Getting and staying fit shouldn’t be an expensive activity.

The human body is designed to engage in daily activity and movement, so we can all be healthy by doing simple but smart exercises, most of which are free or low cost.

We used to think that we had to exercise hard and for long periods of time on a regular basis to stay fit.

So almost every day we would be at the gym doing cardio or weights, or hitting the pavement for a run. It became a compulsory part of our daily routine.

But after multiple years of being regular gym-goers, we realized it was no longer for us.

We already spent eight hours a day at our indoor jobs, so we didn’t then want to go to another indoor location to exercise.

As creatures of habit, we would often do a 40-minute or longer workout each day, which was taking up valuable time for little results.

Our workouts involved using equipment such as pin-loaded weight machines or the cross trainer, none of which were natural, functional movements needed for everyday life.

And by doing a moderate to hard workout almost daily, we were unnecessarily working harder than we needer to maintain our basic fitness.

gym-weights
Daily workouts at the gym, which were meant to make us stronger, actually left us tired

Research on the minimum effective dose, the least amount of training needed to stay fit, shows that to maintain cardiovascular fitness only requires five 4-minute intense intervals once every two weeks.

Or to become more fit overall, a seven minute bodyweight workout is all that’s needed.

Great news, right!?

So we decided to give up the gym memberships and switch to an exercise approach that was low-cost, focused on more natural movements, included more incidental exercise and provided more effective workouts.

Here’s what we now do:

Exercise outdoors instead of at the gym

Lots of the activities performed in a gym can be done outside.

Instead of using a treadmill, we now just go for a run around the neighbourhood.

In place of a spin or RPM class, we go for a bike ride.

cycling-cropped
Skip the spin class, and go for a ride outside in the fresh air

As for body weight exercises (like squats, pushups, dips, etc), these can be done at home, in the park or anywhere you like.

We find inspiration from Mark’s Daily Apple, run by former-triathlete Mark Sisson who promotes simple yet functional outdoor exercises.

Improvise with exercise equipment

We’ve gotten creative with the equipment we use to exercise.

Instead of buying an expensive kettlebell, we created one ourselves using a PVC pipe, a basketball and cement (here’s how).

Pushing a pram or carrying a child up a hill is another sure fire way to get your heart pumping.

Join social sporting groups

We play sport netball and touch football socially on weeknights. It’s a fun way to exercise and meet new people.

We’re also part of a local hiking group that goes for a 1-2 hour hike every Monday.

Being part of a group is a great way to keep you motivated and accountable.

walking-by-coast
Hiking comes with the best price tag: free! Just put on some shoes and go exploring.

Move frequently at a slow pace

We try to involve low-level movements in everything we do.

For example, we have improvised stand-up computer desks at work and at home, to prevent us from sitting down for long periods of time, which research shows increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

We do a 30-60 minute walk every day, which helps us unwind and gives us important time together.

Plus, we choose to walk to local restaurants and the market, instead of driving to supermarkets or cafes that are further away.

High-intensity interval training

Instead of spending up to an hour doing a workout, we’ve switched to 10-20 minute workouts that are high intensity but just as effective.

For example, a workout might involve 10 reps of five different movements, done as many times as possible within 20 minutes.

runner-555074
While leaving you breathless, the hardest exercises are often the best for cardiovascular fitness.

Or tabata is another common approach, which involves 20 seconds of effort followed by 10 seconds rest, repeated eight times. It’s short and sharp, but exceptionally effective in improving cardio capacity.

A great resource is 12 minute athlete, which has dozens of free workouts available.

Do sprints

Sprints are slightly different to interval training, but likewise provide great bang-for-your-buck.

Sprinting helps burn body fat, build muscle mass, lower high blood pressure and more.

Typically, a sprint session involves doing a series of around eight reps of 30 seconds of maximum effort activity followed by 30-60 seconds rest (but of course you can tweak all these timings).

It doesn’t matter if you’re running, doing push ups, cycling, swimming or doing mountain climbers, the important thing is to be exerting as close to 100% effort as possible.

You’ll know when you’re at your maximum if you’re feel like vomiting.

It’s not a great feeling, but just remind yourself that the whole workout will be over before you know it.

Don’t forget about your flexibility

Having good flexibility and mobility is just as important as good cardiovascular capacity or muscle strength.

At a bare minimum, we warm up and cool down before and after our workouts.

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Don’t worry if you currently struggle to reach your toes when stretching. You can only get more flexible!

We have purchased a number of yoga class audio files (around USD 3 for a class from Do Yoga With Me, which also has free yoga class videos), which we do in the leisure of our own home.

As you can see, we take a diverse and low maintenance approach to our fitness now.

But of course there both pros and cons.

Pros

The benefit of choosing a low-cost way to exercise is exactly that: it’s low cost, or free altogether.

You won’t have to pay costly gym membership fees (or those pesky admin or card issuing fees) or the even more expensive fees of a personal trainer (often around AUD 70-80 per hour in Australia).

Nor will you feel the pressure to do a daily gym workout, which is so often ineffective in improving fitness and making you more prone to injury.

On the occasion that you do spend money, for example on renting a kayak or beach volleyball coaching, you’re more likely to value it more because it’s the exception not the norm.

kayak-846078_1920
The great outdoors is the best gym you’ll ever find.

And by doing research into possible workouts, you’ll likely learn more about your body and effective exercises along the way.

Cons

As the boss of your exercise regime, you have to stay motivated and continue to push yourself if you want to see results.

Because you’re only accountable to yourself, it’s easy to skip a workout if you feel tired or lazy or finish a hard workout early (a personal trainer or gym instructor would never let you off so lightly).

The downside of not having a gym membership is lack of access to heavy weights (which are great for building strength) and missing out on the euphoric feeling that comes from loud gym music and participating in group fitness.

Doing sprints often fills me with dread, knowing that it will make me feel sick, even if I know it’s exceptionally effective.

The outcome: Cheap exercises for the same or better fitness

For us, the benefits of this approach outweigh the cons by a long way.

For less overall effort, time and cost, we’ve been able to maintain the same fitness level and physiques than we were daily gym-goers.

We’ve interwoven more natural movements and exercise into our lives, leaving us relaxed, happy, and less prone to injuries.

So we definitely recommend this low-cost approach, which is ideal for people who are self-motivated enough to use the diverse range of exercise and equipment options readily at their disposal.

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