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How To Get In Shape On a Budget

8 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

I can’t remember which comedian it was who said it, but I remember the line vividly. They were poking fun at the health of Americans, lambasting the way they pay for gym memberships only to drive their cars to get there, find the closest parking spot to the entrance, and then take the escalator up to the second floor where the gym is. All of that, just to wait for a treadmill to be free. Seems kind of silly, when you think about it.

I really got a kick out of that one. It’s one of those “it’s funny because it’s true (and sort of sad)” moments. The truth is that many of spend our lives this way. We take the elevator up to the third floor. We get angry at that guy who took the close parking space before we could snag it. Later, we’ll sit on the couch and think to ourselves “man, I really should get some more exercise.” We really are an illogical species, sometimes.

Sometimes Free Works Better

Why aren’t we more efficient? Why don’t we just run a few miles around our neighborhoods instead of paying to use the treadmill? It would be easier, since we wouldn’t need to fight with traffic, wait in line for a free machine, or be limited to a 15-minute session during peak gym times. Truthfully, there are plenty of ways to get into better shape without an expensive gym membership or personal training sessions.

Are you looking to get into shape, but don’t feel great about spending a ton of money on memberships or equipment? There are plenty of alternatives that won’t cost you a fortune. Here are a few suggestions on how to get in shape on a budget.

Look to Help Out Around the House

I might have to be careful to not let my wife read too much into this one. However, if your back is hurting because you sit around all day while you let your dishes and dirty laundry pile up, then it’s really on you. Don’t underestimate the impact that doing more around the house can have. I read somewhere that the average person gained 29 pounds due to the pandemic lockdowns. Twenty. Nine. Pounds!

Most of that weight gain is from people just sitting around the house, doing nothing. Don’t sit around longer than you need to! Turn off that TV and wash the dishes. Or go fold the laundry. You’d be amazed at the increase in your heart rate from something as simple as vacuuming the carpets, mopping the floors, or scrubbing the bathtub. These are activities are all free. And let’s be honest with ourselves, they probably need to be done more often anyway. And if you previously paid someone to clean your house, you can save that money by doing it yourself, along with getting some extra active minutes.

Consider Gardening or Other Outdoor Hobbies

Once your house is in order, add a hobby into the mix. Activities like outdoor cycling or running will obviously get you into shape in a hurry. However, even something like gardening is good too. It’s not a super high intensity workout, but it’s outside and at least gets your body moving and works up a sweat.

Obviously, not all hobbies will have the same benefits. Don’t start gaming all day and then tell your wife that you read our tip online. Even something relatively easy like taking evening walks or weekend hikes is a good place to start. And it costs you nothing, except some of your free time that you previously spent glued to bad Netflix movies.

Cheap Equipment Often Beats Expensive Machinery

It’s tempting to think that the reason you don’t have a six pack is because you don’t have the means to build your own workout room. However, the reality is that staying fit has very little to do with the equipment itself. You don’t need a $3,000 treadmill, a state of the art elliptical, or a full set of powerlifting weights in your garage.

You can start building muscle with nothing more than a few dumbbells. Look at the yoga instructors. All they use is a mat and some dedication to stretches. Dedication is key. Not deep pockets. The same goes for expensive fitness trackers or smartwatches. You can do the same work without needing to pour over the data from a pricey Apple Watch or Fitbit. Your body doesn’t care if you have a digital record of your workout or not.

Use What You Have

If you’re just starting out, literally from scratch, don’t worry. There’s a solution for you too. Just use your own body weight to do some light exercising. We’re talking pushups, sit ups, jumping jacks, burpies, planking, and (of course) a variety of stretches to build flexibility. Using your own body weight as resistance will actually go a long way before you truly need to add more weights or workout machinery.

If this all sounds foreign to you, that’s okay. There are a ton of great apps to get you started. There are apps that slowly guide you through a program of doing a few more pushups (or whatever) every couple of days. Then, within six or eight weeks, you’ll be doing 100 pushups per day. It sounds impossible, but it really works! There are some great “Couch to 5km” running apps too, if you prefer.

man and woman working out with a bike rideShutterstock

Try Riding an Old Bike

If losing weight is your thing, then try riding a bike. It’s a bit easier on the joints than running, especially if you’re carrying some extra pounds. Many people find zipping around parks and trails on their bike extremely enjoyable. Just don’t think you need to go crazy by spending $2,000 (or more) on a fancy new bike. They’re nice, sure. But there’s a reason that serious cyclists often joke that their bikes are more expensive than their cars.

