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There’s No Such Thing as Free Exercise

By , January 10th, 2008 | 13 Comments »


Many years ago, I started walking, then running, for fitness. I needed to exercise more and everyone told me how walking/running was such great exercise and, best of all, it was free! All I had to do, I was told, was put on a pair of sneakers that I already had and go. It wouldn’t cost me anything to get out there. Unlike joining a gym or a pool, there were no fees to pay. Unlike certain sports, I didn’t need any special equipment. Great, I thought. Free suits me. Well, several years and many miles down the road, this supposedly free exercise has turned into a monster that could easily consume my budget if I let it.

It started with a little thing. I needed better shoes. Once I started walking more, my old ones quickly wore out and my feet were hurting. So, off to the shoe store I went. I quickly realized that an adequate pair of shoes would cost about $40 and a pair that made my feet feel really good cost $80 or more. Well, OK, I thought, since it’s only this one time and this is my feet we’re talking about. Right. A few months and many miles later, I needed new shoes again. It became a never ending cycle. Walk and run more, buy more shoes. It got to where I was shelling out about $240/year for good shoes.

Running more led to a need for new clothes. The longer I spent out there, the less my old shorts, sweats, and t-shirts were up to the job. They didn’t allow moisture to escape, so when I sweated, they stuck all over me. And chafed. Plus they weren’t up to the kind of wear I was putting on them so they wore out too fast. So, off to the store for better clothes I went. The choices were staggering. Sports bras were a must, as were moisture wicking shirts and shorts. Technical fabrics, they were called. I needed pants and long sleeves when it got cold, and gloves and earmuffs, too. Then there were technical hats to keep the sweat and sun out of my eyes. And don’t forget the moisture wicking socks to prevent blisters. Over those first few months I think I spent around $200 getting outfitted. It would have been more, but I hunted aggressively for sales and discounts.

I now realized that this so-called free sport was getting expensive, but I was having fun and getting in shape, so it was OK. But I was bored outside alone and wanted something to keep me company and set the beat. An iPod fit the bill. This was in the days before the cheaper Shuffle model, so I spent another $200 to keep me entertained while running.

As if running wasn’t becoming expensive enough, a friend invited me to enter a race. That first race wasn’t expensive, just $20 for the race fee and I got a free shirt! Finally, something about this sport that was free. I didn’t win (didn’t expect to) but I had so much fun I immediately wanted to sign up for more races. So I did. Charity races, fun runs, big events; if it was nearby I entered it. My times were getting better but I was spending more money on race fees. It had become a form of entertainment. Some people went to the movies, I went to races. Of course, all this racing meant more training, more shoes, and more clothes. And more music for the iPod. Since my times were improving, I wanted a way to keep track while I was training. Out went $50 for a decent stopwatch. This free sport was really racking it up now.

I was having fun, but I wanted to keep challenging myself, pushing myself to go further and faster. Then came the day when I discovered marathons, half marathons, and ultra events. Whoops. If I thought I was spending money before, that was nothing. My first marathon cost almost $100 to enter. There aren’t many endurance races where I live, so racing became an excuse to travel. We started planning vacations around races. So now I’m racing and traveling. My last ultra event cost $250 to enter and about $1000 in vacation costs. Yikes. And my other costs went up as well. The long distances meant I was going through shoes twice as fast. I needed more clothes, otherwise I was doing laundry every day. I needed guidance so I bought some books on marathoning (my library had none). I discovered I needed fuel to keep me going, thus I added energy bars and sports drinks to the budget. I also learned about anti-chafing gels and bought those to keep the blisters down. There were injuries and medical costs, lots of Band-Aids, ACE bandages, and athletic tape.

Then came the big mamma expense. To keep training through all sorts of weather, access to a treadmill was highly desirable. I had a choice: Pay $60/month to join the local gym, or just buy one of the darn things and be done with it. Fortunately, I was able to buy a great treadmill used from someone who had made a New Year’s resolution and not stuck to it. The treadmill had become his plant stand and he was happy to let me have it. For $350. Since it would have cost $1,000 new I was happy, but still. Free sport, my hind foot! At least I haven’t seen fit to invest in a GPS device to measure my distances and monitor my pace. Yet.

