Get in shape on the cheap

    Last updated: December 2009

    Lifting dumbbells will tone your muscles and add variety to your home fitness program.

    The weather is too miserable for running or walking, and money is too tight for a health-club membership. What to do?

    With the right motivation and a few pieces of basic equipment, you can stay at home and stay in shape, fitness experts say. And there's no need to spend a lot of money.

    "For under $100, you can get a good assortment of home fitness equipment that's going to be easy to use and take up a small amount of space," says Mark Roozen, certification director for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colo. "You'll get great gains and results."

    Among the basic pieces to consider for a low-tech workout are dumbbells, resistance bands or tubes, a jump rope, a medicine ball, a stability ball, a hula hoop, exercise videos, and if you want to spend more, the latest version of the Wii Fit, Nintendo's fitness video game.

    How much exercise?

    The weighted version of the popular hula hoop can provide a good core workout.

    The government recommends that adults get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week for at least 10 minutes at a time. Or you can do more-vigorous exercise for about half the time and still meet that standard.

    You should also aim for strengthening exercises, such as push-ups, sit-ups, and weight lifting, at least two nonconsecutive days a week.

    One of the best ways to get a workout at home, advises personal trainer Mark Roozen, is to set up a circuit-training course. At one station you can do, say, 15 push-ups, depending on your fitness level. At another you can exercise with resistance bands. At others you can jump rope, do jumping jacks, squats or squat jumps—anything that will increase your heart rate.

    But Roozen offers a cautionary note: "I would tell people that if they're exercising at home, they'll need to get educated to make sure they're doing it correctly so they don't injure themselves." He also recommends having a checkup by your doctor before you start any exercise program to make sure you have no serious heart or orthopedic problems.

    Videos and personal trainers

    There are a number of ways to get a workout at home at little or no cost. Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, says that cable TV is a rich resource for exercise videos. He also suggests Internet sites like You Tube for videos from personal trainers and health clubs that demonstrate the correct way to do exercises with basic equipment like as stability balls and dumbbells.

    Or consider having a personal trainer come to your home, at a cost of $35 to $100 an hour, to develop a fitness program that you can eventually do on your own. A good one will recommend exercises to help avoid injury and address problem areas, like a bad back or tight shoulders. "Make sure you understand what you're doing and why you're doing it," personal trainer Mark Roozen says.

    If you can't spring for a personal trainer, programs with cyber trainers cost as little as $10 a month. The American Council on Exercise considers them especially effective as a supplement to working one-on-one with a qualified personal trainer. These days, you can even access a cyber trainer, like those found on, on a smart phone or portable media player. "You can download a workout and have it right there as you're exercising," McCall says. "Like anything else, just make sure you're really going to use what you're buying."

    Setting goals

    If maintaining a healthy fitness level isn't enough to keep you motivated, set a specific goal—like getting in shape for a ski trip, a 5K walk, or simply to look good in your favorite jeans. Personal trainer Mark Roozen recommends using a calendar to set up an exercise schedule. Be sure to build in time for mental and physical recovery; for example, working hard for three weeks and then taking a week off.

    Also remember to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine if you haven't been active lately. Vijay Vad, M.D., a sports-medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, advises doing pre-workout warm-up stretches to minimize injury. Follow that with a simple exercise like lying on your back and cycling your legs in the air for 20 minutes, with breaks every 5 minutes, to help maintain your core strength, which is essential to a healthy spine, he says.

    Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, says that staying in shape doesn't require any expense at all if you're willing to walk 30 minutes a day, no matter what the weather. "If it's chilly out, leave your wallet at home and go do a few laps around the mall," he suggests. "While you're there, don't take the escalator, use the stairs—and stay away from the food court."

    Cheap equipment

    As you assemble a low-tech home fitness center, you may want to first buy an exercise or yoga mat for floor exercises, which will provide cushioning for your joints. They cost about $13 to $20 for a 2-by-6-foot mat. After that, a few basics are all you need to keep your body looking buff and to maintain good health:

    Dumbbells ($6 to $60 a pair). Lifting dumbbells will tone your muscles; use them for a total body workout. They'll also add variety to your fitness program. A 10-pound set may be fine for working your arms but too light for leg, chest, and back exercises. So consider purchasing an adjustable set of dumbbells for about $50, which will give you a 5- to 45-pound weight range. You can find dumbbells ever cheaper at yard sales. But make sure that there are no cracks or chips on them, personal trainer Mark Roozen says, and make sure that each dumbbell in a pair is the same weight.

