Updated on 11.02.07

Motivating Yourself to Exercise Without Breaking the Bank

Trent Hamm

Perhaps my biggest personal fault (at least from my own perspective) is that I have a very hard time committing myself to an exercise routine. I know how to get into shape (I was actually in very good shape at about age nineteen), but that was actually fueled by other personal issues going on at the time, as I dealt with some hard feelings through intense exercise. Now that I (largely) feel good about myself, I have a much more difficult time convincing myself to exercise and stay in decent shape.

One obvious solution to this problem is to get a personal trainer whose job it is to motivate me. The only problem with that is that I’m a rather frugal person, so I’ve been researching alternative ways to get motivated without the cost of a personal trainer. Here’s what I’ve found.

Find a friend or relative willing to participate with you. You can mutually motivate each other, particularly at first, by exercising and eating together and communicating a lot. My best option for this is clearly my wife, and we’ve been discussing things along these lines for a while now, such as switching to a vegetarian diet at home and having one of us exercise while the other watches the kids.

Eat healthy in ways that are pleasurable for you. One easy rule of thumb for me is to ask any vegetarian friends you might have for their tastiest recipes. Almost always, these recipes are healthy and I’m often shocked at the tastiness, considering that my earlier impression of vegetarian food is that you’re sacrificing flavor for healthiness.

Look for a package that has a built-in motivator. The item that comes to mind here is Dance Dance Revolution, which includes a workout mode and is essentially a game that enables you to burn calories in the privacy of your own home. There are lots of little motivators that one can use, but this one works most effectively for me. The start-up cost with this is a bit pricy, but it’s always there for you, while a personal trainer has a constant upkeep cost.

Keep careful track of your data over time. For me, there are few better motivators than a lot of data that confirms that I am moving in the right direction. A month of very healthy living might burn me out, but if I can look at my stomach and see a bit of change, then look at a graph of the data and see a definite downward trend in my weight, I feel much more motivated to get out there and do it.

Read inspiring stuff. I find it very useful to regularly read, hear, and see inspirational stories about how others have done the same thing – heck, that’s part of the reason why I started The Simple Dollar. I usually try to read a bit from my favorite diet/healthy living books each night, just a page or two to keep my mind on the right track. Yes, I have several books that I read a bit from each night for inspiration.

Visit weight loss and healthy living blogs. Similar to the logic behind inspirational books, I also read a number of health-related blogs written by real people facing the challenges I’m facing. Some of my favorites include Lazy Man and Health and The Tao of Good Health.

Use pictures of myself in the worst possible shape. I have a couple pictures of myself where my weight looks pretty awful, and those pictures bother me quite a bit. Rather than hiding them, I use them as motivators, keeping one in my pocket and another one as my desktop image on my computer. They make me feel a lot of emotions, but generally they encourage me to take action to never look that way again.

What all of these ideas have in common is that they’re not expensive – and they work. In fact, these techniques largely work for any long-term goal that requires a lot of little steps along the way. One just needs to find the little things that helps one stay motivated.

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  1. Steve says:

    If running or biking outdoors is your thing, you might check out http://www.mapmyrun.com. It’s a site that I use regularly to map my bike rides so I can find out how long they are. It also has a pretty nice training log feature that you can then use to make graphs of calories burned, distance, or weight versus time. It’s a pretty nifty website and it’s completely free. It’s a great motivator if you can make a goal for the month, such as biking 200 miles or burning 10,000 calories, and then seeing that happen.

  2. Frank says:

    I often have a similar problem with losing weight and sticking to exercise. What I am doing now is taking it very slow. My only goal has been to walk several times each week and after maintaining that for about 6 weeks I made a goal this week to add one weightlifting workout.

    I am happy to lose one pound per week and I am going to stick to the slow and steady approach. So far it has been good for 10 pounds lost (averaging right around 1.5 pounds per week).

