Updated on 09.03.11

Some Thoughts on Frugal Exercise

Trent Hamm

Let’s face it: if you live in a small town, your gym options are limited (at best). Even if you live in a city, going to a gym can be expensive if you’re trying to get into shape.

The question I always ask is why go to a gym? What does going to a gym offer than home exercise does not? Here are some of the issues I worked through before deciding to give up my gym membership and exercise at home.

Equipment Aside from a small number of weights, I found that I was rarely using any of the equipment at the gym. Instead of using the treadmills or the ellipticals, I would just jog outside (the only exception to that is in the worst part of winter, which really doesn’t last that long). Instead of using a stationary bike, I’d just go… ride my bike. All that I really need at home is a small set of weights and knowledge of how to use them.

Honestly, though, most of the exercises I find value in require little or no equipment. The exercises in the book You Are Your Own Gym or in some key videos you can find demonstrate very valuable exercise without any equipment at all.

Trainers I have never in my life been in a gym environment where I’ve received more than cursory help from a trainer. I have found much more help from watching online videos, reading books, and asking questions in online forums.

One could easily argue that perhaps I didn’t demand enough attention from trainers at various times. What I found, though, is that getting sustained attention from a trainer was expensive. At every gym I’ve ever attended, trainer session times cost a significant extra amount and trainer free times were incredibly overcrowded.

Obviously, we’re not talking about perfect form on powerlifts here, just suggestions for keeping in basic shape.

Motivators Again, there is no motivator in the world that works better for me than the mirror. Someone yelling at me to push myself might work, but I’ve found that just listening to my own sense that I need to improve and demanding that I do the work is the best motivator out there. I’ll use pictures of myself and when it comes to a “crunch time” moment, I’ll yell at myself just as harshly as any motivational trainer.

Ideas That’s what the internet and books are for. There’s an abundance of exercise ideas wherever you look.

Activities Most of the physical activities I really enjoy, such as ultimate frisbee and basketball, are completely free and provide a very good cardio workout.

This isn’t to say that there’s not value in participating in a gym. There certainly is, particularly from people who need guidance in certain areas or need the motivation of having a dedicated place for exercise.

For me, though, the state of my own body is the best motivator for exercise and I already have the equipment I need in the form of my own body, a bicycle, and a few weights. Why should I drop some significant amount on a gym fee?

When I fail at exercise, it’s my fault, not the gym’s. The same is true when I succeed. The hard work comes from me.

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  1. Nate says:

    When I was a member of gym, I found if to be very useful to me because I was motivated to go because I was paying for it. I have a hard time being motivated on my own to exercise so the frugal part of me made sure I got my $15 a month worth of exercise. Since I moved and haven’t had a gym to go to, I maybe go for walk once a week. It was worth every penny for me.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    For me, gym workouts trump do-it-yourself in many ways: With my work schedule (7-4, plus commute time) a gym offers a safe, secure, lighted workout space. Also, I live in an area with extreme heat in the summer and a lot of cold, wet and foggy days in the winter, which further limits outdoor options to exercise. Walking or running in neighborhoods requires constant vigilance for dogs and traffic. We don’t have room in our house for a treadmill or elliptical, but the gym has good quality well-maintained machines. Our gym also has teamed up with businesses to offer employee discounts or employer matches for the fees.

  3. Adam P says:

    I’d have to buy a lot of equipment to do a full workout with weights (I know some rubberbands and a chin up bar apparently do the same thing as a whole gym worth of weights and machines allegedly).

    My gym is $54/month, and I go about 5-7days a week for 30-45 minutes each (gym is in my work building across the street). $2-3 a visit isn’t bad. Also handy those times for whatever reason I can’t shower at home!

  4. todo es bien says:

    If belonging to a gym is what it takes for you to work out more frequently it is certainly one of the best investments you can make. (note I characterize it as INVESTMENT, in that I believe it has a very positive future yield monetarily as well as in other ways) That being said, many folks join and do not use it. I recall that on average people go for about 6 weeks but pay dues for many times that long…

    Clearly if you are self motivated enough to do a quality workout at home that will be better still.

