I’m not going to slice and dice it: If you want to get into good physical shape, the best way to do it is to get a gym membership and hire a personal trainer who will cultivate a plan for your fitness and stay on top of you to make sure that you achieve that plan. Your trainer appointments become a part of your calendar and your life.
The guidance of a good trainer and the equipment and change of scenery of a gym are incredibly powerful tools for helping you improve your physical fitness.
The problem? They’re expensive. Really expensive. Unless you’re lucky enough to have some kind of free or discounted gym membership or trainer, you’re going to be paying a lot of money for this.
I recently got quotes for a gym membership and a twice weekly session with a personal trainer (for the purposes of this article) and… wow. I was expecting it to be costly, but the average numbers were incredible: For a gym membership and twice-weekly hour-long trainer sessions, $300 a month was the average fee.
That’s a lot of cash. There are many people out there who can’t afford it, and quite a few more who could afford it but aren’t willing to do so.
The question then becomes: What are the other options? What else can you do to get in shape and stay in shape?
Over the years, I’ve talked about a number of options that have worked for me at various times. I’ve written about five inexpensive/free home exercise programs that I’ve used, about hiking and rucking, and about general approaches I use for fitness.
Yet, it was a recent reader mailbag question that really inspired this post. It was a nice question from someone who was earnestly asking for advice on how to get started exercising from home, and I gave what I considered to be a good simple answer. I pointed him toward the Darebee 15-minute morning workout as a good starting point. Just do that routine every morning until it becomes easy.
That question of his really stuck in my mind, though. What exactly does a person do if they’re out of shape and don’t have the financial resources to commit to paying for a gym membership or hiring a personal trainer often enough to really make an impact?
Here’s the only solution that has ever really worked for me in terms of solving this problem.
Figure Out What You’re Doing and Why
This is the first step in this whole process. We’re not even looking at specific exercises here, but simply why you want to exercise. What’s your reason for wanting to do so?
In my experience, the best way to make goals tangible is to specifically imagine the life you want to have in the future. What do you want your life to look like in six months or a year or five years, whatever your time horizon might be?
If your vision involves losing weight, then I’m here to tell you right now that the most effective thing you can do, by far, is to watch your calorie intake like a hawk. Download a calorie counting smartphone app and count literally every calorie that goes into your mouth. Calorie-burning exercise will help, but it’s just one smaller piece in the puzzle.
If your vision involves being able to do some specific activity without feeling like you’re dying or getting out of breath, then your exercise should center around that activity or around exercises that will directly prepare you for that activity. For example, if you want to go on a hilly hike without stopping for air every five minutes, then you might want to consider things like walks that take you up hills or walking up and down stairs in your own home.
If your vision involves being able to take a strenuous yoga class without making a fool of yourself, then your routine should be about working on basic yoga routines at home and learning how to hold difficult positions.
If your vision involves six pack abs, then you’re going to want to focus heavily on ab exercises at home – stomach crunches and so on.
Focus on your vision of yourself in the future and think about what things you can be doing to take you from where you’re at now to where you want to be. That vision of yourself in the future becomes a direct motivator because it’s directly tied to the types of exercise you want to do.
Write down that vision of the future somewhere where you’re going to see it every day, and leave some space below it for now.
Schedule It and Make It Non-Negotiable
You have some sense of what your big goal is. Now, you have to make sure that you’re doing something on a very frequent basis to move toward that goal, and that’s where exercise comes in. Daily exercise, or at least several-sessions-a-week exercise, is the key to achieving most of the big visions for the future that people have regarding their fitness.
One of the big reasons that people find success with a trainer or with going to the gym is that it becomes an appointment for them. They have to meet the trainer at 10 AM. They have to go to the gym at 4 PM. This literally becomes part of their calendar and they treat that appointment as very important.
However, that type of “appointment scheduling” does not have to be restricted to meetings with a trainer or visits to a gym outside your home. You can schedule a time on your own to exercise anywhere. The key is to treat it as untouchable, just as people often do with their trainer appointments.
If you decide to start a daily exercise routine, it needs to become a dead-on requirement that you at least do something with regards to exercise. Put it on your daily calendar at least several times a week, if not daily, and don’t miss that appointment. If you treat it as something unimportant that you can just skip, you’ll never achieve your goal.