  3. Writers Coin says:

    I think setting and sticking to a routine is incredible helpful. I’m sure you set time apart for writing and reading and you stick to it no matter what, so discipline isn’t a problem. But if you apply that same concept to working out, it works. The key is working out even on those days when you just don’t want to at all.

    That’s where the secret lies.

  4. Susy says:

    I find walking and gardening to be the best easy to stick to workouts. I have a large dog and her being super excited about walking every day is all the motivation I need. 45-60 mins of walking keeps me in great shape. I garden in the spring/summer/fall, and then in the winter I lift to keep my muscles strong (I have some free weights in the basement). Not to mention walking & gardening are free, no gym membership needed.

    I have found that if I try to focus on exercise that accomplishes something it’s easier for me to stay motivated and actually do it.

    I think that eating vegetarian is actually much cheaper than regular eating. Maybe you can use these savings to offset some of our workout costs?

  5. ngthagg says:

    If you want a good tool for tracking changes in weight, check out physicsdiet.com

    Based on The Hacker’s Diet, it takes your daily weight readings and generates a trend line. It’s a nice little tool to use whether you’re trying to drop some weight, or trying to avoid gaining.

  6. lorax says:

    An old iPod, music, and podcasts makes me look forward to exercising every day.

  7. Nickie says:

    Hey! This is very true. Sometimes you can get a “just do it” mindset, but sometimes it really is difficult to find motivation.

    As for pictures of yourself, I find myself motivated by pictures of other people in very poor shape (or even if I just see someone) motivation to at least go for a run.

  8. Soni says:

    I have a few seemingly insurmountable motivational blocks.

    1. My work as a writer/editor means many hours in a chair (I used to be able to read and walk as a teen, but I don’t think my nearly-40 brain is up to that level of multi-tasking anymore). On top of that, I hate exercise for exercise’s sake. I’ll dance for hours, walk almost anywhere, etc., if I’m actually doing something. But walking around a loop just to be walking = ain’t getting done. Unfortunately, a lot of “doing something” options cost $ (like going out dancing) and while walking would be great, the area I live is seems purpose built to discourage even the most committed walker (or kill them if they try anyway) – the back streets go nowhere I want to go, and the destinations I do want to go (library, store) can only be accessed by busy highways with no walking room. There are vast stretches where you literally end up walking *in* the highway with inches to spare between you and lanes of semi trucks and rush-hour drivers. That’s why I don’t take a bike, either.

    2. I actually like my weight. At 5’7″ and ~170lbs, I’m calm and curvy and comfortable (when I was dancing I was 135, and was bony, hyper/edgy and cold). Unfortunately, doc says I’m about 5-10lbs or so over my healthy BMI range, and some of it is belly fat, which worries me re: cancer, diabetes and heart disease, all of which run in the family. But damn. I hate to lose any of it. I’ve only had it for the last 5 years and I’m really enjoying it. So is hubby. So, there’s actually double resistance on this issue.

    3. I’m a total foodie. I love to eat. It’s not a “loving myself through food” thing, or boredom eating. I just love the taste, smell and sensation of eating food, usually rich, savory dishes like Indian curries and big, fat high-end burritos. In fact, I rarely spend money on anything else – all my clothes are from the Goodwill (I could care less), I buy things only when they break (and usually only after my geeky need to see how McGyverish I can be in keeping it running drives hubby up the wall), we rarely go to movies, etc. But I’ll lay down $50 on a restaurant meal for two without regret (well, I do regret that my cooking skills aren’t up to my demanding palate yet. Working on that, but not “there” enough yet to give up eating out). The only thing saving me from a life as a stand-in for Jabba the Hutt is that I am a vegetarian and I’ve taken great pains to make sweet foods, cheap, processed foods and white flour repulsive to me. Some of it (especially the processed, yet oh so easy, gourmet microwave entrees) took a bit of work.

