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An ethical approach to health and fitness

An ethical approach to health and fitness

Can we look after our health and look after the planet at the same time? Yes – in fact, the two often go closely together. So what does it mean to bring an ethical approach to looking after our health and fitness?

Ethics and sustainability are major buzzwords at the moment. Gone are the days of conspicuous consumption. Instead, more and more of us are aware of the necessity of being consumers with a conscience, considering not only our individual needs but the needs of the rest of the planet as well.

What does it mean to live an ethical, sustainable lifestyle? This is a highly individual question. For some people, it's enough just to choose Fairtrade tea, coffee or bananas at the supermarket. Others can't rest until they've realised the dream of becoming self-sustaining, smallholding, chickens and all. However far you take it, being a consumer with a conscience means thinking about the way the things you consume were produced and what impact your consumption has on the rest of the world.

What relevance does ethical, sustainable living have to our approach to health and fitness? Well, it's all about exercising some responsibility as well as some muscles. Let's face it, much of the health and fitness industry is an incredible luxury born out of our comfortable, abundant lifestyles. If we all had to plough fields and gather water and firewood to ensure our basic survival, we wouldn't be worrying about our BMI or the tone of our triceps. We're very, very lucky to be able to think beyond basic survival, and with that comes some obligation to make wise decisions. Fortunately, the decisions that are best for the planet are also often the decisions that are best for us as individuals. Here are some ideas to consider.


A general interest in local, organic food remains strong even during these times of austerity. We're aware of the importance of sourcing our food responsibly, considering the conditions under which it was produced and the environmental impact of its packaging and transport. One useful general rule is to eat as much fresh, seasonal food as possible. Avoid the processed stuff and you're automatically making more ethical food choices. If you can afford to go organic, that's a great way of easing the environmental burden of food production. Support small local shops and markets rather than driving to out-of-town supermarkets. Don't be afraid to ask about the provenance of your food.


There is a certain irony in going to the gym. You drive to an air-conditioned space in order to run or cycle or row on the spot or lift weights with the aid of electrically-powered machines (usually in a very brightly lit room where the walls are plastered with enormous television screens), and then you have a shower you wouldn't otherwise have needed, dry off on freshly-laundered towels provided by the gym that will be used precisely once before being washed again, and drive home again to continue your sedentary lifestyle. Okay, that's something of a caricature. But really, aren't we making things more complicated than they need to be and using far more electricity and water than we really need in order to stay fit? We're far better off prioritising exercise as an integrated part of our daily life – cycling, walking or running to work or to school and pursuing leisure interests that get us outside and moving.

Gyms themselves are waking up to the trend of sustainable living, though, with more and more gyms “going green.” It's a phenomenon that is more common in the USA and Hong Kong than here at the moment – attempts to put gyms in energy-efficient buildings and harness the energy created by people using fitness equipment – but with any luck our gyms will soon start to become more environmentally friendly as well.

And then there are all the accessories associated with keeping fit. Even if you avoid the whole gym kit, you'll still need appropriate clothing and footwear to get active. In order to minimise your impact on the planet when kitting yourself out, choose clothing that is made from organic or recycled materials, contains a minimal amount of synthetic fibres, and is created by companies with a sustainable model of business practice and fair labour policies.

Doing what you can

The intriguing thing about trying to live a more ethical, sustainable life is that it's relatively simple, but it's not easy. Eat fresh, organic food bought at your local market, and run or cycle to work – simple. But easy?! Some of these choices are undeniably expensive, which raises the question of whether considerations of ethics and sustainability are themselves luxuries born out of our affluent lifestyles. And then there are competing demands – do you prioritise Fairtrade incentives designed to give workers in the developing world a chance to make a decent living, or do you focus on minimising your carbon footprint and buy only what is local and in season? So it's not actually that simple, either.

It's all too easy to feel despondent and think that there's no point even trying. But even starting to consider these sorts of issues rather than mindlessly buying into whatever the advertising industry would have us spend our money on is a step in the right direction.