  5. krantcents says:

    I set up a home gym (14 years ago) after many years going to the gym. I am in the best health and fitness of my life at an age (64 years old) most people say it is over. I bicycle 90 minutes 4-6 times a week, use my treadmill or stationary bike in inclement weather. I use weights for 30 minutes 6 times a week. It is always up to me to succeed or fail!

  6. PawPrint says:

    I quit using the gym because I could never get to the equipment I wanted, and the walk across the icy parking lot in the winter was treacherous. Instead, I started using a personal trainer at $25 per session (currently go twice a month). Money well spent for me. I set up my own home gym using some weights, a stability ball and bands. My trainer focuses on designing workouts that use the equipment I have, and I do a total body workout three days a week.

  7. Gretchen says:

    Depends on what your goals are.

    I have a bike and hike in the nice weather, step when it’s not so nice.

    My weight bench and barbells were a steal off Craigslist.

  8. Kerry D. says:

    For our family, the “gym” is a great option–we pay $75 a month for a family of five, to join the YMCA. They have the full weight room, cardio machines incl. rowing (where you can compete against my child next to me) and bicycles with a dragon chasing game. Additionally, there are a number of classes, including yoga, zumba and pilates. For me, there is a lot of fun and pleasure to be had well beyond a trainer who might push me on.

  9. valleycat1 says:

    To top off my list of reasons, I forgot to mention that our county/metro area has some of the worst air quality in the nation, so if options are between outdoor activities & those in a gym, the filtered gym air is a definite benefit, if not a must for those with asthma or allergies.

  10. Jules says:

    The main upside of joining a gym for me would be the classes. The main downside of joining a gym is that I’ve gotten a pretty nasty skin infection in the past. And that’s not something I’m willing to take a chance with again.

  11. Sheila says:

    I go to the gym. I paid for a full year. My trainer is the owner of the gym and she gives me more attention than I want most of the time. And I live in a town of 6000 with 2 gyms. The reason I pay, like it and go is this: My family has no concept of boundaries or the sentence I am busy. It is always “could you just……” If I put my foot down and say I am working out they will cave and leave me alone, but it is a battle every time. When I get in my car and leave, they leave me alone. Also I go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning and 99% of the time I am the only one there.

    But I guess the real point is that everyone needs to find the system that works for them.

  12. Jane says:

    For me; I belong to an inexpensive gym $15 a month and I don’t use it often which I don’t mind. Just like Valleycat I go to the gym when I don’t want to run outside for weather reasons.

  13. Stacey says:

    I have gone to a free gym at work for years, but for the past year, I’ve been doing the P90X video routine. It works your entire body and you get a reasonable amount of cardio. I dropped enough weight that I’m happy with the results and I’m much more tone and lower body fat percentage.

    For P90X, you need dumbbells or bands, and pull-up bar (or use the bands), and a yoga mat. The video is about $120 I think. It takes from one hour to 1 1/2 hours per day, 6 days a week.

  14. Pam says:

    I have been working out at home for 20 years now, with only 2 brief (6 months each) gym memberships in the middle. At $45 a month, that means I’ve saved over $10,000. Of course I am purchased some free weights and videos through the years so perhaps have invested $1000. This works for me as I am self-motivated and don’t need the gym atmosphere, but a lot of people need the gym to stay motivated. For some, the gym alone is not enough and they also need a personal trainer. I miss the opportunity to take classes and will probably try a gym again in a year or two, but am certain it will be shortlived. Since I have Netflix streaming (for other reasons), I use it to try a variety of exercise videos. Exercise is so important that we need to use whichever methods best work for each of us – many simply need the motivation and the variety offered by the gym.

  15. Razlan says:

    For once, I disagree with your proposition for frugal exercise. You have your point about why should you spend hard earned money in gym membership and trainers? I am sure, in some aspects in everyone’s life, we spend on some things which, while deemed frivolous by others, are necessary by some.

