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THE NATION

Calories come off and lights come on

A gym in Portland, Ore., will use exercise equipment to generate renewable energy.

August 25, 2008|Stuart Glascock | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, ORE. — As Adam Boesel pedals an exercise bike, he sends power to a generator that converts his workout calories into electricity. Across the room in his small eco-friendly gym are half a dozen energy-efficient treadmills. On the roof, solar arrays gather more natural energy.

In Boesel's new gym, people will not only slim their waistlines, they will also shrink their carbon footprint.

Welcome to people-powered exercise for a small planet.

Boesel says the Green Microgym -- which is to open Friday in the eclectic Alberta Arts district of northeast Portland -- is the first fitness center in the country to use solar power as well as human-powered cycling and cardio machines to generate renewable energy.

"We are creating a neighborhood gym that is as comfortable and effective as any other," he said. "At the same time, our members are doing their part to help the Earth."

Boesel recently showed off the Human Dynamo prototype, an exercise machine consisting of four spin bikes attached to a small generator. As he pedaled one of the human-powered bikes, a digital readout showed the amount of watts, a measure of power, that he was producing by pedaling and turning an arm crank that strengthens the upper body, he said. As many as four riders can propel the prototype system, which can produce 200 watts to 600 watts of energy an hour.

It's not only the exercise machines that exude green -- so does the entire gym, which is about 3,000 square feet. Yoga enthusiasts can practice sun salutations on cork-lined floors. Cardio fans can jog, run intervals on treadmills or spin on recycled rubber flooring.

The 37-year-old fitness entrepreneur revels in his belief that he has designed an ideal energy-efficient gym that will appeal to a new generation of young, healthy and environmentally-conscious Portlanders.

Most gyms are energy hogs, with sweeping floor space, high heating costs and hot showers always steaming in the locker rooms. Boesel doesn't know how much energy the solar arrays and human-powered equipment will produce, but he expects his fitness center to use about half the energy of most gyms its size by providing as much as 40% of its energy needs. His goal is to have the gym run solely on the energy it generates.

In years past, when fitness companies looked at human-powered machines, they calculated there wasn't much energy savings, said Mike Taggett, owner of Henry Works in El Paso, which designed the Human Dynamo prototype.

"Yes, it isn't a lot of power, but it is better than nothing, and there is gratification in actually doing something during your workout," he said.

The gym also features treadmills that use nearly one-third less energy than most of their counterparts because they have energy-efficient, self-regulating, brushless motor drive systems that run more cleanly than traditional motors. And they'll be switched off when not in use.

Although one gym in Hong Kong and another in Australia have prototype systems that harness some human power, Boesel's gym is believed to be the first to integrate such equipment and eco-philosophy into its business model.

Green Microgym uses only energy-efficient lighting, ceiling fans and televisions. It has a mostly paperless membership system. Its five elliptical machines are non-motorized and don't require electricity; Boesel is working on getting them hooked up to generators.

Gym members will be asked to either turn off or lower lighting systems and fans when not in use. Boesel said many commercial gyms could save electricity by turning off treadmills when not in use, but most don't.

"I've noticed in the past year or two that more club owners are becoming more interested in going green," said Pamela Kufahl, editor of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro magazine, based in Overland Park, Kan.

"People in general are paying more attention to being more environmentally friendly," she said. "Club owners and their staffs are aware of this and they know their members are too."

The trade magazine in recent months has detailed the efforts of YMCAs, military fitness centers and university recreation centers to go green, as most have focused on installing water-efficient toilets and recycled floor products. But none have attempted to energy from human exercisers and use it to power a gym, Kufahl said.

So far, about 50 people, eager to sweat it out and still conserve energy, have signed up for membership at Green Microgym. Most of them live in the neighborhood, which is another green advantage: no parking lot, no energy-consuming showers.

"It appeals to people who want to walk or bike to the gym and then go home and shower," Boesel said.

Maggie Vail, 34, works within easy walking distance at Kill Rock Stars, an independent record label. She signed up because she liked the proximity and the green ethos.

"It's the perfect business for Portland, and the timing is perfect," she said. "It's time to be more conscious about everything we do."

The new business fits in nicely with Portland's young, urban and environmentally mindful culture, said Ethan Seltzer, an urban studies professor at Portland State University.

"There is tremendous interest in our community in energy conservation, alternative transportation, fitness and healthy eating and lifestyles," he said. "We have a large and growing population of college-educated, 25- to 35-year-olds, and they are here because they care about being green, need affordable places to live and want to create, not just consume, the local culture."

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stuart.glascock@latimes.com

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