This takes discipline, and discipline is hard. I’d argue that the single most challenging aspect of exercise is the discipline needed to consistently do it. That is the key ingredient and, in the end, that’s up to you.
My own strategy for this is very straightforward. Exercise is a scheduled thing for me – it happens at a certain time, each and every day. This is on my calendar. I also have a personal ongoing goal to actually do that exercise 25 days out of the month, and my bigger goal is to do that every month for a year. That’s 300 exercise sessions, and that’s going to make a big difference.
Finding the Right Exercises
Another major key to successfully exercising without paying for the gym or for a trainer or for a bunch of equipment is to find exercises that are actually enjoyable for you while also moving you toward whatever your big goal/vision is.
In other words, start off with the vision you have for where you want to be in the future and select exercises that seem at least tolerable that will move you toward that goal.
I’ll use myself as an example. Some of the things I want to do in the next few years include some very long walks, a long-ish hike up a fairly steep incline, continuing taekwondo with my family, and being agile enough and have enough cardio health to be able to help my kids get ready for their soccer seasons.
If I take those visions of the future as my goals, then I start to look into and choose exercises that move me toward my goals.
For example, it’s clear that I’m focused on distance walking, with both hiking and long-distance walks, and I also need to improve leg strength and cardio for hiking up hills. Both taekwondo and soccer call on flexibility-related exercises as well as exercises that improve balance. Taekwondo also calls on core strength a lot, as well as arm strength to an extent.
So, what I’m looking for are exercises I enjoy that involve strengthening my legs for walking and going up inclines, improving flexibility and balance, and improving cardio and core strength with a bit of arm strength work as well.
What can I do for those things that I’ll actually enjoy?
Well, for leg strengthening, I can go on walks, particularly ones that involve inclines. Stair climbing will also help.
For cardio, I can do pretty much any vigorous exercise that puts me out of breath.
For core strength and arm strength, I’ll just follow the recommendations of my taekwondo instructor, who tells me that the best things I can do are leg lifts, planks, squats, and push-ups.
For balance and flexibility, I’m looking straight at yoga. My son’s soccer coach also recommends that I do lunges to help with my children’s soccer preparations.
So, based entirely on my goals and what sounds interesting, my exercise is going to include stretching, long walks, stair climbing, vigorous cardio routines, leg lifts, crunches, planks, squats, push-ups, yoga, and lunges.
Those exercises all draw on specific things that I need to do to improve my overall health and also improve on the specific things I want to be doing in life.
How do you do this type of translation for yourself? Ask. Ask friends who are physically fit for exercises that they would do if they were a beginner and hoping to achieve a certain thing. Find fitness message boards online and ask.
Turning Exercises Into Routine
The next step is to take all of those exercises and develop some sort of routine that you can follow on a daily or at least several times a week basis. In other words, you’re taking those exercise ideas and translating them into what you actually fill your half-hour or hourlong appointment with.
My strategy has been to use progression as my friend.
What I typically do in a given day is to do the Darebee daily bodyweight workout as a starting point each day. This routine takes about 15 minutes or so and is a simple way to add some variety.
I follow that up by doing a very straightforward routine of all of the things I mentioned above. I do stretching (I actually do the stretching before doing the Darebee daily), stair climbing, vigorous cardio routines, leg lifts, crunches, planks, squats, push-ups, and lunges. (At a different point in the day, I go on a walk because it clears my mind and I do yoga during another break in my writing, a short routine that also clears my mind.)
For each of those exercises, I’m following a progression pattern. What that means is that my goal is to do a certain number of each of those exercises each day, and when I can do that number with ease, I move onto a harder version of that exercise.
Let’s use planks as an example. My goal is to do three 60 second planks of whatever type I’m doing right now, with a 15 second break between them. Thus, I spend exactly three and a half minutes on planks at most. When it becomes easy to do this, then I switch to a slightly harder version of the plank.
The easiest plank is a kneeling plank, where your knees are on the floor, you’re resting your weight on your elbows and forearms, and you’re keeping your upper body as straight as possible. When you can do that fairly easily for 60 seconds, then a 15 second break, then 60 seconds, then another break, then another 60 seconds, then it’s time to move onto a harder one.