    To me, gym is that frivolous something. Case in point: I worked out in various gyms for some years with no apparent result. In the end, I bit the bullet and got myself a trainer and great financial sacrifice, I got myself a trainer. Some four years later, I shed 25 kg with the help of three different trainers over the years. While my motivations fluctuate with time, I can honestly say the money spent on trainers were worth every penny.

    The result, like you says, comes from within me. I am in the best shape of my life, and I like it. I am sure many are in my shoes, too.

  16. Ruby Leigh says:

    Last January, it was cold and Icy when I wanted to go out to run, so I took advantage of a “new years” special and got a pretty good deal on a “cheap” gym around here. Basically, the most helpful thing is having the treadmill and being able to run indoors. Generally, I don’t regret the decision.

    That being said, I realized for the price of a year’s gym membership I could easily buy an above average treadmill on craigslist (lots available, as not everyone keeps their new years resolutions) and the other things I use there are rather cheap to supply (if I really needed to). I already have the stability ball and a few hand weights that I’ve picked up at garage sales.

    So, perhaps when the membership expires and the weather turns harsh again, I’ll be checking out craigslist instead of the gym. The last remaining factor is finding a place for the treadmill in my house. I think I could figure it out, but if I lived in an apartment it would be out of the question. Also, what if I moved? That would be one more thing to haul.

  17. TLS says:

    I belong to a gym that costs $50 a month. Last fall after I joined, I paid for about 25 sessions with a personal trainer there. He taught me how to safely use the weights, machines and other equipment, along with how to set up a successful workout routine (with a lot of variety, so I don’t get bored).

    This was an investment, and it was worth it to me. But I would not say it was the frugal choice. I can walk outside for free anytime (if I don’t mind the rain). But I was getting bored with years of walking outside, and I wanted to do something new and challenging. It was also nice to be excercising inside when it was raining, and I really enjoyed using the gym’s hot tub and sauna in the winter.

    So, as several commenters have said above, joining the gym wasn’t the frugal choice, but it was (and is) an investment in fitness and good health.

  18. I have to say that for me, a gym membership wasn’t worth it. Instead we have purchased a stationary bike and treadmill and hand weights and that is quite good. And you can get all that for less than one year of a gym membership. This is my indoor exercise area when it is 90 degrees or higher, or when it is too snowy or it is 15 and below. (This is Wisconsin, there is a fair amount of time in the winter that is that cold.) Oh, also bad air quality days too, as I am an asthmatic. But for me this works better than a gym membership, as unless I felt perfect, I didn’t tend to go to the gym and it takes more time to drive to the gym, etc. Now, if my family constantly bothered me when I was exercising, I would probably change my mind, but my son is now 13 and tends to want to be left alone.

  19. I forgot there was one other thing I wanted to say… For me the best encouragement is an exercise buddy. Now that can be in the form of a physical person, or it can be in the form of an online website to track all exercise and calories, etc. For me, I use sparkpeople.com and join a team challenge, where what I do for exercise counts for the team. It is just a minor encouragement, without major guilt when I don’t exercise.

  20. Peggy says:

    the cheapest “gym” of all is your own body and your own mind. Decide to move your body. Lift things, pull things, push things. Challenge yourself as you become stronger and more flexible. Use the outdoors if you can. Pay nobody, pay for nothing.

  21. Lou says:

    I’m over 65 and my health insurance (Medicare supplement) includes a gym membership called Silver Sneakers. I can go to any gym that is a member of it and they have exercise classes aimed at seniors, emphasizing balance, flexibility and strength. As a city dweller, I walk a lot every day, as well as in a nearby park – that takes care of cardio. But I find putting the class on my calendar is the discipline I need to be consistent in the balance and flexibility routine. And although my health insurance premiums are high, this feature is a win/win for me and the insurer.

  22. Giselle says:

    For some people the best motivator is competition. When I workout alone, I quickly get bored and don’t want to do it anymore. When I’m paying for a membership AND there are other people in the class with me (I do bootcamp/kickboxing) it motivates me to push myself WAY further than I ever would alone. I want to get the best time, do the most situps etc! Alone, I could care less and would rather do just about anything else than workout.

