Achieving Health and Fitness Without Breaking the Bank

Almost every week, I receive a message from a reader looking for strategies to improve their personal health or fitness without spending substantial amounts of money.

It’s an understandable question. For starters, good health and personal fitness improves quality of life and reduces long term medical costs. In general, a person who is in good physical shape is going to feel better each day than a person who is in worse physical shape. The person in better shape will, in general, have more energy, be more well rested, and be better equipped to handle both the physical and mental challenges of modern life.

At the same time, there’s a strong perception that the strategies for achieving health and physical fitness are expensive. A healthy diet is often seen as a costly diet, for example, and the keys to physical fitness in the minds of many are deeply tied to expensive equipment and gym memberships.

What makes things even worse is that the media conveys health information very poorly, and corporations with a profit motive stir up the water even more. A corporation selling a marginally healthy product is going to want to make that product sound as healthy as possible, so they’re going to do everything they can to focus on health benefits and ignore health drawbacks in their advertising and in their public relations. At the same time, most media sources are pretty bad at actually sharing the results of scientific data. After all, scientists themselves are often not good at PR and can’t afford PR, either, and it can often be easy to draw the wrong conclusion from scientific studies.

Thus, it’s not surprising that most Americans are unclear on what they actually need to do to become healthy, even on the things where there’s a clear scientific consensus. Add on top of that the fact that many of the things that actually improve health have an appearance of being expensive and time-consuming and it’s no wonder that people make some awful health choices that, eventually, turn into very expensive health choices.

In an effort to maintain and improve my own health, I’ve read a ton of books on personal health and fitness (if I had to recommend just one book, it would be A Short Guide to a Long Life) and, along the way, I realized that out of all of the information out there, there are really only a few consensus strategies that are really recommended for virtually everyone. I can literally count them on my fingers.

Simply put, if you do the following five things, you will improve your long term health outcomes. (There are a few more that are nearly 100% consensus, but I’m going to stick with just these five.) It’s really that simple. Improving your long term health will not only save you money, but it will improve your quality of life today to boot.

But are they inexpensive? Here are the five consensus strategies for personal health I’ve learned over the years, along with some tips on how to do them without blowing out your paycheck.

Eat a Wide Variety of Fruits and Vegetables and Make Them the Majority of Your Diet

Eat fruits and vegetables. It’s that simple. They’re good for you. They’ve been the backbone of the human diet since the dawn of mankind. Our systems are designed to primarily run on fruits and vegetables.

Want a simple rule of thumb? At minimum, half of what you eat should either be clearly identifiable as a fruit or a vegetable. Things like grains, dairy products, and meats should make up the other half of your diet. If you’re not sure whether you’re eating half vegetables and fruit, err on the side of more vegetables and fruit. It really is that easy.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is actually pretty accurate.

How do I make this cheap?

Many people have the impression that eating in a healthier way like this is expensive, but it’s actually not bad at all. Here are some strategies for keeping it cheap.

Buy the produce that’s on sale. Check your grocery store flyer each week and check out the produce that’s normally on sale, then buy some of that for snacks and breakfasts (like bananas, apples, oranges, and so on) and vegetables for other meals.

Learn easy ways to prepare them that taste good. Making vegetables on your plate taste good without investing much time is simply a matter of learning some solid techniques. Steaming vegetables is actually really easy, as is grilling them. It’s also very easy to make them more flavorful; usually some black pepper and a pinch of salt and perhaps a bit of butter is all you really need for most vegetables. You can also buy flash-frozen vegetables in the freezer aisle that steam pretty well in the microwave in five minutes right in the bag.

Grow a garden and preserve the extras. A vegetable garden can provide an abundance of fresh vegetables during the summer months. Not only does this provide a ton of nearly free vegetables (and fruits) for your meals, it also allows you to stretch them into the fall and winter if you preserve the extras via freezing and canning and drying.

Eat as Little Refined Sugar as Possible

Refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup are not just in sodas. They’re in many of the foods that we eat – everything from pasta sauce to frozen dinners can contain sugar or corn syrup.

