How green is your workout?

Green gear: Consumer demand is driving the development of eco-friendly exercise gear made from organic and bamboo fibers.

From its eco-friendly building materials to its outdoorsy color scheme, every aspect of Inhale Yoga Studio is designed to make patrons mindful of planet earth. The ceiling is sky-blue with serene white clouds painted on it. The walls are moss green. The floor is made of cork, so there's a natural, earthy feel underfoot. "There's a sense that you're coming into a space that is sacred," says yoga instructor Michelle Stobart, who opened the Athens, Ohio, studio in March.

Accordingly, there's a tacit expectation among students that nothing potentially harmful be brought into the space, and that includes widely sold non-skid yoga mats containing polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a chemical-emitting plastic.

"I think maybe for the whole of yoga across the United States, there's possibly that kind of vibration or expectation about choosing eco-friendly equipment," Stobart says. "It fits in with the yogic principle of Ahimsa - nonviolence or nonharming to yourself, to others and to the world in general."

Indeed, YogaFit Inc., Torrance, Calif., which trains instructors and sells equipment, began offering clothing and mats made from rapidly renewable bamboo in 2006, and since March, the bamboo line has outsold conventional apparel 2 to 1, says founder Beth Shaw.

Ohm-chanting yogis aren't the only ones who are "greening" their workouts. From health club designers and equipment engineers on down to individual exercisers, fitness enthusiasts are devising ways to burn calories without burning excessive amounts of resources or otherwise harming the environment.

For long-distance runner Samuel Huber of Milwaukee, that means eschewing electrically powered treadmills altogether and pounding the pavement outdoors. He takes it a step further, though, by carrying biodegradable bags and picking up litter in his path. Covering up to 70 miles per week, he collects an average of 18 to 20 bags of trash, using a fluid swoop-down motion so as not to disrupt his pace.

"It's incredibly inspiring and gives me a purpose for my runs," says the 27-year-old elementary school physical education teacher. "I'm getting healthier and I'm making the environment healthier."

Huber calls his regimen "eco-running" and, in hopes it will catch on and become a full-blown movement, maintains a blog about it at eco-runner.blogspot.com.

Thanks to the greening of the fitness industry, folks who aren't quite ready to give up their gym memberships can feel better about the hours they spend on the elliptical machine while watching overhead televisions or listening to their iPods. Keeping pace with society's environmental concerns, health clubs are going the extra mile to clean up their image as gluttonous energy consumers. For several years, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association has offered sessions at its annual trade show on how to operate an environmentally friendly facility. Participation has been so high that the March 2009 trade show will feature an entire educational track on "going green," which includes measures such as installing low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets to achieve water savings of 25 percent to 60 percent and buying cardiovascular equipment and appliances that bear the federal ENERGY STAR label for energy efficiency.

"Going green is an advantage as far as cost but clubs are also seeing it as a competitive advantage because more consumers are insisting on eco-friendly facilities," says IRSHA president Joe Moore.

Patrons can breathe a bit easier knowing that fitness clubs are moving away from the use of carpeting and other materials, such as paints, vinyl and adhesives, that are known to emit volatile organic compounds - chemicals that evaporate easily at room temperature and affect indoor air quality, Moore adds.

Consumer demand is also driving the development of the aforementioned eco-friendly exercise gear, including PVC-free yoga mats and clothing made from organic and bamboo fibers.

"We're seeing a huge demand - I started to notice it really in the past four months," says Shaw of YogaFit. "Initially when we offered the bamboo and organics line, demand was not as great, but the fabric technology has come a long way since then."

Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif., emerged as a pack leader in sustainable active wear by launching a garment-recycling program in 2005 through which customers' worn-out clothing is remade into new outdoor and fitness attire. Last year, in a massive program expansion, Patagonia began recycling competitors' garments, as well. Likewise, Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program transforms worn-out sneakers of any brand into rubber surfaces for basketball and tennis courts, running tracks and playgrounds.

This summer, Brooks Inc., of Bothell, Wash., unveiled the Trance 8 running shoe with the world's first mass-produced biodegradable midsole, which the company says will save nearly 30 million pounds of landfill waste over a 20-year period.

Stobart, Inhale Yoga Studio's founder, is glad the green fitness movement has made eco-friendly products widely available but worries that its perceived trendiness might spark off an increase in consumption. "It's cool that people can buy these things," she says, "but it feeds into the problem of consumerism and becomes a repeated drag on resources if it eclipses the other ecological idea of using things until they're completely worn out."

Regardless of how greenly athletes train and dress, their commitment to the planet might automatically be thrown into question if they suck down bottled water, says Huber, the eco-runner. After all, millions of gallons of petroleum are required to manufacture the plastic bottles, and Huber can vouch for the fact that people don't always pitch them into the recycling bin.

"I pick up plastic water bottles all the time," he says. "They're everywhere, along with fast food garbage and cigarette butts."

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