In my area, the cheapest gym I can find for exercise is one that charges about $15 per month and charges additional fees for every class you might take. The $15 per month just gets you in the door and gives you access to the facilities.
Other gyms that offer training programs and such accelerate far above that. Some cost as much as $100 a month, and when you start moving into personal trainers, it skyrockets.
I think exercise and fitness are valuable, but it’s also expensive. Naturally, being the frugal guy that I am, I’ve dabbled in many different free and low-cost alternatives to gym membership. Here are some of the options I’ve tried and how they work.
Advantages: Very simple, easily adjusted to your needs, easy to measure progress
Disadvantages: No individual training or contact from a trainer, no motivation from a trainer
Walking is extremely flexible. It works for almost everyone at every fitness level, because the fitter you are, the faster your pace can be and/or the longer you can go. It doesn’t provide high-end fitness, but it can certainly get the blood flowing and elevate your heart rate. It’s easy to measure out a path of a certain distance (I have a mile loop, a three mile loop, and a five mile loop that begin and end at my front door) and you can easily measure the time (and thus the speed) using a watch.
I view walking regularly as a part of a good exercise plan.
Lifetime Fitness Ladder / Home Bodyweight Exercise
Advantages: A variety of exercises, easy to measure progress over time
Disadvantages: No individual training or contact from a trainer, no motivation from a trainer, you may have to watch videos to learn how to do certain things
The Lifetime Fitness Ladder is a simple routine of bodyweight exercises (think sit-ups, jumping jacks, squats, etc.) that are intended to get you heart rate up and exercise a large number of muscle groups. There are many home bodyweight options out there, like You Are Your Own Gym, but for starters, the Lifetime Fitness Ladder works really well.
It’s flexible, makes it easy to track your progress, and doesn’t require any extra equipment. I think it pairs really well with walking if you want an exercise routine with no additional cost.
Youtube Yoga and Exercise Videos
Cost: Free, plus initial basic equipment cost (see below)
Advantages: A trainer appears to talk to you and motivate you, a wide variety of possible exercises
Disadvantages: No individual training or contact from a trainer, somewhat difficult to measure progress over time, exercises and routines vary widely in quality
The challenge with using Youtube is that the videos vary widely in quality. If you stick to good channels, like the ones linked above, you can get some good workouts. If you don’t stick to those channels, you get some dodgy ones. Another problem is consistency, as it’s rare to find workouts that are arranged in a logical order. You often have to hunt for ones that you like and just keep repeating them.
Youtube works if you want free exercise videos, but you often get what you pay for.
DVD-based Exercise Videos
Cost: Initial cost of DVDs, plus initial basic equipment cost (see below)
Advantages: A trainer appears to talk to you and motivate you, DVDs offer a wide variety of possible exercises
Disadvantages: No individual training or contact from a trainer, somewhat difficult to measure progress over time
There are a lot of DVD-based exercise videos out there. I have personally used both DDP Yoga and P90X and enjoyed both. They provide a consistent level of quality, a consistent trainer (usually), and consistent routines, as well as easy ways to measure your progress (again, usually).
The problem is that you’re starting to add some cost at this point. Most good exercise DVDs are either one-shot deals where you do the same exact two or three routines over and over or they’re expensive DVD sets. The one benefit is that the cost is up front – you’re not pulled into a monthly bill.
Cost: $10/month, plus initial basic equipment cost (see below)
Advantages: A wide variety of plans and regimens to try out, all with trainers on-screen to motivate you, trainers are consistent throughout the full plans, keeps track of your progress
Disadvantages: No individual training or contact from a trainer
This is probably the most expensive step I’ve tried short of using a gym – and it really works well. The best way to think of it is that it’s a whole bunch of exercise DVD box sets all bundled together into one package, along with software to help you keep track of your progress and schedule everything.
The catch, of course, is the cost. It’s $10 per month. While that’s substantially less than most gym memberships, it is another monthly bill that you don’t really need. It’s also lacking one ingredient that most gyms provide – interaction with a teacher/trainer.
Initial equipment cost?
Some of these options involve buying some equipment for home use. You won’t be buying everything you find in a gym, but common purchases include an exercise mat, a yoga brick, a balancing ball, and some barbells or kettle bells. The total cost will vary from trivial to around $100.
If you’re just getting started, my honest suggestion is to start with walking and the Lifetime Fitness Ladder. Both are free and require no additional equipment.
Print out a year-long calendar, stick it on your wall, and set a walking goal each day of, say, 30 minutes. Every day that you meet your walking goal, put an X on that day, and then over time watch the X’s grow. You can do the same thing with the Lifetime Fitness Ladder, just drawing an X whenever you complete a rung of the ladder.
For some, that will provide everything that they need. If you want to keep expanding, I’d suggest renting DVDs from the library (if available) and trying out Youtube channels to see what kinds of exercises work for you.
Most DVD box sets and things like DailyBurn are really only good financial commitments if you already have an established internal commitment to getting into better shape. If you do, those tools can really help. Honestly, if you’re contributing 30 or more minutes a day to physical fitness, the cost of a DVD box set every few months or a subscription to DailyBurn is well worth it if it helps you maximize those daily thirty minutes.
In the end, successful long-term fitness is really about establishing and sticking to routines. You can do that without expensive options. Save the expensive options for when you’ve built a bit of a routine and you know what else you’re looking for.