The truth is that a little bit of corn syrup or sugar is okay, but the typical American goes far, far beyond any reasonable recommendation for daily consumption. They get sugar from their meals, from their beverages, and from their snacks, too.

Sugar overconsumption is bad because it’s an extremely high-calorie food and it causes your blood sugar levels to escalate, which can really wreak havoc with your energy levels in the short term (sure, you might get an energy bump immediately, but that bump will have a crash and it will affect your baseline levels too) and cause serious long-term conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

Beyond a very small amount of daily sugar intake – an amount virtually all Americans get with incredible ease – additional sugar is almost entirely bad for you.

How do I make this cheap?

Unfortunately, many inexpensive foods and typical American household staples are laden with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. How can you get away from these foods and still keep your food bill in a reasonable place? Here are three strategies.

Dump soda. Almost all sodas contain some type of sweetener. Whether it’s sugar or corn syrup (or something that imitates their effects), that sweetener either directly brings about the negative effects described above or, in the case of artificial sweeteners, has other side effects that you really don’t want. The solution’s simple – dump soda from your life. If you switch to primarily drinking water, you eliminate the cost of soda as well as the negative health effects.

Dump sugary additives like coffee creamer. Many additives to coffees and teas, like sweetened creamers and, well, sugar, trigger almost all of the bad effects described above. Black coffee itself isn’t a problem – it’s the stuff that gets added to it. Slowly trim back on the sweetened creamers and sugar over time. Not only will this make the coffee cheaper, it’ll have health benefits, too.

Make simple staples like pasta sauce yourself. Whenever you have a chance to make something from raw ingredients or at least from simpler ingredients, it’s going to be healthier and it’s also probably going to be cheaper. For instance, you can make a great pasta sauce out of just a bit of olive oil, some diced tomatoes, and maybe some sauteed onions and green peppers. It takes about as much time to make it as it does to boil pasta, it’s cheaper, it’s incredibly tasty, and it comes without the extra sugar. (Plus, you can make extra and store it in the fridge in a closed container for a while, as the acids from the tomatoes give it a long fridge life.)

Choose Whole Foods over Refined Foods

This one’s simple. If you’re unsure as to which food to eat, choose the one that’s closest to the natural form that it takes when it’s picked or when it’s killed. If it’s been processed into some other form, eat as little of it as you can.

Why? In the industrial food era, whenever a food is processed by a company, lots of other ingredients that you usually don’t want are added to it. Look at the ingredient list on almost any food product on store shelves outside of the produce and meat sections. It’s loaded with stuff, much of which a typical American can’t identify and much of which you really shouldn’t be putting in your body.

The solution is easy: when in doubt, eat foods that are as close to the natural form as possible. That allows you to avoid lots of unnecessary things in your food that are, on the whole, detrimental to your health.

How do I make this cheap?

Many such processed foods are really cheap – I mean, have you ever looked at a ramen packet, for instance? How can you eat whole foods cheaply? Here are three tricks.

Keep lots of fruits and unseasoned nuts on hand for snacks, and buy the ones that are on sale. It’s very similar to what I mentioned earlier. Watch the grocery store flyers and pick up fruits and nuts when you see them on sale, then enjoy them as a snack. Many nuts are heavily seasoned with all kinds of stuff, so get unseasoned nuts and add your own simple seasonings if you’d like. Make nuts and fruits your default snack.

Eat simply-prepared vegetables as a side dish for most meals. As I mentioned above, it’s pretty easy to steam some vegetables – you can even buy pretty inexpensive bags of frozen vegetables that can be steamed in the bag in five minutes. You can also grill them or saute them in a bit of oil, too – there are lots of ways to do a simple prep of vegetables to get them on the table as a tasty side dish.

Get Some Moderate Exercise Most Days

No one expects you to become a superathlete, but most medical sources do encourage at least a little bit of exercise several times a week. The most common recommendation I’ve found is to exercise moderately for half an hour five times a week.

