The only time in my life that I ever found it both easy and inexpensive to exercise is when I was studying abroad during my last semester of college. My minimal course load left me with plenty of time to do everything I wanted, including working out. I also had someone else covering most of my expenses, so I purchased a more expensive gym membership than I might have been willing to finance had it been my own hard-earned money.
Now that I work full-time and need to save lots of money for real-life adult expenses, I’ve had to find ways to minimize the time, expense, and hassle involved in working out. If you’ve found yourself with the same dilemma, here is an analysis of different exercise options to help you figure out which will be the most convenient and cost-effective for you.
Exercising outside is great for people who live in areas with moderate climates (or people who don’t mind jogging in 40 degree rain). You always have something different to look at as you’re walking around and you tend to notice lots of interesting things you never see from a car window. It’s usually possible to change your route often, too, so you don’t get bored. Getting your exercise outside for free certainly seems like the simplest option, but it actually has quite a few barriers. Your schedule may keep you away from home during daylight hours. You may live in an unsafe area, or simply not live in an area that is conducive to going walking, jogging, or hiking outdoors. You may have certain injuries that making exercising outside unfeasible (for example, bad knees and jogging on the sidewalk are a painful combination). If you don’t have anyone to work out with, this method can also be lonely for some people and potentially unsafe.
If walking or jogging around your neighborhood isn’t an option, look for community recreation facilities in or near your neighborhood. Community parks and pools are generally either free or very inexpensive as long as you are a resident of the city or neighborhood that owns the facility (sometimes you’ll need proof of residency, like an ID or library card). For example, I live near a large, well-maintained lap swimming pool that I can attend for free seven days a week just for showing my library card. Without a card, it’s still only $1.50 per visit. Community parks often offer tennis and basketball courts and sometimes a path for jogging. Some area schools leave their field gates unlocked during the evenings and weekends so that neighborhood residents can take advantage of the track and basketball court.
The next thing (or sometimes the first thing) most people think of is joining a gym. When joining a gym, it’s best to join during a promotion of some sort–if you join in January when they’re recruiting the new year’s resolution crowd, it will be easy to get a low rate and possibly avoid the dreaded $100+ initiation fee. If you do decide to go this route, make sure to try to bargain down the price of your gym membership, even if you are an existing member. If you do decide to spend the money on a gym, make sure to pick a gym that you like enough and that is convenient enough that you will go regularly, even if it isn’t the cheapest gym available. A more expensive gym membership that you actually use is a better use of money than a cheap membership that you don’t use.
Ideally, look for a gym that doesn’t require you to sign a contract. Sometimes you can find small, neighborhood gyms that don’t require a contract or have lower fees. Also, be sure to check the YMCA in your area. Sometimes you can purchase a day pass to their exercise facilities, which means that if you know you’ll only go to the gym once a week, you can save a significant amount of money over the cost of a traditional monthly gym membership. Gyms can be wonderful because they offer a wide variety of cardio and weight equipment as well as group classes like spinning, kickboxing, and step aerobics which can help keep you motivated and prevent boredom. However, if you are a nine-to-fiver, the gym can be painfully crowded after work and on weekends, making it difficult to use the equipment you like. Class schedules don’t always coincide with your schedule and some classes fill up so fast that if you can’t arrive early, you’ll never get a spot. Also, there’s always someone who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of only wearing your gym clothes once before washing them and someone who can’t smell his own overpowering body odor.
If the gym isn’t for you but you’d still like to have a variety of activities to choose from and/or potential interaction with other people, sign up for individual dance or exercise classes at a local dance studio or community college. Martial arts, boxing, and other team sports can be another option (yes, even for adults). By choosing one of these options, instead of being locked into the recurring monthly expense of a gym membership, you can sign up for classes as you come across ones that interest you and fit into your schedule rather than trying to force yourself to make it to a step aerobics class that you have to rush over to straight after work. When you’re not locked into a gym membership, you’ll potentially have a wider variety of classes to choose from.
Another option is to buy your own equipment if you can make space for it. It may seem expensive, but it can pay for itself in as little as a few months to a year depending on the price of the equipment and the price of the gym membership you would have been paying for. I bought a $300 spinning bike and some inexpensive dumbbells and exercise bands to use at home. I can use them 24 hours a day and I don’t even have to leave home to work out. Before that, I was spending $45 a month on a gym membership, so after only 7 months I had already come out ahead by buying my own equipment. I find that recurring monthly expenses really drain my wallet, so I try to avoid them whenever possible. As far as space goes, my bike takes up very little space against a wall, and there are home treadmills that fold up and can be stored in a closet or a corner when they’re not in use (make sure you’re motivated enough to get them out and use them, though). Dumbbells can be pushed under a chair or table when you aren’t using them. Exercise bands won’t provide a strenuous workout, but they weigh almost nothing, take up very little space, and can come with you when you travel.
Exercising is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and it shouldn’t be marginalized simply for frugality’s sake. Whether you’re a gym rat or just a casual exerciser, there are ways for you to get your heart rate up while keeping your expenses down. Good health should always come before saving money, but I believe that these tips will enable you to do both.