There are many websites that list plank progressions and show you how to do a bunch of different plank variations in order from easy to hard. You can also find Youtube videos that show you exactly how to do it correctly. Just watch them and try to mirror them.
So, after I master the kneeling plank, I’ll switch to doing a side kneeling plank, which is a bit harder. After that, I’ll move to a normal plank – knees off the floor! When I can do that three times for 60 seconds with a 15 second break in between, I’ll move to a slightly harder one, and so on.
I do the exact same thing with other exercises. I use a stretching progression and a crunch progression and a squat progression. I find all of these progressions online using Google, and I use Youtube videos to make sure I’m doing them right. All of these things can be done really easily at home with either no equipment or extremely minimal equipment.
The nice thing about progressions is that they slowly get harder without getting longer, and it only gets harder at a pace that’s comfortable for you. As you do things over and over, they gradually become easier and easier and you find yourself moving up the progression until you hit some sort of personal physical limit.
For me, the environment is crucial. I usually turn on some up-tempo music while doing this, and I have a water bottle and a towel right there so I can wipe sweat from my face and keep myself hydrated.
So, here’s what I do each time I exercise. I have a simple checklist that I follow. It starts with getting a towel and a water bottle and the other things that I may need, then I go into the living room in our house which has a lot of open space. I have a checklist that I follow that starts with stretching, moves to the daily Darebee routine, and then follows through a list of progressions – stair climbing, leg lifts, crunches, jumping jacks, planks, squats, push-ups, and lunges. It takes about 40 minutes and I am always sweating profusely at the end.
Each specific exercise takes only a small amount of time and that time never really grows because I’m always just doing the same number of exercises. It’s just that the individual exercises get harder as I get stronger and more fit.
For example, I strive to do 100 squats each day. I recently moved to a new type of squat that involves squatting all the way down so that my fingers touch the floor and coming right back up with my arms extended. Those are much harder than the ones I was doing before, so I give up well below 100. My short term goal each day is to try to beat my previous number by just one. That’s what I want to do today. Once I actually crack 100, then my goal is to do 100 five days in a row. When I do that, then I move to a slightly harder squat, which I’m not going to be able to do 100 of. The longest this exercise will ever take is the time it takes to do 100 squats. Sometimes, it’ll be even shorter.
I try to keep going with an exercise until I’m panting and it seems almost impossible and sweat is pouring down in my face and my muscles are quivering and I’m giving it all I got to just get one more done so I can make today’s goal… and then it’s over.
That’s it! I’m done, I towel off, I take a shower, and then I go on with my day. From the literal moment I decide to exercise to having done all of it and showered and gone back to my other activities takes less than an hour and I am to do it every day, though my actual hard goal is five times a week (there are often days, especially weekends, when I just can’t fit it in).
Setting Up Your Own
There are really three fundamental pieces to exercise.
One, it’s got to be meaningful – you have to be doing exercises that lead to something that has real long term meaning in your life. It is so easy to just get demotivated when you’re doing something that doesn’t clearly lead to something you really want!
So, start by asking yourself what you want. Make that picture of the future where you’re doing some activity at a level that you’d like to be doing it, then dial that back and figure out what daily thing you can be doing to move in that direction.
Two, it’s got to be an appointment. You have to treat the time devoted to this as incredibly important – as important as going to work or as important as taking care of a child. If you view it as something you can easily blow off, you won’t stick with it. It has to be a daily appointment, period. Make that agreement with yourself. Write it down in your own handwriting. Add it to your daily calendar. Put a reminder on your phone. Do whatever it is you need to do to nudge you toward that daily discipline.
Three, it’s got to challenge you but not kill you while still being enjoyable, and that challenge has to grow with you. For me, I find that value in doing progression exercises for specific things that I know will lead to the activities I want in life.
You can achieve all of those objectives without throwing money at a personal trainer or at a gym membership. It simply requires discipline and routine.
It’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy – if it were, everyone could do it. However, it will be rewarding, and it won’t have to drain your finances. In fact, over the long haul, it’s very likely to produce financial rewards in the form of lower health care costs and more life opportunities.