Climate-aware Fitness and Mindfulness

As a group fitness professional with canfitpro certifications in Fitness Instructor Specialist (FIS) as well as Stress Resiliency, I often reflect on the role that both physical activity and mindfulness have in the management of stress and related physiological and emotional challenges such as anxiety. As a community member living and working in an urban area who is attuned to local and global issues, and who has a history of sociopolitical engagement, I have also been reflecting on the role that both fitness and mindfulness combined could have in addressing the calls for action on the climate crisis and particularly climate justice.

Graphic introducing Embodied Climate Justice Fitness (ECJF)

In researching the question of what role fitness and mindfulness combined could have in addressing climate justice issues, I came across a piece entitled “Climate Blues” in the March/April 2021 print issue of The Walrus written by Britt Wray, who has a PhD in science communication. Wray describes the rise of eco-anxiety and the growing movement of climate-aware therapists, some of whom are using mindfulness to help their clients manage their environmentally linked distress. Wray notes that since climate-aware therapy is an emerging field, an evidence base is not yet firmly established for which approaches work best to help people with eco-anxiety. Could mindfulness combined with group fitness be a new approach for helping people who are feeling distress and other challenging emotions about climate change and related ecological crises?

Embodied Climate Justice Fitness (ECJF): Who is this for?

What can be learned and applied from a mindful approach to climate-aware therapy? Wray explains that a mindful strategy involves embracing and validating complex emotions about the climate crisis rather than uprooting them. It recognizes these emotions are a natural and inevitable part of the human condition and a reasonable response to the real and unfolding threat of climate change to our lives and our planet. As we cultivate some acceptance of these emotions by naming, observing and being curious about them, we change our relationships with these feelings and learn to manage environmentally linked distress more effectively. Wray explains that climate-aware therapists, who generally work one-on-one with their clients, use various techniques, such as mirroring clients’ concerns and emotions and encouraging clients to channel them, in order to help their clients find resilience and, ideally, a sense of agency.

Climate-aware fitness, or what I call Embodied Climate Justice Fitness (ECJF), takes a similar mindful approach to fitness instructing by welcoming feelings about the climate crisis, facilitating the mirroring and channeling of these emotions through a combination of narrative and movement, thereby creating space for transforming their weight, moving the energy through our bodies and, ideally, generating some power to act on the emotions.

Most group fitness instructors already use mirroring when they face their participants as they lead them through a fitness class. In the context of a climate-aware fitness class, mirroring takes on a dual meaning: it involves facilitating the group by acknowledging environmentally linked emotions as well as leading the class by physically facing participants. The climate-aware instructor neither turns away from the participants’ emotions nor their bodies. In this way, climate-aware fitness instructors address the needs of the whole person from the perspectives of body, mind and even spirit.

Beyond the stress-resiliency benefits of many fitness classes, could they have a more direct role in action on the climate crisis and particularly climate justice? Symbolizing and cultivating climate justice principles, issues and ideals with physical activity during a group fitness class can create a space for self-reflection, education and community building, which can lead to eco-activism.

For example, the introduction to each fitness class could include a grounding land acknowledgment to address and model the importance of respecting the rights of indigenous nations and peoples.

Fitness moves and combinations of choreographed moves could become vehicles for expanding climate justice consciousness. For example, a wide lateral step-tap with arms out to the sides can represent the principles of equity and equality. The body in motion symbolizes the scales of justice attempting to find these critical points of balance in human relations. Beyond equity and equality in hiring practices in fitness businesses and organizations, and beyond diversity and inclusion with respect to fitness spaces and programming, climate-aware fitness recognizes the urgency of the systemic transformations that are needed in the environments within which fitness as a practice is situated, in our local communities as well as regional, national and global contexts.

Wide step tap with arms out symbolizing equity & equality
Music: blackSnow by airtone (c) copyright 2021
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) License

A squat with arms overhead to form a roof can represent the issue of housing and the ideal of affordable green housing. Individuals, families and communities struggling in the context of a housing crisis cannot prioritize fitness as a strategy for wellbeing. Even with affordable housing, the public health impacts of dependency on natural gas to heat homes needs urgent attention. A climate-aware narrative for a squat with arms overhead to form a roof can include references to energy retrofits, solar panels and other ways in which homes, as well as businesses, can transition away from fossil fuels.

Squat with arms overhead symbolizing affordable green housing
Music: blackSnow by airtone (c) copyright 2021
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) License

A climate justice narrative could be infused into the cardio, muscular conditioning, stretching, and relaxation/meditation segments of the workout. A twist with core engaged can represent strengthening climate justice core values, while a full body reach overhead can represent stretching our eco-consciousness.