So that’s where I am today. Shelling out big bucks for a supposedly free sport. Admittedly the racing and traveling isn’t necessary to stay in shape, but it adds to the fun and camaraderie of the sport. It keeps me going when I might otherwise quit. Despite all the money I’ve shelled out, there have been some cost benefits, as well. Unless I get injured, my medical costs have dropped. I don’t get sick as often, so I have fewer doctor’s visits overall. And my better overall health should pay off as I get older. I’m cheaper to insure. I’ve made new friends so I’m more social and happy which pays off health wise, too. And the running lowers my stress level and is way cheaper than therapy for working through problems. I’m also more confident and willing to take on things I wouldn’t have before, including changing careers and asking for more money. If you factor in the intangibles running has given me, I may be close to breaking even.

The moral of this story is this: There is no free exercise. Everything, even walking and running, has some cost associated with it. The more you enjoy something and are good at it, the more you’re going to put into it, both physically and financially. But you’ll also get a lot of joy and other benefits from it. If you made a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, go ahead and brace yourself for higher expenses the further along the path you go.

Image courtesy of Stronghold

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  • A Marino says:

    Even if you join a gym, you’re going to have to pay for all of the items you mentioned plus the membership of the gym.

    You can go overboard on anything in life. There are always people out there hoping that they can sell a new product to you. I will agree that shoes are a must. I had a friend that had a personal trainer and still hurt her shoulder causing her to have to have surgery. You can run yourself until you’re blue in the face and not get the results that you wanted including problems with overuse of the knees, etc. So, I think that in general what most are talking about is plain old fashioned walking with focus in mind and breathing the fresh air. My neighbor loses so much weight walking that she has to cut back. She said that all she ever achieved with her personal trainer of two years was a larger body and more weight. She now looks great just doing “free walking” with a friend.

  • Crystal says:

    Yup, exercise definitely costs money. I learned that as well. Unfortunately for my wallet, I am very active! I go to the gym, walk on my own, rollerblade and bike. And every single one of those items have things you need for them. The best you can do is bargain shop as much as possible because you will be spending money. The more active you are, the more you will spend.

  • zenith says:

    It’s not free, but like you said, it is so good for you!
    Entertainment and exercise rolled in to one.
    Good for you!

  • kch says:

    You’re right that the direct financial cost of running can be expensive, but I like to focus more on tho positives you hit on towards the end of your post – that running is keeping you mentally and physically healthy.

  • Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances says:

    Wow, I’ve probably paid less for my gym membership and clothes! The great thing about the gym is that I can wear just about whatever because it’s climate controlled. And I haven’t had any problems with my shoes since I just use the treadmills or elliptical machines.

  • It’s like riding a bike. You can ride a $50 bike or a $5000 dollar bike, but there is no law against riding the former even though people automatically gravitate towards the latter. Upgrade fever is a terrible thing ๐Ÿ™‚ OTOH spending money on fitness is better than spending it on watching TV.

  • Ivan Cadena says:

    Be sure that there’s nothing free related to fitness and exercise. Nevertheless, a good ol’ hint, swimming. It’s not so expensive, and you just need a couple of accesories (by the way, very cheap).

  • Neal L says:

    If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk…

  • One thing I would point out is that for you, running seems to have become more than just a form of exercise–it’s become a hobby that you’re passionate about, and hobbies often get expensive (I know mine have). To just get a basic amount of exercise, though, a person wouldn’t need to spend nearly this much money. I buy tennis shoes once a year no matter what (I wear them all the time), then I go for walks in my regular tennis shoes and my regular clothes. So walking, at least, can be free.

  • C Johnson says:

    There are a lot of comfort supplies. You really don’t need an ipod or treadmill. I’m sure there could of been other places to stay and travel that didn’t cost a grand. Just because all this stuff is there, doesn’t mean it has to be bought. Some of the philosophy behind running is a sort of minimalist mentality. That is one of the reasons I run.

  • Richard says:

    Come on. If you were living and enjoying life, the costs should not mean anything . Think about not being able to do what you did. There are somethings more important thatn just saving money if you have the means. If you were starving to walk,run then that is another issue.

  • Helen says:

    I am blessed! At the local Senior Center: Aerobic exercise;twice a week ($1.00 a session YMCA instructor ),Strength training;three times a week ($2.00 a session ,also by YMCA instructor),Walking Club;three times a week (2-3 miles and free). I use good sneakers for exercise only and a pair of “Nurses'” shoes for the walking.It is now time for me to get out my snowshoes and cross-country skis for the snow.
    P.S. I just had my 79th birthday.

  • counterpoint says:


    Congrats on yout 79th b-day.

    There is nothing wrong with spending money if it is something that improves your health and you enjoy it. It’s a non issue.


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