    So, I’m committed to losing the weight, and getting in better shape. But I can see from here it’s going to be a huge, uphill battle even if it is only a few pounds.

    Any help would be appreciated. Hubs and I are thinking about partner ballroom dance classes (he needs to lose about 20lbs), which sounds like fun. But I’m not sure how much of a workout you really get at the beginner level (he’s not a dancer at all). Anyone know?

  9. Thiru says:

    How about using a perfect image of a future self instead of possible worst image?

  10. dave says:

    google H.I.I.T. training. it takes 15 minutes 3 times per week and burns 9 times more fat than regular exercising. it is very hard on the body but fun also. any long term exercise/weight loss program should also include weight training 3 times per week to increase muscle mass, therefore metabolism.

  11. Kate says:

    I, too suffer from this de-motivation. When I was 18, 19, and 20, I was pretty fit, but I also had a big self-esteem problem. I had pretty much directly linked my self-worth to the number on the scale.

    Several years and a marriage later, I feel much more secure about myself as a person…and I’ve also got 20 more pounds to be secure about.

    I normally take an evening walk and work out sporadically at my apartment’s pithy “gym,” but in the last few months, my apartment management has neglected to maintain the few machines the facility has. The multi-purpose weight machine has several broken cables — so lifting the weights is out of the question. The only working machine in the room is a grimy treadmill.

    To stop the constant creeping of pounds (did I mention I love to cook?) I finally purchased a membership at the YMCA. However, I applied for financial assistance and was approved for a 30% discount. I love using their cardio machines – they look through a large second-floor window over a vast, beautiful field – and the classes really help me stay motivated.

    So far, it’s been a great investment!

  12. Kate says:

    I, too suffer from this de-motivation. When I was 18, 19, and 20, I was pretty fit, but I also had a big self-esteem problem. I had pretty much directly linked my self-worth to the number on the scale.

    Several years and a marriage later, I feel much more secure about myself as a person…and I’ve also got 20 more pounds to be secure about.

    I normally take an evening walk and work out sporadically at my apartment’s pithy “gym,” but in the last few months, my apartment management has neglected to maintain the few machines the facility has. The multi-purpose weight machine has several broken cables — so lifting the weights is out of the question. The only working machine in the room is a grimy treadmill. It’s really grimy. No matter how many times I clean it, it’s always sweaty and gross again when I return.

    To stop the constant creeping of pounds (did I mention I love to cook?) while waiting on my lame management company, I finally purchased a membership at the YMCA. However, I applied for financial assistance and was approved for a 30% discount. I love using their cardio machines – they look through a large second-floor window over a vast, beautiful field – and the classes really help me stay motivated.

    So far, it’s been a great investment!

  13. Kate says:

    Soni, it looks like you and I could almost be twins. I have the same spending philosophies – I’ll buy high-end groceries but get my clothes at Goodwill – and we even have the same weight and height!

  14. Kathryn says:

    I second the vote for “routine” as the secret. I’ll admit that it’s harder with young children at home, but if you can schedule your work times, you can schedule your work-out times. The final piece to find someone to share that scheduled time with, so you feel an obligation not to slack off.

    For me it’s a first thing in the morning at the YMCA three days a week with a friend. Wouldn’t dream of not showing up. (Sharing a ride really helps) And now that we’re on a roll, it seems as normal as going to work.

  15. Sandy says:

    I do Jazzercise 3x a week. (I recently learned that it is a franchise). I like the music. We get our aerobics, plus use weights & do push-ups and sit-ups. And 3x a week I walk for an hour, using my mini-iPod which makes all the difference-walking, while listening to my most favorite songs. My daughter lost 22 lbs. w/Wt. Watchers, and even though I only have 10-15 lbs. to lose, I joined seeing her success. In 2 weeks, I’ve lost 4 pounds so far w/them. You do not have to eat any packaged food and they have a point system. I thought that would be complicated, but it isn’t at all and is actually fun. It’s a pleasure now to eat all week long, knowing that at the end of the week I will have lost and not gained, by keeping track of my allotted points. This system is actually fun and something I can see myself doing life-long. Here’s how weight creeps on: if we eat 100 extra calories a day, at the end of a year, we will have gained 10 pounds!! (One teaspoon of butter is 100 calories, so it’s no wonder why keeping our weight down is difficult). I like weight watchers because it keeps me accountable all week and I always pick up valuable information at the weekly meetings.