They’re not always kidding, though. Some bicycles can cost $10,000, or more. The irony is that the more expensive the bike, the lighter and easier it is to ride. That means you might actually get less exercise using it. If you’re just looking to be more active, go ahead and get a cheaper (or better yet, gently used) bicycle. You’ll burn more calories by riding the clunker than you would by using the Ferrari of bikes. Sure, your ride will be a bit heavier. But you’ll get a better workout, without breaking the bank.

Don’t Forget Healthy Eating

Diet and exercise go hand in hand. They say “you can’t outrun a bad diet,” and it’s mostly true. However, that doesn’t mean your only option to sign your entire paycheck over the Whole Foods in exchange for organic veggies. There are plenty of places to get fresh produce and meat products that are delicious, healthy, and cost-effective.

Take the farmer’s market, for instance. Chances are good that there’s one located somewhere near your house. Do a search online and check it out. The good news is that the prices there are generally cheaper. The better news is that there are plenty of ways to save even more once you’re there.

Just Eat Less. Seriously

Let me tell you a secret. Most people are overweight because they eat too much. Have you ever really looked at the portion sizes that health experts recommend for the average person? You are supposed to eat three to four ounces of protein per meal. That’s like a chicken breast that fits in just the palm of your hand. That’s basically half a hamburger.

The inconvenient truth is that humans can survive (and even thrive) on much less food than they think. Many people keep eating until their brain sends that “I’m full” signal. However, that signal is often delayed by up to 20 minutes. Just slow down when you eat, and let your body catch up. You’ll likely end up “feeling full” without needing seconds.

The average adult only needs to consume roughly 2,000-to-2,500 calories a day (depending on things like gender, height, and age). If you continue to consume more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight. It’s just simple math, really. You can actually still lose weight without giving up any of the foods you love. You just need to be more careful about how much (and how often) you eat them. Even the healthiest of foods aren’t great if they are the only thing you eat.

Remember Workout Videos?

Who remembers those workout programs that used to be on TV? Or the straight to VHS aerobics tapes featuring various celebrities from the 80s or 90s? I haven’t had cable for more than a decade, so I don’t even know if you can find those things on standard TV anymore.

However, I do know that the internet is now filled with great workout videos. Better yet, most of them are completely free. A quick search around YouTube will give you hundreds of potential results, with various exercises or fitness programs that you can be guided through by a host. If following along with someone else (even virtually) helps motivate you to continue exercising, you don’t need to pay for a personal trainer. Just find an instructor you like on YouTube and follow along with their exercises. No money needed.

Some Gyms Are Just More Expensive

If you find that you just exercise better if you go somewhere specific to do, some options are still cheaper than others. You can try to avoid those large brand name gyms. Their memberships sometimes run over $100 a month. You’re paying for their marketing, the smoothie bar, all the flatscreen TVs on the wall, and every other luxury. There’s a gym near me that is known to have random celebrity sightings, making it hugely popular. However, the minimum membership runs over $200 a month!

If you’re just trying to exercise, and not have perfect lighting for Instagram selfies or hunt for autographs, consider looking past the “obvious” choices. There are scores of smaller, independent gyms that are cheaper. They may have less bells and whistles, but you’ll also probably find a more welcoming community of exercise enthusiasts. You can also try YMCA memberships or your local community centers. In short, not all gym memberships are created equal, so shop around before you buy.

Exercise equipment in a gymShutterstock

Find An Exercise Buddy

One of my friends is pretty lazy. However, he still he runs a few times a week — but only when his buddy invites him. He’s able to keep up his running regime because his friend helps keep him accountable. When he feels lazy, his friend provides the nudge he needs to put on the running shoes — and vice versa. Having an exercise buddy can really help.

Working out with a partner can also keep things interesting. If you’re chatting while you workout, you’ll find yourself not focusing on the miles or the minutes or the weights. Next thing you know, you’ve been exercising for an hour and barely noticed the time fly by. Even with headphones, exercising by yourself can be boring sometimes (although some people swear by it). But if you’re struggling to self-motivate, finding a workout partner with similar goals can be the perfect thing to keep you both in the game.

The Bottom Line

Getting in shape is remarkably similar to amassing a fortune to retire. It’s a goal most people want, the steps to get there are relatively simple, but the result is still extremely difficult to achieve. Just like building a retirement nest egg, you’ll find plenty of seemingly industry insiders promising to get you faster results — as long as you spend some money to learn their secrets.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts — in fitness or in saving money. In some cases, spending money just distracts you from the ultimate goal. If you want to get into shape, then the key is consistency. You won’t see significant results for at least three months. Truthfully, you’ll need at least six-to-twelve months of consistent exercising to see a noticeable difference. So start running and keep running. Start biking and do it four times a week. Subscribe to a YouTube channel and workout in your basement. Do whatever is best for you. The results take time, but you can’t buy your way to being in better shape — so don’t try.

David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.


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