Expert Q&A

Gym cost too much? Inexpensive exercise alternatives abound


Your workout needn’t start with lifting the contents of your wallet for membership or fancy equipment. Run, skip or cartwheel over to these low-cost exercise alternatives

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Question for the expertDear New Frugal You,
I’m anxious to start an exercise program, but can’t afford to join a club or buy home equipment (at least not without charging it). Is there a way to exercise frugally without a lot of money? — Jody

Answer for the expertDear Jody,
From watching the exercise industry ads, it’s easy to understand why many people have the idea that a workout regimen begins like this: “Stretch your arm, thrust your hand de-e-e-e-ep into your bank account. Now p-u-u-u-u-ll out its contents. And repeat.”

No doubt, a lot of people are spending a lot of money to get fit. By the end of 2011, more than 51 million people in the U.S. were members of health clubs, spending $21 billion for memberships and other related fees, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.  Another $3 billion was sold in home exercise equipment, according to

But the industry is relatively new. Until a few decades ago, no one belonged to a health club or had a home gym. Yet people seemed to be in pretty good shape. In fact, some might say that strength and stamina were better before the advent of the exercise industry.

We’ll leave that debate for the experts. But one thing we will point out is that people are less physically active today, which leads us to the thought that just becoming more active will help in general fitness.

Let’s begin with the required warning. Don’t begin an exercise program without checking with your doctor first. You wouldn’t want to exercise yourself into a heart attack or other medical condition. And use your common sense and think through things before you try them. For instance, don’t hold heavy weights over your body where they could fall and hurt you or do step exercises on an unsteady surface.

Do look for opportunities to expend a little more energy in everyday activities. Start by studying the things you do frequently. Look at each for ways to build in a little exercise:

  • Put away the leaf blower and pick up a rake or broom.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Increase the amount you walk or bike each week. Many of us have become very reliant on our cars for even the shortest trips. Walking or riding on some of them is an easy way to put some exercise into your daily routine.
  • When you go shopping or to work, don’t pick the closest parking spot, but rather the farthest one. It might not seem like a lot, but does add up if you do it every time you get the chance.

Once you’ve built some exercise into your daily routine, decide what type of additional exercise to do at home.

Many basic weightlifting and aerobic exercises can be done at home without fancy equipment.

You can do step aerobics anywhere you have a step. The obvious place to look is a stairway or a stable stepstool. Some have recommended using a phonebook, but avoid anything that’s not extremely steady. You don’t want to be straining on your last rep and have your step shift under you.

Weights are easy to find at home. Anything can work, from a large can of baked beans to a quart or gallon jug filled with water.

If you get more serious, you might need some home equipment. Don’t rule out buying any equipment for yourself, but don’t start out buying new stuff you won’t end up using. Let the other person make that mistake and take advantage of it: A lot exercise equipment ends up in a basement or for sale in the local classified or on craigslist. Sometimes you can even find barbells free for the asking (and the lugging).

Once you get into it, you’ll want to learn more about how and why exercise works. Again, you needn’t do that wallet-stretching routine. Your library can be a great source for magazines and books with various exercises. Many people swear by workout videos for aerobics. Expect your library to have some you can borrow. If you still have a VCR, put a request out on or visit some garage sales.

Don’t forget older exercises and techniques. Pushups, squats and jumping jacks didn’t quit working, they just went out of style. Do a Web search for “isometric exercises” and you’ll find a whole host of ways to workout without any equipment.

Jody, don’t let the lack of finances keep you from starting a fitness program. It may be fashionable to train surrounded by gleaming chrome machines and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. But it’s not necessary to keep frugally physically fit.

See related: Exercising with household items, 12 tips for automatic bill-paying

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