  16. Maggie Shaw says:

    I’m lucky enough in that I work at a gym part-time and can work out for free, so I save and earn money at the same time. I live in NY so I walk everywhere on the weekends and when I go home to Long Island to visit my family I walk with my mom in the mornings.

    I have a bet with myself (I’ve posted it on my fridge) that if I make boot camp classes every week for 52 weeks, I’ll reward myself. Not only do I get in shape but I have something to look forward to at the end. Plus myself and a friend go together to motivate each other; we laugh and talk our way through the pain.

    As for eating healthy, I do that by default. An old trainer told me once to eat colorful (meaning lots of fruits and veggies). Plus, now that I live on my own, I find myself not buying a lot of meat because it is usually the most expensive item in the grocery store. I do buy chicken on occasion but whole-wheat and black-bean veggie burgers work just as well.

  17. Vickie Carr says:

    My latest dog is a high-energy breed that needs at least an hour of exercise daily. I am lucky in that if I exercise enough I can eat pretty much what I want. After walking for 1.5-2 hours daily finally the pounds started coming off. Down 15 at this point. I need to loose 10 more to get to a healthy BMI.
    For me the exercise has to be built into the routine. So much better if a wagging tail and eager eyes are encouraging me to work out. His joy is contagious!
    I also almost always eat healthy. My downfall when not being active enough is artisan cheeses. Mmmmm! But I eat light on the meat, heavy on the complex carbs and almost all home made.


  18. Andrew says:

    I am a trainer, and I second the notion of having a very detailed workout log. It also helps to avoid boring stuff that you hate.

    Exercise is not a thing we should do to fix a problem, but a thing without which there will always be problems.

  19. Steve W says:

    I have a really hard time getting motivated to exercise. Bottom line — I don’t enjoy it. But I’ve figured out how to do it so that it works for me. The key is a combination of optimal factors that in aggregate push me “over the line” to exercise:

    1. **A regular schedule**, when I’m **most energized** — for me, 7:30A-8A, when everyone else has left the house. After work, forget about it. Too tired.

    2. **Moderation** to avoid burn-out — I only work-out 30 minutes a day. That’s moderate, and it means that I don’t dread it. I’m self-competitive in so many areas of my life. Not this one.

    3. **Elliptical trainer** — its low-impact and the **only** exercise that hasn’t led to some kind of joint or specific pain-point. I would never, ever run on pavement again. That’s a joint-killer.

    4. **Watch great TV** — My wife and I both watch TV shows on DVD, shows that we really love, and that’s a HUGE motivator, b/c you get hooked, and you want to watch again, and guess what, you exercise while you do it.

    #4 above has made the most difference in terms of getting me to exercise, when in fact I don’t like to exercise.

  20. Steve W says:

    Three more tips:

    1. Cut your grass with a push mower, not a riding mower. For me, thats 3 hours a week. As I like to say “My neighbors all have health club memberships and riding mowers, and I have neither”.

    2. Take the steps and skip the elevator.

    3. Walk/bike instead of driving, whenever you can.

  21. Mary McK. says:

    So interesting to read this post and the comments! Like Susy and Vickie I’m finding my dog to be a great motivator. We’ve been running together for about month. My husband and I have been doing karate several times a week for the last 6 years, which is a great strength-builder but I also wanted more cardio exercise. Not sure how long the running will last because my knees are bothering me but it may turn into brisk walking. Either way it’s free (unless I end up with knee surgery!!) and the dog gets his exercise too.

