Work out for less: Shape up and save in 2009

Image: Lifting weights
If you’re doing some financial belt-tightening at the same time you’re working to whittle your waistline, don’t give up. There are  ways to keep that New Year's resolution. Getty Images stock

Tough economic times prompted Benjamin Gordon to move into a smaller apartment last fall. Among other cost-cutting measures, he canceled the gym membership near his old residence but hasn’t joined a new one since the move across town.

“I decided that spending $60 a month on a gym membership was a waste of money and time,” says Gordon, 25, of Tampa, Fla., who owns a Web site development business. “I am currently working twice as hard on my business, so that free hour after work is no longer. To save on money and time, I just go running for about 20 minutes outside, all year round in Florida, and then do some push-ups, sit-ups and curls in my living room.”

Joanne Olson, 44, of Crofton, Md., is keeping her $30 a month gym membership but she recently stopped her twice-monthly personal training sessions that she loved. She and her husband are trying to save up in case he gets laid off and they’re down to one income.

“Although I didn’t spend a lot on personal training, about $125 a month, it was an obvious cutback to help us put more money away,” she says. “Also, no more Sports Authority for workout clothes. I'll be hitting Marshalls and other discount chains from now on.”

If, like Gordon and Olson, you’re doing some financial belt-tightening at the same time you’re working to whittle your waistline, don’t give up. There are cost-effective ways to keep up that New Year’s fitness resolution. Consider these money-saving strategies:

Wheel and deal at the gym. January and February are traditionally the months when gyms run specials to draw in all those people who’ve newly resolved to make this the year they finally shape up. “There are generally discounts to be had,” says Joe Moore, president and CEO of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a trade group based in Boston.

Once you’ve identified a few clubs in your price range that you like and are convenient to your home or work, take a close look at membership options. Do you need the priciest membership that includes spa services and pool access? Or, if you really only plan to use the treadmill and some weight machines, will the basic membership, which may be as low as $20 or $30 a month, suffice? “Most clubs offer almost a menu of services,” says Moore.

Ask for some free passes to try the gyms out at the times you would normally go. And when you’ve picked a favorite, don’t sign up on the spot. Wait a few days and see if you get a call about even better rates. Determine if it’s better for you to pay monthly or yearly (keeping in mind that the latter won’t be cost-effective if you stop going).

Also inquire whether the initiation fee is negotiable. Gold’s Gym, for instance, is running an online promotion that waives the $99 enrollment fee for new members (but includes a $19.99 administrative fee). Their monthly fees and contract terms vary around the country.

If you’re already a member of a gym and considering quitting due to cost, talk to the membership office to see what they can do to help keep your business.

Partner up. Personal training can cost $50 to $100 or more an hour. But if you’re game for some personal training that’s a little less personal, you can pair up with a partner or two, three or even four and share the cost. It’s called “partner training” or “small group personal training” and is on the rise, says Kathie Davis, executive director of the IDEA Health and Fitness Association in San Diego.

An IDEA survey of more than 900 personal trainers conducted last February showed that 84 percent of respondents offered partner training in which two clients share the session and 49 percent offered small group training with three to five clients. “I think both of these numbers will grow,” says Davis, citing the economy.

If the buddy system isn’t your style, ask about personal training specials. This month, for example, 24 Hour Fitness is offering five 25-minute personal training sessions for $99, according to the chain’s chief executive officer Carl Liebert.

Consider second-hand equipment. If you have the space, a home gym can be a very convenient way to stay in shape. But outfitting one with new cardio equipment and weight machines could cost you several thousand dollars.

Cut costs significantly by shopping around for second-hand equipment on Craigslist and other sites, suggests Davis. “Used equipment is all over the place at a very cheap price,” she says.

And some of it may have been used for little more than a place to hang clothes.

Work out for free. If you’re really cash-strapped and a gym membership, personal training and fitness classes are out of the question, work out for free — or for really cheap.

“You don’t need a health club,” says Davis. “There are so many free ways to say fit.”

If you live in a warm climate year-round, like Gordon does, you can jog, walk or bike outdoors. If not, consider walking at the mall during cold months or working out at a community center, which may be free or very inexpensive. Local churches also may offer free fitness classes, notes Davis. Other options include ice-skating, roller-skating, and going to the park and the local pool.

You might also invest in a few pieces of inexpensive fitness gear and gadgets that you can use at home, in your living room, basement or garage.

“I truly believe that people can get fit with very little equipment,” says fitness contributor Gina Lombardi, a personal trainer and author of the new book “Deadline Fitness,” which includes workouts for both the gym and home. “In fact, everything can be done with a few free weights, a little discipline and self-determination.”

Some other ideas for cheap home equipment include stability balls, resistance tubing, a jump rope, a yoga mat and workout DVDs.

Look at the big picture. Not everyone considers gym membership or fitness classes a dispensable luxury. Some view them as expenses that actually save money in other areas.

Robin Elton, 32, a stay-at-home mom in Landenberg, Pa., who’s always on a tight budget because of her single-family income, says she’d cut out her cable subscription before dropping her $78 a month family membership to the local YMCA.

“I consider it to be an investment in our health,” says Elton. “Going to the gym motivated me to quit smoking and continues to motivate me to watch my diet. The way I see it, this saves me boatloads of money later on doctor and dentist bills.”

Since joining the gym a year ago, Elton goes to the gym about three times a week and has lost 20 pounds. In addition to saving the money she would have spent on cigarettes, she quit buying junk food, too.

The gym also offers family entertainment. Rather than making a trip with her three kids to the mall or movies, where they’d spend more money, the family often heads to the Y to swim or shoot hoops.

“All in all, I think my gym membership is one of the best deals going,” Elton says.

Crunch the numbers and see if a membership may actually save you money in the long run.

While Gordon, the Internet business owner in Tampa, views a gym membership more of an “added bonus” than an essential, he misses working out at a club and hasn’t ruled out joining one again — if the price is right.

While he’s happy with his cardio workouts — primarily jogging three to four times a week, plus some tennis and basketball — he feels his strength-training routine isn’t cutting it. The calisthenics and simple free weights he does in his living room just don’t produce the results he used to get by training on a variety of weight-training equipment at gyms.

So recently he’s toured some local gyms. One gym, while affordable, didn’t strike him as a place he wanted to spend time working out. Another has a lot of attractive amenities and has even slashed its monthly membership fee from $399 to $99.

Gordon says he’d have to further curtail his entertainment, dining and travel budget to afford another monthly gym membership, but he may join the high-end club.

“I’m considering that,” he says. “But I may wait a little longer and see if the price goes down further.”