Twisting for strengthening our climate justice core values, reaching overhead and stretching our eco-consciousness
Music: blackSnow by airtone (c) copyright 2021
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) License

A fitness class could conclude with a climate-aware hand gesture and invitation for each participant to set an intention regarding some climate justice action to be taken before the next class or the end of the session.

Holding the Earth in our hands and making an intention for climate action
Music: blackSnow by airtone (c) copyright 2021
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) License

Fitness instructors can become more climate-aware by educating themselves and distilling concepts from articles, reports, primers, guides, documentaries and other resources about climate change, climate justice, and local, national and global community organizing around the movements for a Green New Deal and a Just Recovery from the global pandemic. As a group fitness professional based in Canada and concerned with how public health issues intersect with climate justice issues, I follow the work of the Canadian Health Association for Sustainability & Equity (CHASE). CHASE is involved in educating Canadians about the fact that climate change is already harming people across the country and, along with other health organizations, is advocating for public investments in a healthy, green and just recovery.

Ideally, fitness professionals can themselves become involved in climate justice action by joining local, national and global organizations and their campaigns. I myself am participating in the Council of Canadians #climatecodered and #floodparliament campaigns as well as EarthWalk 2021 organized by ActionAid International as a response to COP26. I am also engaging in creative climate communication, mainly on local issues such as TransformTO and Toronto’s Circular Economy aspirations, through this website. You can view my first 6min, mindful, climate-aware, Embodied Climate Justice Fitness (ECJF) Activation Practice Demo video on my Activations page.

As fitness instructors working in the era of a climate crisis, can we afford to compartmentalize our emotions and our lives? If we are feeling unsettled by what we are hearing about the climate crisis, is it not in the best interest of ourselves, our participants, our industry and our planet to recognize these feelings as a compass pointing us to what matters most to us?

As a group fitness professional with training in mindfulness who is also engaged in learning about the climate crisis and exploring where my available agency lies, it is my hope that other fitness professionals will see themselves reflected in this need to decompartmentalize. I invite you to consider adopting a more climate-aware approach to your group fitness offerings for members of your own community.

Postscript: Looking back at canfitpro Magazine issues dating back to and including September/October 2020, I came across only one article, on training, by Kathleen Trotter, PTS, from November/December 2020, that referred to connecting a client’s “why” for exercising to the client’s values with the example given being that, “maybe one client’s version of exercise is planting trees to save the environment.” None of the articles on mental health included a reference to eco-anxiety.

After reading the September/October 2021 issue of canfitpro Magazine, a trade publication that is distributed to canfitpro members such as myself, I am already preparing to write a related blog post contrasting the necessity for a #HealthyClimatePrescription versus “medical fitness” as approaches for addressing the health inequalities that were exposed and exacerbated by the global pandemic. This latest issue of canfitpro Magazine includes an ad for MedFit Classroom, which offers specialist courses such as “Medical Fitness Specialist”, “Stroke Recovery Fitness Specialist” and upcoming courses in “Cardiac Rehab Fitness Specialist”, “Type 2 Diabetes Fitness Specialist”, “Longevity Lifestyle and Fitness Specialist” and “Respiratory Disease Fitness and Health Specialist”, etc. A related training article entitled “A New Era Begins and You can Lead It: Become the first line of defense against lifestyle disease with education in the emerging medical fitness space” claims that medical fitness is “…the world’s largest vastly untapped market“. On the other hand, On October 11th, the Global Climate Health Alliance released an open letter signed by over 400 health organizations representing 45 million health professionals around the world.  It calls upon world leaders to deliver climate action at COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow, to address the climate crisis, which “is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”. Can fitness professionals seeking business opportunities in medical fitness really advance health equity if they are not recognizing that ‘business as usual’ when it comes to climate change will ultimately cause more harm to public health in both the Global North and Global South?

I also looked back at over a year of blogs on canfitpro’s website and came across only one article, on healthy living, that discussed the benefits of green spaces. I was particularly disturbed by reading a business related article by Ian Mullane, founder and CEO of AI-powered sales and retention platform Keepme, where he argues that the future in fitness is “ecosystems”, and where he defines the “wellness ecosystem” as, “that growing network of apps, trackers, online content, physical gyms, outdoor fitness and so on, in which consumers control their own wellness journeys, picking and choosing the elements they want to use”. Again, can fitness professionals conceptualizing an individual’s “wellness ecosystem” in terms of making connections between datasets, “connections that, in turn, amplify the value of each metric and deliver comprehensive insight at a personalized level” really advance wellness if they fail to recognize that each of us lives in community in interconnected natural ecosystems that are experiencing crises?

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