    For vegetarian recipes I love Recipes for a Small Planet and Diet for a Small Planet. There are some very yummy ones in there.

    I just wrote about routine yesterday at
    http://mcmvoices.com/blog/2007/11/hitting-ground-running.html so it’s especially fun to see Trent’s post today and others’ viewpoints. Many thanks!

  22. Sarah says:

    I second (third? fourth?) the comment about the MP3 player. Even an old cheap used one can give you both music and podcasts (to reduce boredom), and if you get a video-enabled one, you can watch the TV or movies you choose wherever you are. (Just make sure, if you’re buying an older iPod, that the battery life hasn’t run down dramatically, as that sometimes happens with the older ones.)

    The most expensive electronic device I own, besides my computer, is my iPod. It’s out of the range I would normally be willing to spend for a recreational-type item, but since it helps me so much when working out, I consider it an excellent investment. I tend to buy new, but you don’t have to.

  23. Marcy says:

    I also have a motivation problem. I have a rule though. If there is something I don’t want to do, I push myself to spend 15 min doint the task. If I get into it and continue on longer, that’s great. Otherwise, I don’t beat myself up over it. I started walking this summer. I did it every day, consistanly, up until this past month when it got cold and rainy outside. I still try to get out and walk around the block as much as possible. If you start exercising a little bit every day, you will start to see results and that will be a motivator.
    I also used the technique that Trent had a link to about Jerry Seinfeld’s chain. I put an “X” on my calendar every day so i could keep track of it. That helped too.

    Trent, you have some great resources right at your fingertips. Your wife and your son. Any lifesyle changes should include your son as he is in a critical point in his life. They say that our charicter is set by age 3. If you get the whole family exercising, you will be giving him a positive influence.

    Why not put on some music and dance around? It doesn’t matter how silly it seems, nobody is going to see you and your son will have great fun. It will also help him develop motor skills and others. Or do some areobics together. I don’t recomend using a video with your son at this time; a lot of info has been surfacing about TV and children, there is a strong recomendation that children under 3 recieve *no* screen time. Of course this is largely ignored.

    Taking a family walk is another way to get everyone motivated. This may be hard to do at this time of year as it starts getting colder and colder, but on nice days, you could take advantage of this free resource.

    Eating healthier is a big componet of excercise, it will increase the results. I think it’s great that you are thinking about cutting meat from your diet. When I did, I lost a good deal of weight with out doing anything else. I also felt so much better: more energy, clearer thinking,etc. If you are using the volumetrics diet, the vegetarian diet works well with it. take small steps. Start by cutting meat out of a meal or 2 each week. At the same time, add more veggies and whole grains to your meals. As the volumetrics diet teaches, you want to make your diet more nutrient dense as opposed to calorie dense. If you aren’t set on the typical ‘meat and potatoes’ diet, you can find so many different ways to make vegetarian meals. A lot of the ethnic diets contain little to no meat and would be a good place to look for ideas. Look into Chinese, Mediterainian, Middle eastern, Indian, etc. recipes for interesting ideas.

    You can also use some meat replacements and experiment with them. The Morningstar Farms Grillers Prime are surprisingly good. You can use them in recipes to replace the meat. For instance, chop an onion, saute it in a little olive oil, then add the Grillers (crumbled up) and cook them with the onion. Then use them in a recipe that calls for hamburg, like shepherd’s pie. I have served these and others, such as the “chicken” nuggets to unsuspecting friends who couldn’t tell the difference. You might be amazed.

  24. Dave says:

    Soni :
    I’ll pass along what my doc told me. Don’t worry about BMI so much. Be more concerned about % of fat.

    BMI is a great tool for the farther extremes. Kinda like the old Classic physics equations. Great on the macro scale but for atomic stuff crap. Same for BMI, as you get closer in to “normal” it starts to fail since its statistical. Hell alot of professional atheletes are obsese on those things.

