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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Eco-Athletes: Working Out with the Planet in Mind

Mar 31, 2021 09:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato
Eco-friendly athletes drinking from sustainable, green water bottles after working out


From human-powered gyms that generate electricity to Earth-friendly activewear, professional and recreational athletes alike are increasingly working out with the planet in mind. Taking a recycled yoga mat to class, nixing the plastic water bottle and going “plogging”—picking up litter while out for a run—are just a few examples of eco-fitness in motion.

“We believe that movement and nature go hand-in-hand, yet the world of sports isn’t as green as it should be, with plastic bottles at events, junk food in canteens and monotonous movement in the gym,” says Saraï Pannekoek, co-founder of the Sustainable Athlete Foundation, which strives to create a sustainable sports environment through coaching, workshops and campaigns.

Working Out Green

Links between personal fitness and environmental toxicity are critical. Sixty percent of clothing is manufactured with fossil fuel-derived plastics, and activewear rates highest for eco-toxic fibers. Choosing workout clothes made from sustainable bamboo and cotton can soften the impact. With name brands like Adidas offering sustainable footwear, staying fit doesn’t need to increase the toll on the environment. Pannekoek, who hosts the Sustainable Athlete Podcast with co-founder Paul Venner in Amsterdam, emphasizes personal responsibility. “We believe that there isn’t a quick fix. It’s all about habits and conscious behavior, while still being able to peak perform.”

Supplementing the usual gym routine with self-powered workouts and outdoor activities like gardening, sustainable charity races and hiking are sound choices that can help to buffer climate change. “Being eco-centric enriches life and enhances health, but while it’s personally gratifying, it also makes you keenly aware of just how far the world is from taking action sufficient to keep climate change in check. We all need to do more,” says Bruce Rayner, founder and chief green officer at Athletes for a Fit Planet, in Portland, Maine, who was enlightened to the problems firsthand at a half-ironman distance race. “When I got to the finish line, I was given my obligatory plastic water bottle. I looked around for a recycling bin, and all I saw was an overflowing trash bin.” Founded in 2008, Rayner’s organization partners with pro-environment races like the TD Beach to Beacon 10K, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, recently named the most sustainable 10-miles-or-less race in the country.

Fueling Up, Protecting Natural Resources

A pillar of the eco-fitness movement is eating clean and going plant-based for the health of people and planet. “Diet is a big part of being eco-fit. The best action you can take is to support local farms, specifically organic farms,” emphasizes Rayner.

Eco-friendly green home workout room with exercise equipment



To minimize global greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, eating more nutrition-packed produce, whole grains, legumes and nuts instead of animal products supports sustainability. For Adam Layzell, sports therapist, nutritionist and author of How to Train Your Vegan: The Comprehensive Guide to Plant-Based Fitness, going vegan is a win-win situation. “A vegan diet encourages fat loss, improves endurance and recovery and has plenty of all the necessary components such as protein to build strength and muscle.” Layzell underscores that the vegan diet preserves animals and their ecosystems, prevents deforestation and destruction of wild land and lowers the impact on climate change and global warming.

Athlete Engagement

For Lewis Blaustein, managing editor of GreenSportsBlog, climate change action and sports are an ideal marriage. He recently launched EcoAthletes to encourage sports figures to speak up about global warming. “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Sport has the power to change the world.’ EcoAthletes aims to show that athletes are the agents of that change and that they, by mobilizing millions if not billions of fans, can do so on climate.” Blaustein sees a surge of climate-concerned athletes leading radical changes. “There will be many different looks—from athletes endorsing green products à la solar power, electric vehicles, etc., to athletes speaking out for environmental/climate justice in a similar fashion to WNBA and NBA players on Black Lives Matter.”

Pannekoek concurs, “All small steps taken still go a great distance. Elite athletes are role models. If they would support more conscious brands to influence the youth, we believe that they can make such a difference.” 

Marlaina Donato is an author and recording artist.

What We Can Do

Eco-friendly green sustainable water bottles for athletes



Bruce Rayner:

  • After pandemic restrictions lift, when signing up for a race, pick one that’s local and carpool with friends. 
  • Washing polyester clothing means microplastics are in the wastewater, which means they make their way into the environment. Consider getting a filter for your washing machine that catches microplastics.
  • Tell race directors that you appreciate their efforts to be more sustainable. 

Adam Layzell:

  • Reuse clothes to lower the carbon footprint and plastic production. Go to the charity shop, borrow, repair and buy second-hand.
  • Choose reusable water bottles. 
  • Exercise in nature, a great way to appreciate what we need to be protecting.
  • Litter pick when exercising in nature. Have a small backpack and clean up as you run. 

Saraï Pannekoek:  

  • Consume intentionally and more mindfully. Think and act long-term instead of going for quick fixes.
  • Change your movements instead of doing simple repetition over and over again.
  • Replace sugary snacks with quick, energizing exercises throughout the day. (We call this “movement snacks”.)

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