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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Exercising on a Budget

As concerns about the economy continue to mount, money-saving strategies take center stage. People who once paid premium prices for private gym memberships and personal trainers are now seeking budget-friendly alternatives. Fortunately, many exist. From not-for-profit gyms to exercising at home or outdoors, frugal fitness opportunities abound.

Not-For-Profit Fitness Centers

Gym memberships at not-for-profit organizations like the YWCA and YMCA are usually much less expensive than those at for-profit fitness centers. Many offer options to fit any budget, from yearly or monthly memberships to day passes and single classes. Financial assistance may also be available for those who qualify.

Facilities, classes and programs at the “Y” vary by branch but many are comparable to more expensive private gyms. Fitness centers usually include free weights, resistance equipment and exercise machines like treadmills, stair steppers, elliptical trainers and stationary bicycles. Most have group exercise classes as well, such as spinning, yoga, pilates, aqua exercise, step and dance-based fitness classes. Some branches offer martial arts instruction, racquetball and squash courts, swimming pools, whirlpools, saunas, steam rooms, indoor running tracks, basketball courts and a complimentary orientation session with a personal trainer for new members. Many have programs tailored to children, teens, pregnant women, adults and seniors. Amenities like sundecks, coat checks, juice bars, complimentary towels, and laundry and spa services may be missing, but the savings can be substantial. To find a local Y near you, visit www.ywca.org or www.ymca.net.

City parks and recreation programs may also offer indoor fitness facilities at reduced rates. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation offers a standard gym membership for only fifty dollars per year, and membership at centers with indoor pools for seventy-five dollars per year. Starting at age fifty-five, seniors pay only ten dollars annually and youth under the age of eighteen receive free membership. For more information, visit www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/recreationcenters. Several centers are available in each borough.

The Great Outdoors

Find free exercise opportunities in parks and other open spaces. Facilities can include baseball diamonds, soccer fields, disc golf courses, running tracks, hiking trails, paths for walking and in-line skating, and tennis, volleyball and basketball courts. Some offer seasonal facilities like swimming pools and beaches, kayak and canoe rentals, ice-skating rinks and trails for cross country skiing and snow-shoeing. Free fitness classes, after school athletics and instructional sports clinics may also be available. Contact your local city and state parks to learn about options near you. For information about activities, facilities and programs in parks across New York City, visit www.nycgovparks.org.

You can also get creative and make the park your gym. Design your own workout for free using equipment commonly found in parks and playgrounds. Do pull-ups on the uneven bars to strengthen arms. Hang from the monkey bars, tighten your core (torso) muscles and lift your knees toward your chest to strengthen abdominal muscles. Do push-ups on park benches or lower your body off the seats for tricep dips. Use any open space to perform lunges and squats. Find a patch of soft green grass to do abdominal crunches, practice yoga or stretch muscles after you work out.

When exercising outside, it is especially important to stay hydrated. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, drink an extra sixteen ounces of water an hour or two before physical activity and bring plenty of water with you to drink during your workout. During warm months, avoid the hottest part of the day and wear sunscreen on exposed skin.

Home Exercise Equipment

With minimal investment, you can get a great workout at home. Exercise programs exist for every fitness level and interest. Whether you want to learn yoga or follow an advanced step routine, they can be a good source of motivation and instruction. Look for programs on television and DVD. Recorded materials may even be available at your local library free of charge.

Other inexpensive essentials include resistance bands and jump ropes. Jumping rope adds an aerobic component to your workout and improves balance and coordination. Because it is a weight-bearing exercise, it can strengthen bones as well. Resistance bands can be used to stretch and strengthen muscles in all areas of the body. They can even be utilized to mimic exercises that are traditionally done using resistance machines or free weights, like bicep curls, tricep extension, chest press, lunges and squats. Resistance bands and jump ropes are small and portable, making them perfect for travel. Bring them with you when you workout in the park or take trips away from home.

Activities of Daily Living

Take more time to do the active things you need to do daily. If you take public transportation, get off the bus or subway a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way to your destination. If you drive, park your vehicle further away, either a few blocks down the street or at the back of the parking lot. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and run errands by walking whenever you can. Instead of taking the dog out for a short bathroom break, walk your pet for a half hour or more at least once each day. If you have outdoor space, plant a garden or expand the one you have. Physical activity is just one benefit; free organic food is another.

Permission From Your Doctor

Before starting any new exercise, get permission from your doctor. Also consider scheduling a session or two with a personal trainer to develop a fitness program tailored to your ability, needs and goals. Learn the exercises from an expert so you know how to do them correctly, reducing your risk of strain and injury, and then perform them on your own. For most people, this one-time initial investment will be well worth the cost.