Moderate exercise simply means that you’re doing enough to get your heart rate pumping a little bit and getting a little bit out of breath. Depending on your fitness level, it can take different exercises to reach this point, but as long as you’re doing something regularly that raises your pulse and your breathing pace, you’re good.

I suggest trying to make it a daily routine because it’s easier said than done.

How do I make this cheap?

Many people turn this into a gym routine, but it doesn’t have to be a gym routine. It just has to be a routine that you can repeat yourself. Here are some ideas for home exercise that don’t include the cost of a gym.

Make a daily walk part of your routine. I find that going on a walk/jog at whatever pace I need to do to raise my breath and pace a little is a great and incredibly inexpensive way to get that exercise. I do it as part of my normal workday as a method for clearing my mind and working through problems, and I’m often listening to a podcast while doing so.

Find exercises to do at home that you enjoy and can do every day. There are many, many bodyweight exercises you can do at home that can improve your health, from pushups and squats to planks and situps to lunges and jumping jacks. I like using my own variant on the lifetime fitness ladder for these exercises. You also might want to try a 7 minute workout for a similar effect.

Find simple ways to incorporate lifting weight into that home routine. Lifting even a little bit of weight can really amplify the health effects of exercise, as you’re working more muscles and building some muscle tone (you generally don’t build large muscles unless you’re intentionally trying to do so). One thing I like to do is to do lunges with a barbell, lifting it above my head with alternating arms. You can get a barbell at almost any secondhand sporting goods store for just a few bucks.

Don’t Smoke, Don’t Do Drugs, and Don’t Drink to Excess

If you’re intentionally putting things in your body that you don’t need for basic hydration and nutrition, they’re probably a waste of money, plus many of those things have detrimental side effects with even a little bit of consumption (the jury’s still out on very moderate alcohol use, but heavy alcohol use is quite bad).

The problem with many such substances is that they’re addictive. It can be very difficult and even quite painful to get out of a routine of using them. However, breaking an addictive habit like these habits will not only improve your health, it’ll also improve your finances as well.

Hopefully, you can go by this section and simply mentally mark it with a check, as you’ve already done it. But if not, read on.

How do I make this cheap?

Obviously, cutting the expense of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs out of your life is going to be a money saver, so here are three strategies that work well for cutting a bad habit out of your life.

Quit cold turkey. Almost every story I’ve heard about individuals quitting a bad habit involves them simply deciding to stop at some point and never returning. A gentle slowdown rarely seems to work – the best approach is to stop, deal with the short term intense challenges of breaking an addiction, and moving on from there. Make the choice to quit and just do it.

Find social support for not using that substance, and avoid social situations that encourage use. If you have a normal social routine that involves using a particular substance, do everything you can to change it. Instead, consciously choose to spend your time on social and life situations that don’t encourage use and, in fact, subtly discourage it. You’ll be far better off with that new routine.

Learn other ways to handle stress and challenging emotions. Many people rely on substances in times of stress or even to just handle the emotional twists of everyday life. Seek out a new outlet for those feelings. (Personally, I find exercise and long walks to be a killer outlet, so try those strategies listed above).

Final Thoughts

Like it or not, poor health has a steep financial cost, and the day to day choices that many of us make put us on a direct path toward poor health. From the food we eat to the activities we choose to the ways we relieve our stresses, we often end up doing bad things to our bodies that end up costing us a ton of money over the long haul, never mind the reduction in life quality.

The best solution, of course, is to stop those routines now rather than later and establish better ones. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Cut back on sugar. Eat more raw foods. Get some regular exercise. Stop the use of any vice substances.

What you’ll find if you make those choices is that your long term health prospects improve and your long term health costs go down significantly. You’ll also find yourself feeling better, which increases your earning potential and also increases your likelihood of making good decisions.

These changes aren’t costly, either. Most of them can be done at minimal cost and some of them directly save you money. In fact, you can probably make all of the changes in this article and find yourself spending less money on food and health than you do right now.

It just requires some changes in routine, and those are the hardest changes. Your best approach for making those changes is to do it with others. Get the support of people around you for all of the changes you make and you’ll find those changes become easier and easier.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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