8 Environmental Exercise Examples that will Energize You

Living in an intentional Buddhist community in Thailand taught me about “right exercise.” For true physical wellbeing, exercise should be integrated into daily life and motivated by meaning. As Zen-inspired Buddhadasa Bhikkhu might say, “The broom sweeps the ground; the Dharma sweeps the heart.” And because most Thai Buddhists I know have an interdependent sense of self and take karma seriously, “right exercise” is also environmental exercise. That is, exercise’s affect on the environment should be positive (or at least neutral). I can’t promise that the accumulated good karma will improve your (next) life, but these 8 environmental exercise examples will certainly energize you. (Read on for the pun). 

exercise outside

Tip #53: Exercise Outside

The obvious example of environmental exercise is exercising outside. This ticks so many wellbeing boxes. Since this month is about fitness, exercising outdoors first and foremost contributes to physical wellbeing. Most physical activities done inside can be moved outside, as we’ve experienced with the pandemic. Many public parks even have an exercise circuit that targets muscle groups much like an equipment circuit in a gym. In fact, exercising outdoors may even be better for our health. Exercising outdoors lowers blood pressure and heart rate, with added gains for mental health (reduced stress, anger, and depression). The connection to nature just makes a person feel good.

We’re equally concerned with environmental wellbeing this week. Exercising outside clearly uses fewer resources than going to a fitness club, with all the stuff, electricity, and water required to support exercise inside. Less concretely, studies show that more exposure to nature results in more care for it and thus more pro-environmental behaviors. It’s hard to show a causal relationship between exercising outside and a behavior like participating in a beach clean-up day, but it does make intuitive sense.

Of course, some individuals living in colder climates may feel unmotivated to exercise outside. Having experienced that myself for the first 28 years of my life, I don’t blame them. But I also know that sunlight is a concrete cure for Seasonal Affect Disorder, A.K.A., the winter blues. All the more reason to get outside for some environmental exercise! As my Swedish ancestors would say, there’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing choices.

ride a generator bike (bike powering a blender on the beach)

Tip #54: Ride a Generator Bike

If you watched Gilligan’s Island as a kid, you’ll get excited about this environmental exercise example: ride a generator bike! (If you don’t know the show, Google it—it’s a classic.) On Gilligan’s Island, the shipwrecked passengers and crew made a bike to generate electricity for themselves. With an easy hack, you can do the same! Countless DIY instructions on the web show how to convert a bike into a stationary generator with a motor, battery, charger, and inverter. Then while you ride, you can power various small electronics like a phone, laptop, or blender. Sounds like a fun project for folks who like to tinker! Once it’s working, add to your wellbeing output by inviting friends over for blended drinks. 

go to a green gym for environmental exercise (sunrise over solar panels and windmills)

Tip #55: Go to a Green Gym

I’ve lived in snowy states, so I realize that it’s not always feasible to exercise outside. With a choice between exercising inside or not at all, by all means, stay indoors. It’s not just me: thousands of other folks agree. Just after New Years in 2017, Google searches for “improved health” saw a 315% increase in more specific queries for gyms. Unfortunately, the typical gym doesn’t offer much in terms of environmental exercise.

Good news: green gyms are on the rise! Green gyms may be powered by renewable energy and/or provide energy generating fitness equipment (perhaps made by The Green Micro Gym). More fitness clubs are also following more sustainability practices to conserve resources common in many businesses now. If there’s not a green gym near you, you could always start your own! Adam Boesel, founder of The Green Micro Gym, tells how he started his business from scratch so others can avoid his mistakes. Sounds like an enterprising opportunity!

minimize the gear (blue metal water bottle in the sand)

Tip #56: Minimize the Gear

This next example of environmental exercise isn’t about exercise per se but all the stuff that people buy and consume in the name of exercise. The main message here: Just Don’t Do It. The more exercise equipment we buy, the less environmental our exercise is. In our predominantly linear economic system, producing, storing, and distributing all the stuff to supply the fitness industry uses up resources that are in finite supply, creates air and water pollution, and ends up all too quickly in a landfill. 

I’ll talk much more about consumption later on in the INTENT 365 year, like why it feels fun at first to buy new stuff, but then the feeling quickly fades (psychologists call it hedonistic adaptation).  For now, let’s just focus on exercise. This is actually an easy way to do environmental exercise since it’s something you don’t have to do! Just think about what you really need, like a metal water bottle and good shoes, and don’t buy anything else. 