    Elastic bands or tubes ($10 to $15 each). They provide resistance training for strengthening and toning muscles. Consider getting two; one should be a little tougher than the other so that you have two levels of resistance. Band tension is usually color-coded: Light-colored bands generally provide less resistance and darker colors will be thicker and add more resistance. "This is a great piece of equipment for very low cost," Roozen says. As with all exercise, warm up for 5 to 10 minutes first, and then gently stretch the muscles you'll be working.

    Jump rope (about $15). A jump rope is good for a warm-up or a workout, and you can relive all the fun you used to have as a kid. Jumping rope can improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity and power, coordination, balance, agility, and speed. But it also can exacerbate knee problems or even cause compression fractures for people with osteoporosis. "Jumping rope should be reserved for the very fit or the young," says Vijay Vad, M.D., a sports-medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

    Medicine ball ($25 to $50 depending on size and weight). A medicine ball can be used a variety of ways to exercise all body parts. They're not like the leather gym balls of old. Today there are versions that are softer and bouncier, and some come with handles or a rope through the middle for easier use. But you'll need different sizes and weights depending on the exercises you choose to do. For a good core and upper-body workout, throw the ball back and forth with a partner, against a wall, or even in the air. "Exercising with a medicine ball is one of the safest things you can do," Vad says.

    Stability ball ($20 to $40). Designed to improve balance while targeting specific muscle groups, a stability ball can add variety to your core workouts. The muscles of the core—the abdomen, chest and back—stabilize the rest of the body. The American Council on Exercise says that exercising with stability balls helps to create balance between the muscles of the abdomen and the back, improving posture and making you more aware of your body movements.

    It's important to buy the right size and maintain the proper air pressure. The firmer the ball, the more difficult the exercise will be. Try a 45-centimeter ball if you're under 5 feet tall, a 55-cm ball if you're 5 feet 1 inch to 5 feet 7 inches, and a 65-cm ball if you're taller.

    Fitness hoop (about $25). A weighted version of the popular hula hoop can provide a good core workout. A 3-pound hoop measuring 38 inches to 42 inches that has a taped grip will work well for most people. To determine the best size, stand the hoop next to you; it should reach your belly button. The larger, weighted hoops rotate more slowly than the lighter versions, making them easier for adults to use. "People with back issues need to be careful with how vigorously they do these exercises," Vad says. "Slow, sustained rhythms will give you good core strengthening."

    Exercise videos (about $10). From yoga and Pilates to strength training and body sculpting, you can choose from hundreds of titles to keep yourself motivated and entertained. Work toward building a collection that fosters balance and overall conditioning, the American Council on Education advises. Choose videos that combine all the important workout elements-aerobics, strength training, and stretching. Older adults should also work on their balance, Vad advises. He recommends the slow, gentle movements of tai chi.

    Here are some other tips from the American Council on Exercise:

    • Any video that promises quick weight loss or instant results is probably unsafe and should be avoided.
    • Try before you buy any video by borrowing it from a friend or the library, or renting it from a video store.
    • Avoid videos that feature a celebrity as the main selling point, especially if he or she tries to teach the routine alone, without support from a fitness professional.
    • Look for videos that offer alternatives to the main program, in case you find that the exercises are too difficult at first.

    Wii Fit Plus ($19.99 if you already have Wii Fit). This is the enhanced version of Nintendo's fitness video game for the Wii console ($199). Like its predecessor Wii Fit, the Plus version offers interactive exercises in four areas: yoga, strength training, balance, and aerobics, along with fun mini-games such as ski jumping and hula hooping. Wii Fit Plus adds 15 new balance games and six new strength-training and yoga activities. An onscreen trainer provides instruction. The program also tests your center of gravity and registers your Body Mass Index (BMI), storing the information on the Wii console so you can track your progress.

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