A workout for greener future

Tags: Knowledge

When deteriorating environment is troubling the whole world, humans themselves have come to the rescue, quite literally

A workout for greener future
Global warming th­r­eat looms large and we desperately ne­ed to search for alternative energy resources to avert it. One industry has indeed managed to capitalise on perhaps the most available source of energy around: Humans. The idea exists in the exercise room and is called a “sustainable gym,” where these gyms are able to power themselves by harnessing energy from their members’ daily workouts. In this article, we learn more about this technology and how it helps to solve global warming by generating energy in gyms from humans rather than through conventional carbon-dioxide emissions.

How did it begin

One of the first sustainable gyms was conceived by Italian inventor Lucien Gambarota. He partnered with entrepreneur Doug Woodring and a Hong Kong-based company, California Fitness (now known as the Motorwave Group) to open the world’s first such gym in 2008. Ar­ound the same time, fitness instru­ctor Adam Boesel in Portland, Ore­gon opened the “Green Microgy­sm,” a sustainable gym. Also, aro­und the same time, in Australia, a retired professional boxer Danny Moran introduced a generator-connected cycling machine at Surry Hills Boxing Gym. He encouraged membership by reminding locals of Australia’s status as the second-fattest nation in the world and as the biggest carbon emitter per capita. Today, by joining his gym, people combat obesity and block carbon emissions. Since then, sustainable gyms have already appeared in the US, Hong Kong, Australia and Oregon, and are rapidly spreading to EU and other parts of the world.

How much we consume

Treadmills and elliptical machines take a lot of electricity to run. This makes gyms or fitness studios mass consumers of electric power. Take the case of the Ray Meyer fitness centre at DePaul University, Chicago. This gym is the absolute opposite of energy conscience. All lights on all four floors blaze on from 5 am to 11 pm. There are at least 10 huge plasma screens constantly running sports networks in the same time span. There’s a full gym sound system, a well-heated pool, 50 or so machines, some with TV attached, five or so studios full lights and sound systems, and even a cafe that relies heavily on non-recyclable plastics and only sorts out recyclables.

These facts are not exclusive to DePaul University’s gym: The scenario exists at most places. Today’s gyms are the epitome of inefficiency. Lights blaze upwards of 18 hours a day. Most exercise machines, television sets, fans, and stereos are left on whether in use or not. The average treadmill uses around 1,500 watts, the equivalent of 15 incandescent 100-watt light bulbs. Stationary bikes use a mere 10 per cent of their energy to run the machine and dissipate the rest as heat. When people run, bike or elliptical to burn their own energy, they require incredible additional energy input to operate the machines. Doesn’t it seem kind of dumb to use so many watts an hour so we can exert our own human watts?

How does it work

These machines contain generators activated by the movement of the pedals or treadmill. The energy the generators create can be stored in batteries, which can be connected to converters (called invertors) to power various features of the gym. Let’s take the case of the gym at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which uses a sustainable gym. According to Steve Koch, Drexel’s assistant director of recreation, four elliptical machines each capable of producing about 50 watt hours of energy over a typical 30-minute workout in the gym are sufficient enough to light a CFL light bulb for 2.5 hours. According to Koch, kinetic energy is first converted into a DC current by the exercise machine (used to power the display). Then, the leftover DC current is further converted to AC power, channeling it back into the building’s energy grid. Furthermore, the machines are connected to a neon Drexel “dragon logo.” When a student hops onto the elliptical to begin exercising, the brightness of the sign serves as a physical reminder of the energy they are creating. Thus, the gyms electric usage is reduced in proportion to how much activity there is on those machines. And in areas where utility companies buy back excess power, this gym can actually earn money back from the utility.

How they save environment

According to Steve Cli­nefelter, an independent health, wellness and fitness professional, one person has the ability of producing 50 watts of electricity per hour when exercising at a moderate pace, which means that to prevent 12 litres of CO2 from being released into the air, a person ne­eds to produce the same amount of electricity by exercising on the sustainable gym machine for one hour. If a person spends one hour per day running on this machine, he/she could generate 18.2 kw of electricity and prevent 4,380 litres of CO2 emitted per year. So, exercise can improve not only your health but also contribute efficiently to a greener environment.

The State Gym at Iowa State University is another great example of how a gym can save the environment. According to Mich­ael Giles, director of recreation serv­ices, one sustainable feature of the State Gym is a self-powered treadmill called the “ecomill,” which saves energy by not having a motor. In addition, State Gym utilises low volatile organic compound paints, adhesives and carpet tile.

These materials are more environment- and consumer-friendly, as the chemicals used to produce these materials are less harsh. Another sustainable feature in the State Gym is that all of the water in the building, including the water fountains, sinks and toilets, uses an automatic sensor to help prevent using more water than necessary. Furthermore, according to Giles, the largest sustainability feature of the State Gym is its roof. It is designed to minimise heat gain and to collect rainwater runoff that can be used again for flushing the toilets. A portion of the roof utilises green roof technology. Giles describes the roof as “a big garden.” The green roof has a subsurface of soil, dirt and many different species of low-maintenance plants. With its green roof, refurbished old gym floor and rainwater recycling capabilities, the State Gym is indeed an investment in Iowa State’s sustainable future.

How is their future

There are various possibilities in the future. First, the lights in a gym can be synchronised with the overall power output, slightly dimming or brightening based on the amount of energy being generated through workouts. Gym machines in the future could have a screen indicating “your contribution to the overall output” and “you generate the 2nd or 3rd or xth largest amount of power in the bike or weights section.” This display will motivate the people both to compete and also to feel a sense of green contribution. Also, a big screen in the gym’s centre could make one aware of all major indicators (e.g., “X% of the gym's power requirement is covered,” “Powering X floors of the building we are in”). Finally, the energy produced can be used: to power the lights and the electronic appliances in the gym; to power the lights and the appliances in the building where the gym is located; and, if the output is big enough, an increasing number of adjacent buildings. Thus, this technology, which relies on human watts, has a great promise in the future.

(The writer is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University, US and knowledge editor, Financial Chronicle)

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