Fitness and Climate Change


The heat waves this summer are making think about my fitness activities and how to do better. First, how to do better about staying active in the heat, but also how to do fitness better to minimize my contribution to climate change.

Staying active – I am lucky enough to live near an old quarry and an outdoor swimming pool I can walk or bike to every day. For me, both are great ways to exercise and stay cool. I can go to the quarry early enough in the day that I don’t even worry about sunscreen, which is good because it is in a conservation area and most sunscreens are harmful to water creatures.

Beyond that, it gets trickier. It’s too hot to ride my horse by the time I am done work most days, and she lives too far away for me to contemplate a ride before work. I still do my Zoom ballet classes, and there are video options for yoga, HIIT, pilates, various dance forms etc.

But how to do fitness better? One of the biggest pieces may be travel to do activities. At the Tokyo Olympics, there were lots of measures to minimize the carbon footprint, but COVID turned out to be the game changer. Without spectators to feed, house, and entertain, the carbon emissions dropped an estimated 12%. The carbon emissions from all the airline travel for fans to get to Tokyo appears to be on top of that.

That is something I have started discussing with my swim buddies. We meet about once a week at a beach that is relatively central for all of us. But all but one of us drives a car to get there. Public transit isn’t really a viable option given the times we swim and the awful cross-town bus service. I try to minimize my impact by combining that swim with other errands in that part of town, plus grocery shopping on the way home. It does have us questioning whether we will go further south for cold water swims as we have done in the past. And of course, we will all be back at the indoor pools once our swim clubs start up again in the fall; not exactly a low-carbon activity.

Biking is also an option that I want to explore more. Right now, I use it mostly for short commutes to do errands, but lately it has been too hot even for that. I joke that learning to ride a horse would help me survive an apocalypse, at the same time as driving to her barn in the country contributes to that apocalypse. Could I bike, then swim (or ride my horse), then bike home? Probably not, at least not yet. The spirit is willing but the legs are weak. Maybe in a couple of years, once there is a decent train service where I can bring my bike and just cycle the last few kilometres.

I understand the desire to travel in order to do interesting sports; I am currently living vicariously through Cate as she cycles her way around Bulgaria. I thoroughly enjoy all the posts about cycling in Prince Edward County or along the Guelph to Goderich trail, or canoeing in places like Algonquin Park. My bucket list has included a trip to Peru so I can hike to Machu Picchu for decades, and more recently I have dreamed of a swim trek through Croatia. Or even a trip back to British Columbia, which has so many sports options, including canoeing along the Sunshine Coast like these two women.

Photo by Chris Montgomery, via Unsplash

Then there are all the gear questions. Microfibres, miracle knits, water-resistant clothing versus old-school linen and leather. Most days it doesn’t seem like much of a choice. I won’t give up my comfy streamlined bathing suits or goggles and caps, but I can at least limit my purchases to essentials. Just this week I reluctantly threw out a suit I have worn for a decade because the latest repairs were giving me sores when I swam. I have started looking for companies that sell gear made from recycled plastics. So far I haven’t found a swimsuit I love, but I do have gorgeous comfy leggings that get a lot of use.

I wish I had some snappy conclusion, but this is a complicated issue. Getting out and being active allows us to both notice what is happening in our environment, and to be more resilient to its negative effects. At the same time, I live in a city with Canadian winters, so it is hard to do all the things I would like without getting into a car. I am not brave enough for winter cycling. I could focus on more seasonal sports such as cross-country skiing along the nearby river, and give up pool swimming, but that would mean giving up on both friends and an activity where I feel strong.

Do you ever think about how your sports affect the environment? What are you doing to adapt as the world gets hotter and the weather more unpredictable? What trade-offs are you willing to make and what is too important to give up?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

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