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Sweden’s latest fitness craze combines physical and environmental health

Plogging represents the intersection of personal and ecological health.
Ploggers work out and clean up in Playa del Carmen (Instagram @richmariscal) and Buenos Aires (Instagram @ambienteradio).

In 2007, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer wanted to understand the mindset of hotel cleaning staff. Specifically, she wanted to study the relationship between exercise and self-image. Maids made for a perfect test group, given they spend entire days working out, even though they might not realize how much physical energy they’re actually using. Do they consider their jobs healthy?

Eighty-four attendants from seven different hotels took part in the study. The experimental group was told “the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle,” while the control group was not informed of this fact. After four weeks, the group primed to believe they were exercising lost weight and saw decreases in body fat, blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. The same did not occur in the control group.

While Langer speculates that the placebo effect played a role, this mindset shift is important. Instead of treating work as drudgery, the women who shifted their understanding of their jobs experienced positive health benefits. This could have broad implications in how we treat fitness, opening up new avenues for staying healthy while engaged in seemingly un-athletic activities.

One such phenomenon is plogging. In Sweden, runners are combining exercise with environmentalism by picking up trash along the way. And it’s catching on. Plogging is becoming so popular internationally that the app, Lifesum, added a tracker to its interface. 

Lifesum has also partnered with Keep America Beautiful, which created an online portal for ploggers to track garbage they’ve collected. Mike Rosen, senior vice-president of the non-profit organization, believes this is a powerful opportunity to consider the health of yourself and the environment while partaking in a group activity with a shared focus:

Plogging is brilliant because it is simple and fun, while empowering everyone to help create cleaner, greener and more beautiful communities. All you need is running gear and a bag for trash or recyclables, and you are not only improving your own health, but your local community too.

While plogging founder Erik Ahlstrom says you can plog while walking or strolling—he calls it a “treasure hunt”—some ploggers have incorporated it into their fitness regimen. Emily Wright, a plogger in Alexandria, Virginia, believes the influence of trash-cleaning runners could sway potential litterers from dropping their plastic on the ground.

This isn't the first time a regular activity has been reframed as fitness. In a hilarious episode of Comedy Central's Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder recruits a professional bodybuilder to be the face of The Movement, a new take on moving—as in, home movers. Instead of paying workers to move your stuff, Nathan believes ordinary people will pay the moving company for the exercise benefit, forgoing expensive gyms (apparently, gym stands for "giving your money" away) for a variety of loading techniques with couches and boxes. While that's comedy, movers do have to stay quite healthy. 

Will plogging translate in America? In Venice Beach, regular beach clean-ups combine yoga, meditation, and running with environmentalism. California has long been a leader in eco-friendly trends, as one resident in Orange County exhibits in the video below. 

Of course, people have to litter for the need for so much cleaning up. The number one criticism on social media feeds is that ploggers enable litterers by picking up their trash—a strange argument, as someone has to do it. Waiting for public services could mean the trash sits around for weeks. I live close to Venice Beach and witness this often. 

As Emily Wright recently told the Washington Post about this movement and her role in it, 

I’m not going to just let litter sit there. I’m not going to just walk past that plastic bottle. It’s not that I don’t think it’s gross to pick it up. I do. But I also think it’s gross for a person to not take responsibility for it.

This has been Wright’s viewpoint for some time; only recently did her husband come across plogging, telling his wife, “the Swedes have a name for your trash runs!”

While you might not get the same cardiovascular benefit as with a sustained run, the integration of squatting into your routine to pick up trash—some recommend proper form in videos—is quite beneficial. As you run further and pick up more trash, the weight becomes a load you have to move around, adding a dynamic and unstable element to your run as well.

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Most important is the satisfaction of knowing you’re not only helping yourself. Like the mindset of those calorie-burning maids, your focus expands, which changes your relationship with both your body and environment, which just might be the healthiest aspect of plogging.


Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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