycle commuting. Now you know how they manage it.

Creative Solutions
A funny/cute device called mPower, “empowering people,” is proposed in concept as a leaf-shaped stepper machine to go beyond health clubs, into the community. The developer’s idea is to position the devices on streets, near public transportation waiting areas, including airports, and perhaps even public libraries. It would allow volunteers to generate power with their own calves and quads, feeding it back to the grid or withdrawing power back into portable electronic devices.

Other curious ideas emerge from the Netherlands. A revolving door in a railway station in Driebergen-Zeist powers the light over it as people push their way through. Club Watt in Rotterdam has an experimental dance floor that harvests energy generated by dancers.

And from the U.K., we have a prototype of an invention giving new meaning to the term “muscle car”. Da Feng, a design student at Coventry University, built a prototype of a futuristic roadster that has a step machine, rowing machine, chest press, lat pull and bicep curl apparatus built into the car itself. This is more than a vehicle that allows the driver to take his gym on vacation. The energy expended during exercise (performed while parked) is harnessed and fed to the car’s battery. The car itself is all-electric, so in fact a vigorous workout might be sufficient to power the car on a day’s journey. Feng’s GYM Concept Car is nothing less than the love child of Fred Flintstone and George Jetson!

Missing in all this, except the GYM car, are ways to capture the effort one puts into shoulder presses, upright trap rows, flyes and other exercises used for upper body development. Why aren’t the engineers figuring out ways to take all that force and turn it into something useful?

What Can You Do?
I have a few suggestions: Use your upper body to do things lesser mortals accomplish by burning fossil fuels. Push a reel lawn mower instead of a noisy (and polluting) two-stroke, gas-powered model. Shovel snow instead of blowing it. In the kitchen, hand-grind the coffee beans, use an old-fashioned hand eggbeater, mash garbanzos and potatoes with your arm strength and wire-whisk the meringue. You can even buy hand-crank ice crushers to chill your self-whipped smoothie.

Oh, and rethink your drive to the gym when a bike ride would otherwise provide your cardio warm-up: According to The Green Microgym’s Boesel, the carbon footprint of a two mile round trip in a car is offset by 20 human hours generating electricity. There are all kinds of ways to be green—or not.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, ACE-certified fitness trainer and author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004). His blog explores the connections between exercise and energy conservation.