The bonus is that without special workout gear, you’ll no longer have the “I forgot my stuff” excuse for not exercising!

recycle running shoes (blue shoe)

Tip #57: Recycle Running Shoes

Another stuff-related example of environmental exercise has to do with recycling. Over 20 billion pairs of shoes hit the streets per year and most end up in a landfill, even before their time is up. Running shoes pose a particular problem. Their life span is 500 miles or a year, whichever comes first. That adds up to way too much potential shoe waste over the life spans of all the world’s runners. 

While used running shoes no longer provide sufficient support for high impact activities, they’re still fine for everyday wear. To keep them out of the landfill, you might downgrade one pair to dog walks and another for painting or yard work. But how can you extend the lives of other still-decent trainers? 

Try the easy option first: just put them out on your curb with a “free” sign. This works brilliantly in my neighborhood.  You can also bundle shoes up with the rest of your gently used goods and donate to a nonprofit like Goodwill or Vietnam Veterans of America (with VVA, you can schedule a convenient “pick up please”). For athletic shoes that are worn beyond recognition, send or drop them off at a shoe-recycler that will convert the materials into playgrounds, tracks, and other useful products. Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program, which started in 1993, is the longest running of its kind (pun intended). Nike will  even take any brand. 

have a car-free day for environmental exercise (green rusted VW bug with weeds)

Tip #58: Have a Car-free Day

If you really care about environmental exercise, treat yourself to a car-free day. See what I did there? Car-free is like carefree, and it is! Driving can be a huge stressor, so leave your car and your worries behind for a day, and see how much more exercise naturally occurs.

Depending on how much you depend on your car, going without it for even a single day could be a challenge. In that case, just take small steps. Maybe the first No Drive Day is on the weekend. If you find yourself in desperate need of something, just walk down to the corner convenience shop (or beg from a neighbor). If your car-free day is also your market day, you could try taking the bus. (Bonus: you’ll think twice about what you buy!)

Commuting to work poses another opportunity to experiment with going carless. If you can take public transit, you’ll arrive much more relaxed. If you bike, all the better. E-bikes (electric bikes) are becoming much more common, so as the price comes down and the quality goes up, more people will be able to ride to work without becoming a sweaty mess. 

prepare to plog for environmental exercise (gloved hands putting plastic bottle into blue bag)

Tip #59: Prepare to Plog

I just love this next example of environmental exercise: plogging. Sounds crazy, right? But plogging is an actual eco-friendly activity that started in Sweden. It’s quite simple: Just pick up trash when you go out for a walk (or run or hike). I live quite close to the ocean, so whenever I see a bit of plastic trash on the ground, I imagine it washing down a storm drain to the beach, where it will then end up in the belly of some poor unsuspecting sea gull. It happens, seriously. I’m not being overly dramatic.  

Of course you’ll want to prepare to plog with gloves and a bag. I admit not having personal safety equipment doesn’t stop me. I once picked up a cigarette butt on a trail (who smokes while hiking in the high desert?!), and tossed it into a nearby trash can. And what did I see beneath the bushes there? A twenty-dollar bill. Instant karma! It hasn’t happened again, but you never know. 

Plogging is good for physical fitness, good for the environment, and also good for the community. Your neighbors will thank you!

join a trail maintenance crew (foot on shovel in dirt)

Tip #60: Join a Trail Maintenance Crew

When you hike, do you think about who fills ruts, cuts back bushes, and otherwise keeps the trail in shape? Depending on who owns the land, staff from the city, county, state, or national forest service may maintain the trails. But with so much ground to cover, they’re often assisted by volunteers. So if you enjoy hiking or biking on trails, you might try a different form of environmental exercise by joining a maintenance crew. 

Trail maintenance jobs vary from physically demanding work like building stairs and erosion prevention berms to propagating native seeds in the nursery and planting the seedlings in restoration areas. Trained volunteers and staff provide leadership, instruction, and tools, so even completely inexperienced volunteers are generally welcome. 

To get involved, check the websites of local trail operators or conservation nonprofiits to see if they organize volunteer days. In my town, Laguna Canyon Foundation offers volunteer opportunities nearly every week (or they did before Covid). Their tag line says it all: “Protect” what you love.” 

Next week…

After wrapping up physical wellbeing this week (the I in INTENT: being in-shape) we venture into a new dimension: social. The next letter in INTENT stands for being Networked, so for the next two months, we’ll explore 60 ways to boost social wellbeing. See you next time!


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