    My doc, trialoner as well as iron man, says about 18%. Not sure if that’s gender based or not. Most new scales can show that to ya.

  25. 60 in 3 - Fitness and Health says:

    I’m always surprised when I hear PF bloggers I admire talk about this topic. Health and PF are almost identical. They are the same problem and have the same solution. They even have all the same pitfalls, so I guess I’m a bit confused when I hear you be all motivated about money but not about your health Trent. You’ve said that you motivate yourself to save by thinking of your kids? Can’t you do the same with exercise? Can’t you imagine the extra wonderful years of playing catch with your son that each minute of exercise is adding to your life? Can you not see the extra years of loving marriage you’ll have with a healthy diet? Think about these things the next time you pass by a candy store or wake up feeling too lazy to work out. They work for me :)


  26. Matt says:

    This is great advice. I have a hard time working out ever since I canceled my 24 hour fitness. I signed up because if I didn’t work out, I felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. It worked well. I was consistent. I canceled because I wanted to save money and I figured I’d stay with it outside of the gym. It didn’t happen and now I’m debating getting a new membership. We’ll see… My health is important to me.

  27. yvie says:

    I’ve been lucky about keeping a healthy height and weight because I am one of those people who love to exercise! Having said that, it’s only when doing the exercises that I love!

    I think a great motivator is to have your exercise be a useful thing. Use your feet or your bike instead of your car. Think of all the gas you will save and the wear and tear on the car! Bike or walk to work. Bike or walk to pick up a few items at the grocery store. Bike to the bank or to run some other errand. For leisure activities, go for a long walk on the beach or hike some interesting trails. I think people hate to exercise because it is something “made up.” Use it for a real purpose and low and behold you may enjoy it more.

    Good luck!

  28. cami says:

    @Dave, you’re right about focusing on BMI, but that 18% is for men, a comparative figure for women is about 25%. If you scroll half way down this wikipedia page you’ll find the general recommendations for men and women, which is pretty consistent with what I’ve heard other places.


    @Matt, I find that an unused gym membership is a waste of money, but a well utilized one is not. It’s like buying food: if you just throw it all at the end of the month, then it was worthless, but if you eat it all, then you can’t really say it was a waste of money.

  29. Dawn says:

    My dogs are my personal trainers. At promptly 6:30 a.m. every morning, the first starts whining. She does so until I come down to take her out for her walk. Then, once started, it’s just so much easier to keep going, plus they are so happy about it, it reminds me that it’s such a positive thing. And, I’m motivated by the fact that if I walk them, they won’t destroy anything in the house (otherwise, who knows?). Plus, I can’t stand to disappoint them by not taking them out for a walk-they really slump on the floor and whine if I try to get away with just letting them out in the yard instead of their walk.

    for those who like pictures-find a picture of a relative you resemble who has gained way too much weight. That’s a scary motivation!

  30. Greg says:

    For me, the hardest part of staying in shape is that I just don’t like exercise enough to just do it for health reasons. I need to be doing something fun to be able to commit to exercise for any length of time.

    But recently I happened upon a fun sport that fits me well: Disc Golf. If you haven’t heard about it, you really should. According to the PGDA (Professional Disc Golf Association) there are almost 2700 disc golf courses in America (including 148 in Iowa). And the best part? Most all of them are FREE! Just invest in a few discs (most of which you can buy for under $10) and hit a course.

    Most areas have leagues with tournaments and doubles nights (you are randomly paired with a partner) so you can begin to learn from better players and develop a network other golfers.

    Go to http://www.pdga.com/ and find lots of information about the sport or read from my blog, http://www.discgolfed.blogspot.com to hear about my introduction to the sport.

    If you’re like me and need some fun to motivate yourself to exercise, crave some competition and camaraderie, but don’t have the money for “ball golf” greens fees, you really should check this sport out. Beware, it’s addictive.

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