  23. Vicky says:

    I… just joined Crossfit.

    I’m paying $125 a month. It’s a lot. A lot more than a regular gym.

    But I fail at regular gyms. I lack motivation. I’m intimidated, and scared to death of the meatheads and cardio bunnies.

    I went to Cossfit and I was welcomed immediately. Coaches and other members were slowing down THEIR workouts in a highly competitive environment to help and encourage me along the way. I’ve gone to two sessions and I can hardly move I’m so sore…

    And I’m so happy about the whole thing. It’s not cheap, not frugal. I’m going to have to cut back in other areas – restaurants and entertainment to pay for this.

    But after years of struggling with my weight and hating my body and how I look, it’s time that I invest my money and my time into improving myself.

    This is a place I can no longer afford to be frugal.

  24. Talyssa says:

    I agree with you on the gym – except I still pay for it because my boyfriend still thinks its the only way to workout. I hate the treadmill, I can take or leave the elliptical (nothing is as good as a power walk outside with some jogging or sprints), and I think free weights are much better exercise than isolation machines.

    I can see it being valuable for people who live places that get really cold or hot or people who are bodybuilding and need a LOT more BIG equipment and weights than most of us do.

    I will say that I do personal training (in her home gym) 2x a week and it is TOTALLY worth it. AND its cheap-ish because she doesn’t have to pay the gym a cut of what she charges. My coworkers pay 50 bucks for a 30 minute session at the gym. I pay 30 bucks for a 50 min to an hour session. AND the amount of time is based on what exercises she thinks I need to do that day and how fast I do them.

    So if you can find something like the above with an ACE certified trainer I recommend trying it a few times.

  25. melanie says:

    I live in Tokyo and joined a gym this summer. I wanted to start running again but it was too hot and humid so I wanted the safety of an air conditioned environment when starting out. I run 3 times a week on the treadmill and use the elliptical 2 times a week. I’ve tried running on the street but the streets and sidewalks around my house are so crowded and narrow that it is difficult. I also tried doing Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred but my neighbor complained about the noise from my movement. So for me the gym is the best option while I’m living in my current location.

  26. Tanya says:

    I have a membership at the YMCA. I like their Zumba classes, I lift weights with my best friend there, I use their treadmill and occasionally some other equipment. None of these are resources I have at home. I find that I am bored when I try to use exercise videos, etc. at home and much prefer a class. Plus, ultimately, I know I am spending the money on a Y membership so it’s always in my mind that I need to use it. Spending the money is a motivator to get moving and exercise.

  27. JS says:

    I love running, cycling and hiking outside, but also I really enjoy lifting weights and exercise classes, plus a temperature-controlled lap pool, plus an air-conditioned option in Phoenix summers :) I’ve also found yoga to be helpful with a medical condition I have, and classes at yoga studios are $8-10 each, so the YMCA, with locations near both my work and home, is a great value for me at $32/month. I can definitely understand why people choose not to have a gym membership, but I’d give up a lot of other things before I gave up mine.

  28. EngineerMom says:

    My gym is our local YMCA. Income-based monthly fee. Free (with membership) adult group classes, free Child Watch (babysitting for my two small children while I work out), low-cost group kids’ classes for my 3-yr-old ($26 for 6 weeks of class), and most importantly, community.

    As a stay-at-home mom, my time spent at the Y is important for my sanity. I get exercise (weights, weight machines, and the treadmill all get used regularly) and a chance to talk to adults.

    I can’t easily go for good cardio walks (see previous comment on small children). We don’t have the space for a treadmill at home. We also don’t have the space for using weights without moving a significant amount of furniture (sofa and sofa table), plus my son, the 3-yr-old, literally clings to my legs when I try to work out at home, including just yoga, let alone when I pick up something fun like hand weights!

    I find it very difficult to focus on working out when I’m at home with my kids. It’s much easier to stay on task at the gym without someone interrupting me every 5 minutes or that heap of unfolded laundry staring me in the face!

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