A couple of years ago, I achieved two "Worsts" simultaneously: I was in the worst financial shape I'd ever been and the worst physical shape I'd ever been. Money was tight, and then-boyfriend and I had reached the comfortable, pasta-eating stage in our relationship, which was catching up with me. I got winded running up stairs and my wimpy little noodle-arms weren't good for much of anything.
Like most people, I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I knew if I wanted to get in shape, I'd have to find a way to do it without spending any money. A gym membership was out of the question. I started keeping my eyes peeled for sales and scanning Craigslist and Freecycle daily.
In a month I'd collected about $60 worth of equipment that I'm still using to workout to this day, and believe it or not, I've used it to get in the best shape of my life. I have a long way to go; I've still only run 5k's and I'm certainly not winning any lifting competitions. But I feel confident saying that I know how to get fit for cheap, and I'm going to show you what you need so you can do it too.
1. Some new kicks ($25 to $50)
Shoes are the single most important piece of protective equipment you can buy if you're going to do any jogging, jumping or pretty much any other form of cardio that involves your feet leaving the ground. They protect your feet, ankles, shins and knees from impact. You may think that your old gym sneakers will do just fine, but the fact is that the interior structure of the sole of your shoe breaks down long before the shoe looks worn out. If your shoes are more than a year old, save yourself a lot of grief and buy a new pair.
Don’t believe me? Ask any long-term runner if they’ve ever had shin splints. Observe the painful face that they make.
The good news is that you should be able to find a decent pair of shoes for $50 or less if you’re a good bargain shopper. This is the one and only time that I will advise you to buy name brand anything; do not try to save money by buying an off-brand. Stick with big names like Nike, Adidas, Asics, New balance, etc. With a no-name brand, you don't know if the construction of the shoe and the science behind it are solid. Look for outlets, look for sales, and look for last year’s styles. I got my most recent kicks at the Nike outlet for only $36 because they're discontinued.
2. Whatever safety equipment you think you might need ($0 to $20)
If you have occasional joint pain or you’ve had a sports injury before, don’t wait until you hurt yourself to buy protective gear. Just go buy whatever you think you might need. For example, I have shitty knees. One is perpetually shitty and the other is intermittently shitty. I wear these knee bands all the time when I exercise to lessen the pressure on my knees and I wear this knee brace when I feel like my knee needs more support. They are inexpensive and you’ll be glad you bought them.
3. A pair of hand weights (Optional! FREE to $20)
Bodyweight exercises are great for you and a very viable option if you’re trying to keep your equipment minimal. If that’s you, you can skip the hand weights entirely. Personally, I do a combination of bodyweight and hand weights. Some people just like the heft of a dumbbell.
I prefer neoprene coated weights because they’re easier to hold onto, don’t feel as gross when your hands get sweaty and they don't hurt as much when you inevitably drop one on your foot. For most people, 3 pound weights are a good place to start. If you’re someone with a lot of upper arm strength, like a mom who spends all day hoisting toddlers, you might be able to start at 5 pounds.
To figure out what weight is best for you, go to a sporting goods store, grab a pair of weights and do a set of slow, controlled curls. If by 20 you’re starting to feel a little fatigue in your arms, you’re at a good weight. If you can do 20 without feeling any fatigue in your arms whatsoever, move up to the next weight.
Once you’ve figured out your ideal weight, you can pay retail if you really want to, but I suggest hitting up Craigslist, Freecycle and your Facebook friend’s list first. People have oodles of exercise equipment languishing in the dark recesses of their homes and you can probably score some weights for free or very cheap by asking around.
4. A mat if you’re working out on a hard surface (Optional! FREE to $25)
If you’re working out on plush carpet you can probably skip this one. If not, a cheap yoga mat will do just fine to get you started. I’ve seen mats at my local Ollie’s Bargain Outlet (Good Stuff Cheap!) for as little as $4. They also sell them at places like Target and Amazon for around $20.
I picked up a set of 8 of these Norsk interlocking foam tiles at Sam’s Club for $22. You might also find similar things in places like Toys R’ Us advertised as children’s playroom tiles.
This is another one that you can probably grab for free or nearly free if you do a little hunting.
5. A workout plan (FREE to $24)
There are tons of great, free workout plans on the internet. Nerdfitness and Sparkpeople have some great free workouts, some have videos, and they won’t cost you a penny. Note: If you’re going to start pulling workouts off of Ye Olde YouTubes, please please please make sure they are made by someone who knows what they’re doing.
Call me old fashioned, but I like workout DVDs. I buy single titles, which I’ll preview online and then pick up on Amazon for about $8 a piece.
Start with one title and build your collection from there. The 30 Day Shred was the first workout DVD that I bought and I cannot recommend it enough. Ultimately, try to come up with at least three complete workouts: one purely cardio, one strength training and one “oddball” that you can do on days when you’re tired of the other two.
For example, for cardio I like Jillian Michaels’ Banish Fat Boost Metabolism (All workout DVDs have stupid names. All of them.). For strength, I like No More Trouble Zones or Bob Harpers’ Pure Burn Super Strength. My oddball workout is Yoga Meltdown. If those aren't your style, there are literally thousands of other titles out there to choose from. Go nuts.
Whether you choose to go with internet freebies or buy DVDs, try to find workouts that require minimal equipment, can be adapted to your skill level and last at least 30 minutes up to about an hour.
That's it. I'm not even kidding, that's all you need. If you've been telling yourself that you're just waiting until you can afford that gym membership/treadmill/personal trainer or whatever, it's time to put the excuses aside and just start. Bring your A Game and get moving.
I'd love to hear what you do to stay in shape, so tell me about it in the comments!