At this green gym, customers improve their bodies – and the environment | Crain's

At this green gym, customers improve their bodies – and the environment

Sacramento Eco Fitness owner and CEO Jose Avina, left, says members get a charge out of powering the gym with their regular cycling workouts. | Image courtesy of Sacramento Eco Fitness.

Several years ago, one tiny electric shock while on a treadmill sparked an idea in Jose Avina’s head that electricity could be generated during a workout and should somehow be used to power gym equipment.

That, in turn, would mean the gym could operate without straining the local power grid, and cut operating costs down to nearly zero.

And it could also encourage more people to work out, making for a healthier community.

In the end, it was a no-brainer, according to Avina. Which is why he and colleagues opened Sacramento Eco Fitness at 1914 1/2 L St. in Midtown in December. It is California’s first fitness center powered by the workouts of its customers.

Sacramento Eco Fitness features all the traditional workout equipment: free weights, treadmills, body sculpting, fitness classes. But the stars of this power play are the 15 “Eco-POWR” fitness bikes supplied by sports equipment manufacturer SportsArt. Each unit runs on standard AC power and works like a regular fitness bike – except for the micro-inverter that captures the kinetic energy generated by a cyclist and fires it back into the local power grid, helping to offset electricity used by the business.

“In terms of businesses, fitness centers are among the biggest users of electricity, because of their super-popular ergonomic equipment,” Avina says. “A single treadmill, for example, might consume 500 to 800 watts a day. Throw in a monitor, and you’re up to 1,000. Here, we have a system that enables us to fully absorb all of that energy use.”

Each bike, ridden for 45 minutes, could generate the electricity needed to power a small lamp or a television. Energy from the fleet of cycles has been enough to cover their operation – the gym’s original goal – with a little bit extra for everyday electric costs, according to Avina.

He adds that the bikes also provide a business-as-usual approach for customers: Riders can charge their phones while they work out their legs.

“People really want to help the environment, but they’re not always sure how they can do it,” he says. “The key here is making sure that the effort doesn’t affect the customer’s regular routine. Just let them do what they do, and they won’t even think about it.”

The facility offers an app that tracks the amount of kinetic energy produced by members during workouts. When certain goals are reached, a member receives a membership discount for the coming month.

Thus far, 46 people have signed membership agreements, a hair below the gym’s estimated capacity of 50, Avina says. Not everyone actually works out – a few are members in spirit only, opting to contribute their monthly fees to help the gym’s operation.

Others are motivated by current events. “When [President DonaldTrump] pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord earlier this year, we actually gained a few members,” Avina said. “Everyone helps in their own way.”

Sacramento Eco Fitness subtly shows its green efforts in other ways. The 2,350-square-foot gym feature skylight windows and an open doorway to utilize natural lighting as much as possible. All electronic devices are turned off when not in use. Flooring and desks are made from repurposed wood. Natural, spinning fans are used to cool the building instead of a high-energy consuming (and potential climate change contributing) air conditioner.

It’s all part of a first enviro-friendly step, one that Avina hopes will lead to many more. Eventually, he hopes to relocate the gym to a larger facility with greater street visibility, and expand the amount of kinetic equipment on hand. He also wants to be able to offer excess energy to neighboring businesses.

He intends for the new location to remain in downtown Sacramento, his first choice because of the city’s positive stances toward green and small businesses. “It made sense to have it here,” says Avina, a former Marine who graduated from California State University-Sacramento in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in communications. “The lawmakers are here. The local government is absolutely interested in what happens to the community. And most people who hear about us are definitely taking notice.”

Not just a Sacramento thing

The idea of using kinetic energy to power another object is not new. By modern terms, scientists first discussed the concept in the 19th century. Space missions have relied upon it since the 1950s. The concept was even demonstrated in a 1966 episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” And kinetically powered equipment has been tested in homes, colleges and private firms for the past decade. But the notion of creating an electrically self-sustaining business through body motion is only starting to catch on, according to SportsArt Vice President Ivo Grossi.

Hong Kong-based California Fitness opened what is reportedly the world’s first human-powered gym in 2007. A scattering of others followed, such as Portland, Ore.-based Green Microgym in 2009, Cadbury House Club in Congresbury, England in 2013, and BeachFit in Lancing, United Kingdom, in 2015, which Avina visited to modify his business plan.

Businesses such as hotels and resorts, as well as universities, are using the activity-driven cycles in conjunction with passive green tools such as solar panels and power-saving light bulbs, as they try to obtain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a status awarded to buildings that meet key government sustainability and energy efficiency standards.

SportsArt’s own market study from 2016 revealed that nearly 63 percent of consumers prefer to work out in a gym with environmentally friendly equipment. Sixty-three percent of respondents also said they would be more motivated to push themselves during gym workouts if the energy generated was converted into utility-grade electricity for the gym. Incentives and discounts based on the amount of energy generated would also get a thumbs-up from 70 percent of consumers, according to the study.

From that standpoint, Sacramento Eco Fitness is doing everything right, which is why partnering with the local gym now seems like a natural fit, Grossi notes. Avina wanted a way to make his gym stand out from others in the Sacramento area, and SportsArt wanted greater exposure for its line of sustainable workout equipment. “We are thrilled, [because] their business aligns so well with the mission of our eco-friendly products,” Grossi says. “The Eco-POWR technology promotes sustainability practices with their members, [and] it helps improve the gym’s bottom line.”

The fitness bikes, at about $2,000 each, have been available for several years, but are substantially more efficient at capturing energy generated during cycling. Only about 25 percent of kinetic energy is lost during a workout, compared to 70 percent with first-generation models, the company notes.

SportsArt hopes to expand its green partnerships within the next year. The company’s Eco-POWR line is used in 400 gyms and hotels worldwide; the goal is to double that number by mid-2018, according to Grossi.

August 8, 2017 - 5:23pm